We’ve all been there. Your alarm clock rings after a restless night of sleep, your child wakes up sick, emails are piling up and today, to top it all off, you have an important client presentation to make. Stress is often an inevitable part of our lives, and in small doses, it’s beneficial. But how you manage it over the long term is critical to your health.
In a recent American Psychological Association survey, 75 percent of Americans report experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the last month. And often these stressors lead to people engaging in unhealthy behaviors—ranging from lying awake at night (42 percent) and eating too much or unhealthful foods (33 percent).
Feeling stress for long periods of time can set off a host of physical and emotional health problems. For that reason, it’s important to recognize the signs of stress—and address them through sleep, exercise and even quality nutrition early on. Most people don’t realize it, but good nutrition can do just as much as—if not more than—any bubble bath to combat the negative effects of stress.
“Eating a diet rich in healthy foods like dark leafy vegetables and lean proteins, such as fish, can build a solid foundation for your body and can also reduce inflammation and oxidation,” says , PhD, a senior principal research scientist with Abbott. “Compounds found in these foods in addition to an overall healthy diet are great for combating the side effects that stress has on our bodies.”
Specifically, healthy foods work to lower the levels of inflammation in your body. While some inflammation isn’t bad—it’s just your body’s response to injury, stress and even exercise—too much for too long can lead to oxidative stress. When in balance, oxidative stress can help heal the body, but chronic or out-of-control oxidative stress can damage your organs.
In today’s 24/7 lives, it’s more important than ever to make time to take care of ourselves. Stress can have . If you are feeling stressed, take note of the five tips below. Small changes you can make now can put you on track to reducing your stress:
Eat foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds such as unsaturated fatty acids (like salmon and tuna), antioxidants, polyphenols and carotenoids (like dark chocolate, green leafy vegetables, bright-colored peppers and wine). These foods, all included in the Mediterranean diet, are great for reducing inflammation.
Eating at home generally increases the likelihood that you will eat a healthy diet because you have control over the ingredients in your meals. One way to make it easier to eat a healthy diet is to keep fresh nutritious foods on hand. Many can also be kept frozen or dried (nuts, fruits and high-fiber cereals).
While stress can sometimes make it harder for us to be active, it is more important than ever to exercise when feeling stressed. Physical activity releases endorphins and reduces adrenaline and cortisol levels, helping to decrease mental stress. Endorphins are the chemicals in the brain that give runners their “runners’ high” and allow your body to relax.
A study in The American Journal of Human Biology found that inadequate sleep alters the secretion of hunger-promoting hormones, causing you to feel hungrier and overeat. This is one reason we may overeat when stressed and sleep deprived. Aim for seven to eight hours a night.
Ever get the jitters from too much caffeine? Research shows caffeine can actually worsen your stress response so while a little coffee may be help you, reach for the water in the afternoon.
"Finally, don’t become discouraged when you are stressed," Kuchan says. "It is hard to eat a healthy diet, and new habits take time."