Stress. It’s everywhere. Sometimes it invigorates and motivates us, but more often than not, it exhausts us. The impacts of stress are numerous and varied. Today, I want to focus on the connection between stress and food. Just how much impact do they have on each other? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the body’s responses to stress:
- The fat-burning metabolism shuts down;
- The fat-storing metabolism revs up;
- Leptin decreases (this is the hormone that gives you a sense of fullness);
- Ghrelin (the opposing hormone to Leptin) increases, thus increasing your sense of hunger;
- You may experience an increased craving for sources of fat energy;
- All of this encourages you to reach for the coffeepot and the sugar bowl (or a highly refined, sweet treat).
When you’re in the middle of a project and rushing to meet the deadline, or rushing about the house getting kids ready for school while finishing up a report or searching for your keys, you may not be in the right frame of mind to organize a healthy meal. In fact, you’re happy if you can gulp down your tea before running out the door. This only increases the likelihood of sugary choices.
Unfortunately, the result is a negative feedback loop. With decreasing Leptin and increasing Ghrelin, you feel hungrier than you would normally. As you consume more sources of sugar and caffeine to satisfy your energy craving, your body’s stress actually increases.
Although you may feel better after eating highly refined products, this is a temporary high, one your body doesn’t appreciate in the long run. The resulting energy crash encourages you to eat more and to crave sugar, which further adds to the stress.
In addition, sugar has a negative nutritional impact on the body. In other words, the body uses vitamins and minerals to process the highly refined food but doesn’t absorb very much in return. This net nutritional drain triggers a sensation of hunger. You’re not actually hungry for calories but for nutrients.
As you can see, it’s a vicious cycle. So how do we break it?
You need to manage your stress AND ensure you have nutrient-dense, whole foods on hand. This is a big topic, and the best approach is to start with small steps.
BREATHE. When we’re under stress, we start taking shallow breaths. We use the top half of our lungs, and only our chest rises and falls. When we’re calm, we use all of our lungs’ capacity. Conversely, we can calm ourselves down by consciously breathing deeply. Here’s a quick, easy exercise: breathe in deeply through the nose for 4 counts; hold for 7 counts; exhale completely through the mouth for 8 counts. Repeat several times.
NATURE is a powerful healer. Even small exposures to nature act as a subtle but powerful stress reducer. Take a few minutes to walk around the garden, smell the flowers and appreciate the natural beauty of Nairobi.
WATER. Nairobi is a fairly high altitude city (5,899ft or 1,798m). Your body needs more water to cope with the altitude and the dry air. Make sure in your rush to get to your next meeting on time that you don’t dehydrate along the way. Fill up a one-liter jar or bottle in the morning and keep it with you as a reminder to hydrate regularly. If you don’t like the taste of water, add a squeeze of lemon, some mint or sliced cucumbers. Herbal tea and soup also do the trick.
HEALTHY SNACKS. Kenya is blessed with fresh fruit and veggies. You may not have your kitchen fully stocked but you can buy fruit on the side of the road in many areas of the city. Pop into a grocery store and buy an assortment of nuts. Avocado is another great source of healthy fats.
Vered Ehsani is a wife, mother, writer and a human who is still learning how to be one. She is a certified wellness educator through the Well Grounded Life certification program (USA). Based in Nairobi, Vered runs her own program ‘Crazy to Calm’ which teaches participants how to manage their stress.
For more information visit