The holidays are a time of celebration and joy where, in years past, people take the opportunity to focus more on their family and friends. Yet, lots of people report increased stress levels during the holidays. In addition to the everyday stressors people experience, the holidays add two main stressors: lack of time and lack of money.
Stress can also have a major impact on our well-being and our waistline. In fact, a majority of people cite stress as the number one reason for unhealthy food choices and weight gain. During the colder months of the year, when days are shorter, the lack of light might further contribute to stress and anxiety levels by disrupting the regulation of neurotransmitter activity. Stress can come from numerous sources, such as: daily responsibilities, work, life events, or even lack of sleep. Certain types of stress actually affect us in a positive way, such as providing motivation or improving efficiency.
However, when we experience negative stress, it can be overwhelming and result in both a mental and physical response. Furthermore, when stress is unaddressed, it can affect your health. It is important to be aware of sources of stress that may potentially affect you and impact your health, as well as steps you can take to help avoid long term health complications.
The Origins of Stress
Mental stressors of the modern era are significantly different than those of our ancestors. Today, we face stressors of our fast paced, ever connected lifestyle. Stress of work, family, friends, planning futures, travel, finances, lack of time, and much more can contribute to mental stress today.
We are also constantly connected, which can bring stress by leading to comparisons of your life to others, as well as not having the opportunity to fully detach from technology. Our ancestors faced stressors that advancements of the modern era have helped to alleviate, yet other advancements have added new stressors.
Physical Stress - Fight or Flight
Physical stress is the type of stress you experience when you feel threatened or scared. It is caused by events that activate the “fight or flight” response. This response tells our body that we are under attack, which then causes norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol to be released, which further helps our body elevate oxygen intake, increase blood flow, enhance vision, and regulate our energy supply. Cortisol can continue to affect the body, even after the stressful event has passed by suppressing insulin production to keep blood sugar levels high and increasing appetite to make sure the body has enough nutrients to replenish any that were lost.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that when under stress, our bodies crave sugary and high fat foods, which are typically foods that can lead to weight gain when eaten in excess.¹ Since our response to stress does not often burn a large number of calories, the calories you may consume due to high cortisol levels can be in excess to what you need and lead to weight gain.
Our Modern Response to Stress
How we respond to stress may be traced back to how our ancestors needed to react in life-threatening situations, such as running away from a large predator. In modern times, our stress seldom comes from physical demands or the danger of facing down a wooly mammoth, but more so from emotional or mental stress. However, our bodies still respond the same, which is often why many people use eating as a way to alleviate stress.
On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “little or no stress” and 10 being “a great deal of stress, the average stress level of U.S. adults in 2019 was 4.9. This level of stress has been constant over the past decade. Although the level of stress has remained constant, the sources of stress have varied from year to year. In 2019, the two largest sources of stress were mass shootings and the cost of healthcare.
Fast forward to 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, stress levels have significantly increased compared to stress levels in the past decade. U.S. adults report an average stress level of 5.4 (compared to 4.9 last year) since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the most affected groups are parents of school-aged children.
A significant source of stress for these parents was managing working from home while coordinating online learning for their children. Individuals have also self-reported weight gain while self-quarantining. Some of the main contributing factors to gaining weight during the pandemic included lack of sleep, decreased physical activity, and eating in response to increased stress.²
Stress on a Daily Basis
The pattern of the sun coming up in the morning and setting in the evening helps allow our bodies to be awake and alert during the day and to be naturally more tired at night. A regular sleep schedule may positively impact your energy levels, emotions, performance, and overall mental acuity. Having a normal sleep schedule is important for minimizing stress levels.
If you experience problems with getting enough sleep, you are not alone. According to the CDC, 35.2% of all adults get less than the recommended 7 hours or more of sleep each night. Problems with sleep may be an issue with both the amount of sleep and the quality of sleep. You may experience disruptions in your sleep quality for many reasons, including lifestyle factors, environmental disturbances, and even medical conditions.
Although many of us experience trouble maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, quality sleep is important for basic functioning of the body, particularly for the brain. In a review of the short and long term effects of sleep disruption, it was found that some of the short term effects in adults include an increased stress response, decreased quality of life, mood disorders, and deficits in cognition, memory and performance.⁴ Some findings for long term effects of sleep deprivation included chronic conditions, such as: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and weight-related issues.
The Link Between Stress, Sleep, and Nutrition
An association exists between stress, poor sleep, emotional eating, and weight management.⁵ Poor sleep can lead to increased stress and you also may have observed that stress can affect nutritional intake. Many experience a poor appetite when stressed, or the opposite and experience overeating. Hormones contributing to appetite regulation, leptin and ghrelin, are thrown off with lack of sleep.
Research has shown this can lead to changes in appetite that cause increases in energy intake and selection of higher calorie foods. Insufficient sleep has been connected to increased risk of obesity and greater waist circumference, in which waist circumference can be an indicator for cardiovascular health.
While sleep affects nutrition quality and stress levels, our nutrition also affects sleep quality. Research has indicated that having adequate consumption of micronutrients, such as vitamins A, C, D, E and K, calcium and magnesium, is important for sleep. It has also been found that high carbohydrate meals may make you feel more drowsy, but also may impair sleep quality, especially when consuming high glycemic index meals.
The Sleep Foundation does not recommend one specific dietary pattern to improve sleep, but rather to consume a well balanced diet, such as with the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet.
Stress Management and Sleep: How to customize your diet
Some small diet modifications can help you better cope with stress and get a better night’s sleep!
1. Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can increase levels of serotonin, a chemical in the body that helps boost mood and reduce stress. Increased serotonin can help with concentration and actually help you be more productive. However, there are many sources of carbohydrates out there. Making sure to choose whole-grain complex carbs, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal and quinoa, can help blunt blood glucose and keep you full, which may be especially helpful if you wake up throughout the night due to hunger.
Proper hydration is important to keep our bodies functioning properly. However, drinking adequate water helps to maintain healthy cortisol levels and regulate our reaction to external stressors.⁶ While we get approximately 20% of our daily hydration needs from the foods we consume, the other 80% should come from beverages, ideally water. The average woman needs ~11.5 cups (2.7 liters) per day and the average man needs ~15.5 cups (3.7 liters) each day.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those healthy fats found in tuna, salmon, and mackerel, have been linked with improved mood and stress control. It has been suggested that these essential fatty acids help regulate the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and certain stress-related hormones including norepinephrine and epinephrine.⁷ Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help improve sleep by boosting leveling of melatonin. It is recommended that most adults get approximately 250 to 500 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids each day, about the amount you would get from 4 ounces of salmon or 1 can of tuna.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with sleep apnea and the severity of symptoms. Low vitamin D levels are also linked to shorter sleep duration.⁸ Getting adequate vitamin D may help to improve sleep outcomes, as well as improve mood which can also contribute to better sleep quality. Vitamin D is found in foods such as fatty fish, eggs, and fortified foods. The body can also synthesize vitamin D from exposure to sunlight which is a great reason to take a break during the day to get outside and enjoy some fresh air.
5. B Vitamins
Inadequate levels of certain B vitamins, including pyridoxine (B6) and cobalamin (B12), contribute to poor sleep. Vitamin B6 is linked to better mood and improved sleep quality due to the fact that vitamin B6 helps to produce the hormones serotonin and melatonin.⁹ Foods that are rich in vitamin B6 include eggs, dairy, whole grains, fish, spinach, carrots, and potatoes. Vitamin B12 influences circadian rhythms and is involved in regulation of sleep-wake cycles. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are connected to insomnia as well as depression which is a major contributor to sleep disorders¹². You can find vitamin B12 in foods such as red meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, dark leafy greens, and whole grains.
When we are stressed out or can’t sleep, it can be tempting to reach for a nightcap. However, alcohol can actually disrupt our circadian rhythms and lead to fragmented, restless sleep. The dehydrating effects of alcohol can also set us up to be even more tired the next day. Furthermore, having a drink - especially if it leads to frequent drinking - can increase cortisol levels and lead to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Understanding your risks and how to minimize them is important. Just as important is knowing where to start when making changes to your diet and lifestyle. Meeting with a nutrition professional may help provide additional guidance. Gaining a better understanding of how your body may respond to certain nutrients or eating patterns to further customize your diet and optimize your health can be a great first step.
Learn more about how DNA testing and personalized nutrition can help you eat right for your genes.
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1. Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2018). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa?. Obesity Reviews, 19(1), 81-97.
2. Zachary, Z., Brianna, F., Brianna, L., Garrett, P., Jade, W., Alyssa, D., & Mikayla, K. (2020). Self-quarantine and Weight Gain Related Risk Factors During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice.
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5. Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2018). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa?. Obesity Reviews, 19(1), 81-97.
6. Krause, E. G., de Kloet, A. D., Flak, J. N., Smeltzer, M. D., Solomon, M. B., Evanson, N. K., ... & Herman, J. P. (2011). Hydration state controls stress responsiveness and social behavior. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), 5470-5476.
7. Bradbury, J., Myers, S. P., & Oliver, C. (2004). An adaptogenic role for omega-3 fatty acids in stress; a randomised placebo controlled double blind intervention study (pilot) [ISRCTN22569553]. Nutrition journal, 3, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-3-20
8. Evatt, M. L. (2015). Vitamin D associations and sleep physiology—promising rays of information.
9. Aspy, D. J., Madden, N. A., & Delfabbro, P. (2018). Effects of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and a B complex preparation on dreaming and sleep. Perceptual and motor skills, 125(3), 451-462.