A leading Nutritional Therapist and Nutritionist in London, Angelique Panagos is a speaker, writer, total foodie and health crusader. She is the author of The Balance Plan: Six Steps to Optimize Your Hormonal Health which explains how to tune in to your hormones and make the changes necessary to bring them into balance. We decided Angelique would be the perfect expert to interview on the link between stress and nutrition. Here she shares with us her advice on how we can better manage stress through our diet and lifestyle habits.
How does stress impact our hormones? Stress has a major impact on how our hormones function. I see this time and time again in clinic, unfortunately the modern world we live in is a stressful one and many of us are now chronically stressed, something I discuss a lot in my book, The Balance Plan. Stress is actually supposed to be a positive action – it helps us to form that fight or flight response, which can save our life in certain situations! Yet, constant stress can form a huge drain on the body. The thing is, our stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) override any other functions, and this changes the way our body works. Although that’s what stress is supposed to do, long-term it can have a negative effect. When our bodies are stressed for longer periods, digestion, hormone secretion and self-repair are all affected. This leaves us with nutrient deficiencies when we should be doubling those nutrients during a tricky time! Stress also affects your decision-making, resulting in poor food choices, increased stimulants and less rest. Too much stress can also lead to a lower sex drive – cortisol suppresses our natural sex hormones – irregular periods due to hormonal imbalances, acne, and even a muffin top and reduced fertility.
What are some of the physical signs or changes in our body that come with being chronically stressed? Chronic stress can trigger all sorts of health problems or symptoms. However, some of the ones you might commonly experience are: Chronic fatigue /exhaustion, Disturbed sleep or insomnia, Alcohol intolerance, Depression, Headaches, Loss of libido, Poor concentration/ memory, Mood swings, irritability, Frequent infections, Poor digestion/ digestive concerns, Raised blood pressure, PMS, Fertility Issues, Irregular periods, Weepiness and Weight Gain.
What is the link between stress and weight gain? There’s been a lot of research to show that higher levels of cortisol cause women to carry more belly weight around their middle – the dreaded muffin top we all fear and loathe! High stress levels can also cause a surge in appetite and sugar cravings, which can also lead to weight gain. The problem is, when we’re stressed we can make bad choices when it comes to food. We want that quick, sweet hit of energy from our favourite comfort foods to form that flight or fight response – this is our body’s way of enabling you to run!
Does being stressed make it more difficult for our bodies to shift weight or burn fat? Unfortunately, yes! For starters, when we are chronically stressed we can’t shed those pounds easily. In fact, if you are struggling to lose that last bit of fat, or simply can’t seem to lose weight no matter what you try, then looking at your stress levels could be the answer. The thing is, our stress hormone, cortisol when elevated for prolonged periods of time, can impact our thyroid function and in turn reduce the efficiency of our metabolism. In addition it increases hunger and makes us crave high-calorie foods. As well as this, it can even cause us to lose muscle tissue and to store fat around our tums. High levels of cortisol can also spike our blood sugars, meaning we produce more insulin which again can lead to more belly fat both of which can lead to an increase in oestrogen and therefore water retention as well as weight gain.
Many people struggle to lose belly fat in particular. What is your recommendation for losing this type of fat? If you’re feeling stressed and seeing lots of crazy cravings, try reaching for snacks and meals rich in magnesium and chromium. This includes foods such as almonds and apricots, an apple with nut butter, chicken dipped in pesto (this one takes advance planning!), or a green superfood smoothie. Also, try to squeeze in some regular exercise, although don’t push yourself too hard – this creates even more stress in the body! You could try yoga, swimming, half an hour walk, Pilates, meditation or a gentle jog or bike ride.
What is the relationship between stress and digestion? For example, why do many people experience IBS when they are stressed? Unfortunately, stress can have a really damaging effect on our tums and digestive systems. When we’re under stress, our bodies don’t prioritise digestion, and this can often lead to undigested, unmetabolised food lying around in our guts. For some people, this can lead to constipation. This can then trigger gas, bloating, cramps and weight gain. For others, it can cause food to move too fast through our systems, meaning we don’t absorb nutrients properly.
What foods do you recommend for those looking to lower stress levels? Stock your shopping trolley with plenty of nutrient-dense produce: think whole-grains (full of B-vitamins and steady energy), a rainbow of fruit and veg (this means we get in all of those nutrients and vitamins), legumes, nuts, essential fats and quality proteins. I also recommend that clients make sure they’re getting enough vitamin C (found in fruit and veg), magnesium-rich foods such as nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables, and enjoy zinc from seeds (pumpkin), nuts (pecan), rice, oats, lentils and eggs. It’s also important to try to eat protein with each meal and snack, since this can provide you with more energy. This might seem daunting at first but once you start seeing the benefits it becomes a lot easier. Aim to stick to an 80/20 lifestyle
What are the foods that people should avoid? You need to ditch the foods that place your body under more stress. This means restricting your intake of refined sugars and starches, caffeine and alcohol. It’s also important to control any food allergies, which also add extra stress to the body.
Does the timing of when we eat impact our stress levels? Yes, in the western world we are over fed and under nourished. Aim to eat three well-spaced and regular, planned meals in a relaxed environment. It’s really important to enjoy your meals in relaxed atmosphere, and to focus on eating and chewing your food thoroughly. When we eat too quickly, we can heap even more stress on the body and inhibit digestion.
Do you recommend snacks throughout the day or sticking to full meals only? I don’t recommend grazing throughout the day as we need to give our digestion a break. I find that if I eat three good, balanced meals, then I don’t necessarily need to snack. However, if you do feel an urge to snack, then make sure you’re not reaching the sweetie jar and, instead, making informed choices. Foods such as a boiled egg, piece of chicken with some tomato, handful of nuts and seeds, or a spoonful of nut butter with some apple slices are ideal!
Many people, find that stress leads to overeating on the wrong foods or binge eating after a stressful day. What is your advice for overcoming mindless eating behaviours? Get a daily breath of fresh air: take your dog for a walk, get off the bus a stop early or just step outside for a few minutes. Also, ask yourself why you’re reaching for the biscuit tin and perhaps try a spot of diaphragmatic breathing: breathe in to fill your belly like a balloon. Then, breathe only through your nose, in for the count of four and out for the count of seven. Try this ten times twice a day or whenever you’re anxious. I also swear by the Headspace meditation app, which has special SOS sessions when you’re feeling overly stressed! Or you can try different guided meditations like yoga nidra and sophrology.
For further information contact Angelique Panagos
The Balance Plan is available now.