This week’s guest post is from the truly wonderful, warm, and insightful Alex Picot-Annand, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Certified Life Coach. She has dedicated herself to identifying and removing obstacles preventing healing, and igniting her clients’ bodies to return to their most natural state of vibrant wellness.
Let’s be honest. Even if we love our job, have great friends and family, and enjoy all material comforts, we can feel stressed. Balancing work, family, and time to yourself is one of the biggest challenges a professional woman will face. In some cases, the solution is to cut back at work. Sometimes, family responsibilities can be delegated to a partner or other caregiver. However, what I see happen most frequently is that women, when the going gets tough, neglect themselves. This can work for a period of time but ultimately, it’s not sustainable.
Listen up, ladies: if you don’t employ daily, positive ways of coping with stress, you’re going to burn out. Self-care is the most important business investment you can make.
The goal is not to eliminate stress. We need it! The stress response is adaptive; it evolved to benefit us. The problem occurs when it is relentless, without rest. The goal is to balance the natural ebbs of stress with nutritional support through our diets, as well as regular periods of rest and relaxation. In a moment, I’m going to tell you how to do this.
Long term stress, or what I sometimes call “chronic busy-ness” can cause vast and varied health effects. Chronic stress has been linked to a greater susceptibility to disease, digestive problems like IBS, insomnia, mood disorders, reduced memory and focus, and fertility issues. And that little protective padding that has nestled itself all too comfortably around your abdomen? That might be stress too.
So how do we deal?
We all have our own ideas about what it means to relax. Maybe draping yourself over the sofa to watch re-runs of Sex and the City is your idea of recharging. Or perhaps you prefer to treat yourself to a mani-pedi while flipping through a celebrity gossip magazine.
While I am not denying the pleasure inherent in these activities, watching TV or being well manicured does not make you more resilient to future stress. The nutritional strategy that I am about to share with you aims to do just that. This strategy will help your body cope with the flurry of physiological reactions that it endures under times of stress, and prevent symptoms of burnout such as anxiety, panic, poor sleep, and low energy.
The key nutritional strategy to preventing burnout and managing stress is a low glycemic, nutrient dense diet.
Not terribly sexy sounding, but it’s true.
There are lots of ideas of what a good diet is, but my version, in a nutshell, is one that is high in nutrients, and low in refined carbohydrates. What that looks like is a fridge/pantry stocked with abundant amounts of colourful vegetables (especially those dark leafy greens!), seasonal fruit, raw nuts and seeds, free-range/organic animal products, and healthy fats such as coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. You will find little in way of cookies, white bread products, ice cream, chips, pop, or packaged convenience foods.
A diet rich in colourful vegetables, good quality proteins, and healthy fats will protect you from a host of uncomfortable symptoms and chronic illnesses, but also happens to be particularly helpful for reducing the effects of stress on the body. That is because this type of diet is excellent at stabilizing blood sugar levels, and stable blood sugar levels are critical to both preventing anxiety states as well as supporting the hormonal systems that help “buffer” the effects of stress.
So, why do we want to keep blood sugar stable? How does blood sugar relate to stress?
Let’s get nerdy.
When your blood sugar gets too low, either from being too hungry or from a rebound “crash” after a high sugar treat, your adrenals glands, the “shock absorbers” of the body, are forced to step in and release cortisol and adrenaline in order to raise blood sugar. These same hormones also get released during periods of acute stress. Cortisol and adrenaline make us feel more alert and energetic, but in high amounts can make us feel stressed and anxious. Interestingly, irritability, anxiety, and even panic attacks are sometimes triggered by low blood sugar. This is probably because of the surge in the stress hormones that are associated with dropping blood sugar.
The body is designed to endure, even thrive, with short bursts of these adrenal hormones, but problems arise when high levels of cortisol and adrenaline become chronic. You see, the adrenal glands get tired and start to poop out. Low functioning adrenal glands are associated with chronic stress and translate to symptoms like mood imbalances, weight gain, fatigue, and troubled sleep patterns. At this point, the body may also begin to store fat around the belly so it has a readily available source of fat calories for low blood sugar emergencies, because it can no longer rely on a steady production of cortisol to raise blood sugar.
The good news is, the adrenals can be supported with a good diet too. Basically, a diet that takes the pressure off the adrenals as much as possible will ensure that these glands are better able to stay healthy and function properly.
We can support the adrenals by eating a whole foods diet and taking time to eat regular meals and snacks so blood sugar levels are kept stable. Plant foods and protein should be included in each sitting, and you should never let yourself get overly hungry, which is when our blood sugar dips too low, and we are more likely to make poor food choices (3 pm pumpkin spice donut, anyone?). Avoiding sugar, white flour, caffeinated beverages, and processed foods can prevent blood sugar surges, which inevitably provoke blood sugar crashes. A great adrenal-friendly diet might look something like this:
- Breakfast: A protein smoothie with a scoop of good quality protein powder, half a banana, a cup of blueberries, 2 tsp of ground flax seed, 1 Tbsp coconut oil, and ¼ cup of organic yogurt.
- Snack: An apple and a handful of raw nuts.
- Lunch: A green salad with grated carrots, red pepper, sprinkled with some walnuts and an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, topped with a piece of wild salmon.
- Snack: ½ an avocado and 2 Tbsp of hemp seeds.
- Dinner: Quinoa stir-fry with kale and roasted garlic, topped with 2 poached eggs.
In addition to supporting the adrenal glands with a good diet, there are lots of other non-food related strategies that help us to relax and develop resilience. I ask every client I see to employ at least one relaxation technique (that they enjoy!) that is a daily non-negotiable. Some of my favourite ways to reduce stress are:
- Conscious breathing exercises: Breathe slowly from your belly for a few moments and notice the instant peace it brings! Even 5 minutes a day can have profound effects.
- Time in nature: Breathing fresh air and being among trees is especially great for people who tend to spend a lot of time “plugged-in” in a busy, metropolitan environment.
- Creative expression: Journaling, or less literal ways of expression like drawing, dance, or music is a great way to release and process emotions.
- Moderate exercise: Yoga, weights, speed walking, and bicycling are great ways to unleash pent-up feelings and improve physiological functioning- just make sure to not overdo it by doing too much high intensity cardio or by pushing yourself to the point of collapse, because that is stressful too!
- Modifying your perception of stress-inducing events: Stressing over stress is partly what makes stress so stressful! Talk to a loved one to help you gain perspective over an issue or remind yourself how something you were anxious about in the past worked out in the end. Remember that the worst case scenario almost never happens, and even if it does, it’s usually ok.
If you are a woman who exemplifies “chronic busy-ness”, I suggest you take some time to reflect on the quality of your self-care habits. If you notice that you are not taking enough time to nourish yourself and recharge, please try to employ some of the aforementioned suggestions. If you are experiencing a significant amount of either physical or emotional distress as a result of your fast-paced life, I highly recommend working with a qualified holistic nutritionist to give you the individualized support you need.
I hope some of these strategies are helpful to you.
Take care of yourselves, ladies!