Erica White Dip.ION, MBANT, shows us how healthy eating can help our bodies cope with stress
As an Essex-based nutritional therapist, I’ve been invited to write for ‘Healthy Life – Mind, Body & Soul’, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to help raise awareness of what food – good and bad – can do to the body for better or worse. I trained for three years at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (I.O.N.) in London and qualified in 1990. Prior to that, I had lived through a life-time of health problems – which turned around completely at the age of 53 after I made an important discovery. I had simply never realised that my terrible health had anything at all to do with the food which I chose to put into my body. On the one hand I was always ill, on the other hand I consumed whatever I most liked, including chocolate, sugary cakes, coffee with three spoons of sugar, and so on. But one day the penny dropped; I realised that food was the fuel for my body’s machinery, and that my machinery was suffering from a lifetime of extremely poor grade fuel!
As I learned to change my eating habits, little by little my health improved – until eventually many people saw the difference in me and asked what I had done. They then asked if I could help them! I longed to be able to – but where on earth would I start? Well, the way opened up, and at age 53 I started three years of training at ION. I’ve now reached the age of 70, and I’m still running a very busy practice in Westcliff. Besides working full-time on nutritional consultations, I write books and articles, and I give lectures and talks all around Britain and even in France – and once in Dubai! For many people, the pressure of so much work, especially at my age, would result in stress reactions and health problems – but I am able to thrive on it, because my body is now nutritionally equipped to cope with it.
This leads us neatly into the first subject of this series – stress. For most of us, life today consists of stressful circumstances – time pressure, relationship problems, financial worries, rush-hour travelling, balancing parenting with full-time work, and so on. Yet these situations in themselves are not what constitutes stress. Stress is the way in which we react to these situations. It can show itself as anger, fear, anxiety, tension, frustration or even excitement! One physical effect of reacting to stressful situations is that it stimulates the production of adrenalin, which in turn triggers the release of the body’s sugar stores into the bloodstream, resulting in several unpleasant knock-on effects, some of which I shall discuss in later columns. Adrenalin is the hormone which helps us cope with short-term stress. It causes an increase in blood sugar levels, muscle tension, raised heart-rate and blood pressure, faster breathing and a shut-down of digestive processes. Stone-age man was being prepared to cope with danger, so that he could either stand and fight his enemy or turn and run away fast!
There was a time in my life
when I was stressed
almost out of my mind!
But if stressful situations continue after the initial adrenalin-rush, the adrenals release two other hormones called cortisol and DHEA, and irregularities in their output lead steadily towards adrenal exhaustion where your body is unable to cope with even the smallest amount of stimulation. You find you cannot rest because of feelings of “driven-ness”. You sleep badly and experience energy-slumps, indigestion, stiff or painful joints and muscles, frequent infections, allergies, skin problems and variations in body temperature. Unfortunately, these problems continue even when the stressful situation has eventually passed, because the adrenals have learned to over-adapt and they don’t just ping back like a piece of elastic. This leaves a tendency to over-react to minor irritations which previously would have probably gone unnoticed.
The problem which is troubling your mind is also troubling your body, and something needs to be done. It goes without saying that every possible step should be taken to deal with the root situation. You can also encourage the healing of your mind and body by giving some thought to the fuel – your daily food – which you put into your body’s wonderfully complex machinery. For instance, the first practical way to help your adrenals is to avoid stimulants – sugar, salt, cigarettes, alcohol, cola, chocolate, tea and coffee. Why? Because stimulants will stimulate your adrenal glands just like stress, causing them to be even more overstretched. As the adrenals become increasingly exhausted, they need more and more stimulation, so it isn’t surprising if you experience cravings and addictions for any form of stimulant, leading to sugar binges, chain-smoking, chocoholism or even alcoholism. Even the humble cup of tea or coffee is addictive and puts a strain on the adrenals. Once over the initial withdrawal headache, you will be amazed at how much better you feel without them! There are plenty of alternatives to choose from.
It is also helpful to eat the right balance of foods, having roughly twice as much complex carbohydrate (whole grains, vegetables and fruit) as protein (chicken, lean meat, fish, cottage cheese, eggs, beans, lentils, yoghurt, tofu) in every meal. Most people eat far more carbohydrate (e.g., bread, biscuits, cereals, pies, potatoes, pizza, pasta, chips) than protein, but aiming for the right proportions helps to support the adrenal glands, strengthen immunity, control blood sugar – and even encourage the body to burn off its excess fat!
Food supplements also play a helpful part. The adrenals need good levels of Vitamins C and B5 in addition to a good basic multivitamin/mineral supplement. You can do a lot to help yourself, but when stressful situations have been severe and prolonged, nutritional help is needed to reverse its ravages, and I frequently advise a laboratory test based on saliva specimens so that I can see the precise nutritional support which is required. It is often remarkable to see the difference this can make.
Exercise also helps the adrenals. In situations of frustration or anger, the most we usually do is drum our fingers or make a rude remark – which is not enough to burn up the extra sugar in the bloodstream! A brisk walk when you’re feeling ‘stressed out’ works wonders, but you also need a programme of regular exercise. You should also take time to relax; simple relaxation techniques can help the body systems get back to normal. And when faced with a sudden problem, whoever first said, “Take a deep breath and count to ten” certainly knew a thing or two!
There was a time in my life when I was stressed almost out of my mind. I had three small children, a loving husband – but appalling ill-health which had dogged me continuously all through my life so that by the age of 37 I was in a constant anxiety-state. I had always believed in God, and in desperation I cried out to him for help. Very soon I was surprised to find that I started to discover things about nutrition, and began to experiment with changes to my eating habits. As I did, my anxiety decreased, my health improved and my energy grew. I discovered many things, including how to overcome my daily bouts of exhaustion by regulating my blood sugar levels – but that’s the topic for my next ‘Nutritional Answers’!
Erica White Dip.ION MBANT
Nutritional Director of Nutritionhelp Ltd