Good nutrition can help you deal with stress

June 29, 1999|By Lynn Little

Nonstop pressure from the demands of work, family and personal life - managing stress is a never-ending challenge. Today, nearly one-fifth of all occupational health claims are for job stress. These illnesses cost American businesses more than $200 billion per year in medical bills and lost productivity. Some medical researchers estimate that stress is linked to between 65 and 90 percent of all illnesses and diseases.

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The origin of stress may be psychological: nervous tension, rage or fear. It also may be physical: extreme hot or cold, burns or infections. Regardless of the source, the body has a three-stage reaction to stress.

First is the "alarm stage." The body recognizes the stressor and prepares for flight or fight. If the stressor is not overwhelming, the second stage, "resistance" develops. We adapt to combat stress and repair any damage to the body. If the stressor continues, however, the body may exhaust its ability to adapt, and signs of the alarm reaction reappear.


Mismanaged stress can affect the immune system, heart function, hormone levels, the nervous system, memory and thinking, physical coordination and metabolic rate. It can cause blood cholesterol, blood pressure and uric acid levels to rise. These, in turn, may increase the risk of certain diseases or conditions, including ulcers, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, immunodeficiency diseases and even the common cold.

A positive outlook on life and a healthy, active body are key factors in how we respond to stress. Good nutrition always is important, but especially when we are under stress, when the body uses nutrients somewhat differently.

Good habits to have

The following dietary habits especially can be helpful in times of stress:

* Eat at least two servings of protein, such as meat, eggs, poultry, fish or dairy products every day. Under stress, our bodies tend to divert protein to energy instead of muscle repair and replacement. Larger amounts of protein or protein supplements are not recommended, however, because too much protein puts an additional burden on the kidneys.

* Drink plenty of fluids and limit salt. Stress tends to cause the body to retain sodium and water and lose potassium through the kidneys. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

* Limit high-sodium foods, such as cured meats, canned soups and salted snack items. This helps the body keep its sodium-potassium ratio in balance.

* Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. They are rich in B vitamins and their high potassium, fiber and water content also help keep your sodium-potassium balance in order.

* Limit intake of fat. The lipid content of the blood often rises in reaction to stress. This, along with other risk factors, contributes to the development of heart disease. Less high-fat food plus a lifestyle that includes regular exercise, laughter and no smoking helps lower blood-fat levels.

* A positive outlook on life, enhanced immunity, effective coping skills, optimal nutrition and increased resistance to disease all are related. Stress-related disease often is preventable when effective coping skills and guidelines for a low-fat, nutrient-dense diet are followed.

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