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The stress effect

There’s no doubt that the past 12 months have put many people under increased strain, and this can lead to stress which can be damaging to the body and mind. But what can we do about it?

Stress can impact the body in many different ways – it can manifest physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Elaine Joyce of Ylang Ylang health store in Westport, Co Mayo. “Chronic stress, experienced over a long period of time, can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, migraines and headaches, hair loss, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating, sore throats, cold sores, the list goes on and on.”

“Stress can affect anybody and any time and what is stressful for one person may not be so for another,” says Sian Eustace from health store Healing Harvest in Kinvara Co Galway. “I think the past year has been stressful in one way or another for almost everyone across the country. Being under constant stress can impact the adrenal gland, raise cortisol levels and put us into a situation of fight or flight. If our adrenal gland is constantly firing, we may reach a point of adrenal fatigue where we feel depleted and exhausted all the time.”

“Stress is often defined as a mismatch between the demands placed on us and our ability to cope with these demands,” says John Baldwin, a health consultant and founder of Aspire2. “Symptoms of stress include: muscle tension, loss of focus/concentration, headaches, increased heart rate, having a short temper, an edgy personality, irritations (rashes, eczema etc.), loss of appetite. Untreated stress can increase your risk of contracting long-term illnesses such as diabetes, depression, mental health problems, heart/cardiovascular problems, bowel and digestive problems.”

Can food help with stress?

“Foods that help with stress include fresh fruit and vegetables, wholefoods, foods rich in omega oils, herbal teas including lemon balm, passionflower, chamomile, valerian and lavender,” says Elaine Joyce. “Drinks lots of water and avoid stimulants including sugar, caffeine, alcohol and too many processed foods.”

“In terms of supporting energy and mood levels, it is best to avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars,” says Sian Eustace. “Opt for foods that combine good fats and protein, for example nut butters. Making sure you are adequately hydrated is also extremely important. Dehydration can strongly affect mood, and people can be very surprised by the change in their emotions when they begin to adequately hydrate their body.”

Other top foods for combatting stress:

  • Cashew nuts – a great source of zinc which can help reduce anxiety. Other good sources of zinc are chicken and beef.
  • Green leafy vegetables – contain folate, which produces dopamine, a chemical that helps you to keep calm.
  • Salmon – packed with omega-3 fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory properties which in turn can help your body cope with stress hormones.
  • Seeds such as flax, pumpkin and sunflower all contain magnesium, the stress-fighting mineral.
  • Turkey – contains the amino acid tryptophan that helps produce the feelgood hormone serotonin. Other good sources are nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, oats, lentils, eggs and beans.
  • Yogurt – a good probiotic yogurt gives you the benefit of live native bacteria to settle your digestive system as well as calcium and protein.

What about supplements?

“Supplements that help with sleep and supporting the nervous system can help with stress in the day or sleep at night,” says Sian Eustace. “For sleep, think of herbs such as valerian, hops, lemon balm, avena sativa or passiflora and supplements such as l-theanine or cherry products. For stress and nervous system support, think of herbs such as avena sativa and passiflora or supplements such as B complex vitamins, magnesium and l-theanine. Some supplement companies also have combination products which are aimed at supporting adrenal function.”

“Supplements to help with stress and adrenal fatigue include rhodiola, ashwaganda, magnesium, l-theanine, l’ornithine, chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, passionflower and valerian, vitamin D complex, medicinal mushrooms and CBD oil,” according to Elaine Joyce.

“Ashwagandha is an ancient herb that can reduce anxiety and stress, help fight depression, boost fertility and testosterone in men, and even boost brain function,” says John Baldwin. “Holy basil, known as tulsi, is known for its therapeutic power when it comes to fighting the effects of stress. Its history dates back many thousands of years it is regarded as a natural adaptogen (anti-stress agent) that promotes health throughout the entire body. Lemon balm is said to soothe the symptoms of stress, help you to relax and boost your mood. A 2004 study found that taking lemon balm eased the negative mood effects of laboratory-induced psychological stress.”

Can I make lifestyle changes?

“If stress is ruining your sleep, I recommend a bath or foot bath with magnesium or Epsom salts, lavender chamomile and rose essential oils,” says Elaine Joyce. “A walk or exercise in the fresh air every day and regular yoga sessions can help. Projecting too much into the future and the constant chatter in your head can cause sleeplessness and anxiety. Being mindful and staying present can really help to combat the thoughts that create anxiety and ruin sleep.

Sian Eustace’s tips for combatting stress:

  • Find ways, even within the restrictions, to express your own personality – drawing, writing, jigsaws, crafts such as knitting or crochet are all possible examples.
  • Make time each day for some exercise, even if it is just a short walk. There are lots of videos online for yoga, zumba, HIIT workouts and more.
  • Spend some time each day in nature – just in your garden, a park, the beach or the woods if they are within your 5km limit.
  • Practice mindfulness each day – this can be a useful way to bring down cortisol levels and bring you back to your body. There are many resources online for guided meditations, many of which cost nothing.
  • Reduce your consumption of social media and constant checking of news and latest numbers. These increase stress each time you look at them.
  • Make your bedroom a space to improve sleep health – make sure it is dark enough, put devices on flight mode and don't look at screens for at least half an hour before trying to sleep.
  • Avoid using alcohol as a method of relaxation as it has stimulant properties which will disimprove sleep in the long run and can lead to depressed mood, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Brainy Omega-3

“Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the structure and function of the brain,” says Olive Curran, a Galway-based nutritional therapist with PPC which makes Eskimo-3. “The typical human brain is about 60% fat, so we need to include fats in our diets. Omega-3s are needed at every stage of life, for balanced mood at any age and right through into older age to preserve cognitive function and protect the brain against life stresses. The European Food Safety Authority states that adults need 250 mg omega-3 DHA for healthy brain function. Oily fish like sardines, mackerel and salmon are among the highest natural dietary sources of omega-3s, however according to an IPSOS/MRBI survey, 89% of Irish people are not consuming enough oily fish in their diet, so adding an omega-3 supplement to your daily regime is recommended.”

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