Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby
The body-mind connection is at the center of the Sakara philosophy. You’re not just a body, and you’re not just a soul—you’re a beautiful, complex, unique co-creation of these entities. It’s why eating is about more than just sustenance, and why the thoughts, hopes, desires and stresses you experience are so powerful. “The mind is intricately connected to the body,” explains Dr. Robin Berzin, functional medicine doctor and founder + CEO of Parsley Health. “What we think and feel can’t be separated from our physical state. Thoughts trigger emotions which trigger biochemical reactions,” she explains. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!
But modern life asks a lot of us. We’re always on, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning (often before the sun) to the moment we finally close them at bedtime (or well past it). The result is stress—not just the isolated moments of fight-or-flight that motivated our ancestors, but the chronic, constant, ever-present kind of stress that results from the demands of our hectic, overscheduled, undernourished lifestyles. Because our bodies and minds are interwoven, that stress affects our physical selves in a very real way—and you’ll feel it reverberating from the dinner table to the bedroom.
There’s a reason we refer to having a “gut feeling”—a lot of emotions reside in our bellies (and a number of hormones, including the mood boosters serotonin and dopamine, are made there). So much so, in fact, that our gut is sometimes called the second brain. What we’re actually talking about, whether we know it or not, is the enteric nervous system, which includes the myenteric plexus (the G.I. tract’s nerve supply, located in the esophagus, stomach and intestines) and the vagus nerve (a cranial nerve that connects the brainstem to the digestive system). Your gut contains millions of neurons, and your stomach takes cues from your brain. And that means whatever is going on in your mind has a direct line to your belly. This starts to explain why we get butterflies when we’re nervous…and sometimes, less pleasant feelings and symptoms when we’re overly stressed, afraid or otherwise upset. Interestingly, many people who suffer from IBS report their symptoms are exacerbated by stress. (More on the stress-autoimmune connection to come.)
It’s also worth noting the evolutionary evidence for the belly-brain link. The digestive system reacts to stress by slowing down so that the body can devote all of its energy toward the perceived threat. Smart! But it can backfire, i.e. when you’re constantly under low-grade stress.
Finally, increasing research on the microbiome suggests that stress is among the things that can disrupt the delicate balance of your gut flora. And as we know, those little microbes in your belly play a starring role in digesting your food, so when they’re out of whack, digestive issues and problems with nutrient absorption may result.
The hormone cortisol, produced by your adrenals, is key to the body’s stress response. While a little bit of cortisol is actually a good thing (the fight-or-flight reaction evolved to protect you from harm!), when it’s running excessively high—say, from chronic stress—it can actually cause harm, and your immune system suffers.
You know how you tend to get hit with a cold or the flu when you’re run down, stressed and overtired? Blame cortisol. Too much of it suppresses the body’s lymphocytes, leading to a weakened immune system. This leaves your body more vulnerable to infectious attacks and makes it take longer to heal.
Further, mounting research suggests autoimmune conditions (when the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells) are inextricably linked to stress. One study found that 80% of patients report high stress levels at the same time as the onset of their symptoms. Unsurprisingly, inflammation is at the root of all of this—and studies show chronic stress alters immune cell genes, resulting in a widespread inflammatory state in the body. And that spells trouble.
Stress can make you feel uncomfortable in your body in a number of ways. For one thing, those same pesky stress hormones that mess with digestion and immunity can cause increased muscle tension and pain sensitivity. Stress can cause teeth grinding, resulting in jaw pain and headaches. Ever find yourself hunched uncomfortably over your computer on particularly stressful days at work? Hello, tight shoulders and stiff neck.
Beyond wonky digestion, stress can also cause weight gain thanks to—you guessed it—cortisol, which can slow down the metabolism and make your body hold onto fat. And as you’ve probably experienced, being in a stressed-out state can cause you to crave sugary, fatty and otherwise unhealthy comfort foods (there’s a reason they’re called that!). We all know how that cycle perpetuates: you feel puffy and out of sorts, your clothes feel tight…basically, the opposite of feeling sexy in your skin. And the negative thoughts about yourself and your body that start to percolate only add to your stress.
Sex is probably our favorite stress reliever, but unfortunately, being under stress can be a barrier to experiencing that particular type of ultimate connection with your lover. While everyone gets down differently, it’s pretty widely accepted that the mental aspect is BIG for women when it comes to sex. So it follows that when you’re anxious and distracted, it’s hard to get in the mood. But it goes beyond your busy mind—the physiological effects of stress affect your sex life too. For instance, chronic stress can disrupt hormone production, interfere with arousal and affect ovulation and fertility. And men aren’t immune to the effects of stress on sex; it can also negatively influence testosterone levels and sperm count. Plus, it’s an oft-cited cause of erectile dysfunction.
THE SOLUTION? EAT STRESS-FIGHTING FOODS
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again…and again and again! Food. Is. Medicine. To reduce stress, fill your plate (or your Sakara tote!) with nutrient-dense plant foods. Specifically, seek folate and magnesium to support the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, fermented foods to nourish your gut microbiome, omega-3 fatty acids to care for your brain and, of course, a little dark chocolate for its bliss-promoting properties.
STRESS LESS, EAT MORE…
- Leafy greens like kale and spinach
- Sauerkraut and kimchi
- Seeds, like flax, chia, hemp, sesame and pumpkin
- SeSea veggies like kelp and wakame
- Old fashioned rolled oats and other whole grains (including brown and wild rice)
- Nuts, like almonds, walnuts and cashews
- Nutritional yeast (Sakara tip: add it to your stove-popped popcorn!)
- Root veggies, like sweet potatoes and winter squash
- Dark cacao (try Sakara’s Dark Chocolate Granola…in addition to mood-lifting cacao, the ashwagandha in it will help ease adrenal fatigue and aid your body in coping with stress)