What is stress anyway? We think of it as emotional, but we get to add physical, as well. Any injury, sickness, condition—whether acute or chronic. It’s all stress. Physical stressors are as real as emotional ones—and vice versa. There is power in recognizing the stressors in our lives—just as there is power in recognizing that we don’t have to be victims to it.
We have choices.
We get to choose whether to lay down and roll over for the stress, or do what we can to learn from it and release it.
Because. Stress is probably the biggest determinant of health.
Think of our ancestors and the acute stressors they experienced. Running from a mammoth. Moving camp because the water source dried up. Boom. Concrete. Okay, we may romanticize and oversimplify their lives, but the point being that our bodies are not designed for the constant stress we have allowed in our world.
We try to create labor-saving devices and only end up Doing More because of them. Working more to cover the costs of having them.
So we have stress. We get to accept it and work with it—or we get to choose to change our lifestyles and eradicate all but the acute stressors of survival. And that's not very likely, is it?
Under acute conditions our bodies produce cortisol in order to rev us into a fight-or-flight experience. Under acute conditions, our bodies shake it off when the danger is passed—much like the zebra literally shaking after a near-miss with a lion. Shake and return to grazing. Shake and graze, for the win. Zebras don’t get ulcers, the saying goes.
When we are dealing with an acute situation, we attempt to do the same. Shake and return to our moment.
But. In the world we have designed, we don’t always have those moments to return to. We are bombarded daily, hourly, sometimes moment-ly, by new stressors. From a cold, a sprained ankle, a barking dog, a crying child, a delivery to collect, traffic to contend with, smoke and fire on the horizon, a pandemic, money worries, estrangement from friends or family…the list goes on and on.
These are all stressors which our primitive minds recognize as Do-or-Die, Fight-or-Flight, situations. The stress I feel before jumping off a power pole (long story) is the same stress I feel when I receive a text from a child saying, Mom, I need to talk. My primitive mind does not recognize a difference. Mammoth or phone message. Same thing.
And each of these stressors cause us to produce cortisol. Continuously.
Cortisol syncs up with other important hormones in the body: insulin, ghrelin, and leptin.
This is where weight management issues come in.
When we are busy making cortisol, the last thing our bodies have the energy to do is heal. To rest and digest. We have a heck of a time being in a relaxed, parasympathetic state—which is where we get to be in order to have optimal health—when we are bombarded 24-7 with the wonders of the modern world.
When we are in the sympathetic state of fight-flight our hormones are thrown out of balance. And when we are in the transition of perimenopause or menopause, this puts extra strain on the system—leading to symptoms which we associate with getting older: fatigue, weight gain, loss of libido.
While the hormone cascade is fascinating, that’s not where I want to focus today.
I want to focus here on what we get to do about the situation. What we get to do about shifting out of fight-or-flight and supporting our cortisol levels in receding such that we can enjoy perimenopause and menopause, rather than being held hostage to increasing symptoms.
Suffice it to say that when we are jacked up on cortisol, we do not get the signal to stop eating, from leptin. We also can become resistant to the signal (from ghrelin) that we actually need food, so that when we do eat, we are not nourishing our bodies properly.
Oh, it is complicated. I cannot pretend to understand it all. In fact, researchers don’t understand it all.
What it boils down to is learning how our bodies work, noticing how different approaches make us feel—and reaching out to our community for support.
I have found a treasure trove of foods which should support us on that journey. And another treasure trove of supplements. And another of behaviours. Let’s focus here on the foods.
I promise we’ll dive into the other topics another time.
Get ready for one of my acronyms—this one took some work, so bear with me!
F is for Fermented Food and the gut-balancing miracle of probiotics. We know that most of our mood-balancing neurotransmitters are made in the gut, so kimchi/kombucha/kefir/raw-milk yogurt and probiotic supplements can be great cheerleaders for us.
O is for good ole Organ Meats. True confessions: I do not adore liver, but I eat it because it—and other organ meats—have endless nutritional benefits to calm our bodies. Most notably B vitamins.
O is also for Ocean Foods. I’m talking fatty fish for their omega-3 fatty acids and sea vegetables for their mineral content. Omega-3's, as we've discussed here before, are super supporters of mental health. Sea veggies are replete with a variety of trace minerals which serve as spark plugs for all the processes in our bodies. Crucial for calm.
D stands for the densely nutritious carbohydrates we can fill up on to satisfy our snacking desires while also supporting our hormone balance: sweet potatoes, legumes, veggies of all kinds. Seeds and nuts also fall into this category—just be sure they’re not roasted in narsty oils like cottonseed, canola, safflower, soybean.
A is for Artichokes because prebiotics. Prebiotics feed the gut where we have planted the probiotics with our fermented foods. Synergy! We get to support our bodies and reduce our stress, our depressive tendencies, our anxiety, by keeping a healthy canvas upon which to paint our lives. Artichokes are a great prebiotic.
S is for Shellfish. Oh my goodness, these little marvels are loaded with the minerals our bodies crave for full functioning. Zinc, selenium, manganese..all needed for mental health—as well as immune health…and basically any health. Taurine is also in there—a precursor to dopamine--and, of course, decent amounts of protein. So eat your oysters and mussels!
H is for Hallowed Garlic! Good ole garlic never stops showing up on my lists. Gut health. Huge antioxidant booster because of its sulphur content. Powerful stuff.
E stands for Eggs. Another one which shows up regularly to the optimal health party. Pastured eggs are packed with the omegas, vitamins—all the good things—and the choline is known to boost our brain’s calming abilities. Protein helps us lose weight, too, as a satiety trigger for those mysterious hormones we were talking about earlier.
A is for the Antioxidant powers of green leafy veggies, cruciferous veggies, and berries. Acerola cherry powder, Swiss chard, blueberries, broccoli, broccoli sprouts…powerhouse foods to reduce the stress created in our bodies by the toxins in and around us. Don’t forget about the magnesium content of these natural beauties. Magnesium good; too much stress, bad.
L stands for the l-theanine found in matcha tea. Very specific, but apparently there is so much l-theanine in this concentrated form of green tea, that it is worth adding to our regimen. L-theanine has been shown to reduce stress levels. A little goes a long way: I add a tiny bit to my shakes in the morning.
T is a shout-out to Chamomile. As an herb it is prepared as a tisane, rather than a tea, but we usually think of it as a tea, and since they both start with “T”, I’m going with it. Chamomile has been shown in studies to reduce cortisol levels. Helps us sleep, helps us be ready to lose weight, Perfect.
H is for, ah, Hail the Tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin and dopamine and, therefore, necessary for harmony with our neurotransmitters. We find tryptophan in protein foods—especially grass-fed beef, turkey, dairy, eggs, as well as the humble sesame seed.
The bottom-line is that what we choose to eat can reduce our stress which, in turn, supports us in our efforts to manage our weight.
A beautiful circle we get to manage with love--and community support.