Christmas: A time of Stress and Relaxation
Christmas is upon us and this not only brings with it decorations, social
festivities and panic Christmas shopping, but to many people it means those
stress levels are going to be peaking! Battling the crowds whilst you decide on
what gifts to buy, deciding whether it should be a star or an angel on top of
the tree and realising you have run out of wrapping paper when you still have
fifty gifts to wrap, all contribute to those stress levels and if you are not
careful, by the time Christmas Eve comes around, you will feel so wiped out
that all the enjoyment of Christmas can be lost. So during this lead up to Christmas,
and after it’s all over too, here’s what you can do to make sure those stress
levels remain low and relaxation remains high.
Reducing the stress levels
We might not think of foods contributing to our stress levels, in fact many people can reach for food at times of stress in the hope it provides them with an element of comfort, but there are actually a few foods and drinks that should be limited or eliminated from the diet at times of high stress and anxiety. This is because some foods can actually raise one of the body’s main stress hormones called cortisol, which is certainly not helpful if you are already feeling stressed. Elevated levels of cortisol in the body, is known to lower immune function, increase blood pressure, lead to weight gain and impair memory and concentration, none of which are beneficial when feelings of stress and anxiety are already high. So which foods are not your friends when it comes to stress?
Although many people rely on a daily hit of caffeine, often through the consumption of coffee, when it comes to stress, caffeine is best avoided. Caffeine is a drug that is a stimulant and stimulants are not what you need when you and your body are feeling stressed. Caffeine consumption affects a number of hormones in the body and its effects can last for a few hours. One of the hormones that caffeine affects is called adenosine, which is a calming hormone that regulates sleep and helps us to feel relaxed. Caffeine actually inhibits the absorption of this hormone in the body, which is mainly why it has such a stimulant effect. When you are already feeling stressed and agitated, the last thing you want to do is have your adenosine levels depleted, which will only result in you feeling even less calm. Caffeine also increases cortisol levels too, so any drinks such as coffee, tea, energy drinks and some soft drinks are definitely best avoided as well as chocolate, which is often high in caffeine too.
Although the consumption of alcohol, in small amounts, can indeed induce feelings of relaxation and have a sedative effect, it is also a depressant. One glass of wine for example could well be beneficial for calming nerves, but if this is relied upon then the body can build up a tolerance to the de-stressing effects of alcohol and then more is needed to have the same effect. This is a slippery slope and not one that will help stress or anxiety levels in the long term. After a bout of drinking, when blood alcohol levels fall, there is also some evidence to suggest that this can make anxiety feel even worse than before a drink. With Christmas just a short time away, for most people, the thought of having an alcohol free December is definitely not on their radar, but if stress and anxiety are an issue for you, then look at moderating its intake.
With the media attention that sugar has had in the last few years, the majority of us should be moderating our intake and trying to make sure consumption stays within the recommended adult guidelines of no more than 6 teaspoons a day. This is certainly the case if you are suffering with feelings of stress and anxiety, especially for prolonged periods of time. This is because when we are stressed, our body goes into ‘preparation mode’ ensuring enough sugar or energy is easily available should it be needed. This results in increased adrenaline and cortisol levels in the body and a fall in insulin, with more glucose being released by the liver, which increases the body’s blood glucose levels. Consuming sugary foods and drinks on top of that will lead to further heightened blood sugar levels, which negatively affect mood and energy levels and will only cause you to feel more agitated and stressed when these levels fluctuate. To help stabilize blood sugar levels, make sure you always eat breakfast (ideally one containing protein and fibre), choose snacks that don’t contain sugar such as nuts or high protein foods, and don’t consume refined sugary foods or drinks.
Bring on the Relaxation
There are a variety of foods, which for different reasons, can help promote relaxation and calm. Christmas time often means a change in our diets whether that be due to eating out more, eating more processed foods or consuming more sugary snacks and these can all have an impact on how we feel. We therefore need to make sure that alongside our change in dietary habits, we are also consuming foods known to help make us feel calm and reduce feelings of stress. So which foods are these?
This may not be the first thing you think of putting on the Christmas menu or eating in cold December, however don’t dismiss it just yet! Celery is certainly not a new remedy for stress, in fact it was historically used in Hippocrates’ day as an antidote for stress and to treat nervous tension. It is now known that celery contains phytochemicals called phthalides, which have shown to relax the muscles found in the artery walls. This effectively helps to lower blood pressure, which is always a positive thing when stress is high and will allow for better relaxation.
For those who get sugar cravings when stressed, and if will power is low, then instead of reaching for a processed sugary snack, reach for the honey. Honey is a great source of potassium. This mineral not only helps to reduce cortisol levels in the body, but is also effective at lowering blood pressure, which is often raised during times of stress and anxiety.
As its Christmas, it’s only right to include this little green vegetable, which for many, have become one of the synonymous vegetables of Christmas. Love them or hate them, there is no denying they are rich in nutrients, one of which is magnesium and when it comes to relaxation, this mineral is one you don’t want to miss out on.
Magnesium has a massive part to play in the release and uptake of serotonin, the body’s happy hormone, so can help stabilize our mood. Magnesium is often referred to as the ‘calming mineral’ due to the positive, calming influence it can have on our nervous systems. Many studies have actually shown that when we are under stress, especially prolonged stress, magnesium stores in our body become depleted. In other words, the more stress our body is under, the more magnesium we use up. This is certain to have an impact on how we feel, as we know that magnesium actually helps to suppress the body’s stress hormone cortisol. Without magnesium, our cortisol levels can often be higher, especially if our stress levels are high. If Brussel sprouts are off your menu this Christmas then you will also find magnesium in avocados, bananas, nuts, seeds and other green leafy vegetables.
Oats and oatmeal have been staple foods in many people’s diets for centuries and are healthy additions to the diet for a number of reasons, including their ability to help induce feelings of relaxation. As a complex carbohydrate, oatmeal increases the absorption of tryptophan in the body, which leads to the production of the hormone serotonin and which helps the body relax as well as stabilise mood.
Oatmeal also contains the vitamin B6, which is also known as the anti-stress vitamin. It is known to have a number of therapeutic effects which would explain why it can be beneficial in reducing stress levels, including contributing to normal functioning of the nervous system, regulating hormonal activity and reducing fatigue. Why not make yourself a bowl of Christmas oatmeal by adding cinnamon, nutmeg, stewed apples and some fresh cranberries to it. It will certainly give you a hearty breakfast and provide you with enough energy to unwrap all those presents!
Whatever your plans to celebrate Christmas this year, try and make it one of relaxation rather than stress. With the addition of some of the foods mentioned above and the elimination of others, it will certainly help give you the best chance of keeping blood pressure low and tempers controlled. Just make sure you’re not so relaxed that you forget to cook the Christmas lunch!
· Magnesium in Disease Prevention and Overall Health, 2014. Advances in Nutrition: An International Journal
· A spoonful of sugar: feedback signals of energy stores and corticosterone regulate responses to chronic stress, 2003. Physiology & Behaviour
· A review on medicinal plant of Apium graveolens, 2015. Advanced Herbal Medicine
· Tryptophan hydroxylase-2: An emerging therapeutic target for stress disorders, 2013. Biochemical Pharmacology