The occasional stressful event, like a car that won’t start or a refrigerator on the blink, is a part of life. When stuff like this happens, we do get stressed a little bit. It’s the body’s way of helping us to focus so we can tackle the problem. Getting stressed out occasionally is one thing, but when stress becomes chronic—for instance, when we face unrelenting work demands, or constant worry about our finances—it can really take a toll on the body.
The body’s natural response to stress leads us to feel a little more on and alert. We evolved this ‘fight or flight response’ as a way to defend ourselves against a sudden danger or threat. But when this stress response is turned on all the time, it can tax the body’s immune system, making it more difficult for us to ward off disease. And since a healthy immune system depends on a nutrient-rich diet, being well-nourished by healthy eating is one of the best defenses against illness—particularly during times of ongoing stress.
That’s easier said than done, though. Stress can also bring on fatigue or depression, so healthy eating might take a back seat to foods that are quick or comforting and often loaded with fat, salt and sugar. And if you’re turning to caffeine to ward off fatigue, that can also backfire by disrupting your sleep.
Those high calorie comfort foods can stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good—at least in the short term—and also make us want to keep eating. But in a vicious cycle, overeating can lead to weight gain, which increases psychological stress. And that, in turn, can lead to more overeating.
While you might not be able to make the stress go away, there are things you can do to help you manage stress levels and the way in which you respond to it.
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