Life can be challenging sometimes with the constant juggle of home, work, studies, family as well as other things that life throws in our way. Sometimes these are manageable but other times we can get a little overwhelmed and find ourselves really stressed. With April being International Stress Awareness Month it’s the perfect time to discuss the topic of stress.

Here nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition By Laurann, explains what stress is, how it affects our bodies and some practical nutrition and lifestyle tips for how you can manage stress.

What Is Stress? As it turns out, not all stress is bad, as it can help us to stay focused, energetic, and alert. The World Health Organisation defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives”. However, sometimes it can get a little but too much.

Signs Of High Stress Levels: Being busy in life is normal but it’s important to be able to recognise when we may be experiencing excess stress. The HSE describes the following as signs of stress.

* feeling overwhelmed (feeling that everything is too much)
* finding it hard to concentrate
* being irritable
* feelings of anxiety or feeling worried
* being forgetful
* lacking self-confidence
* Sleep problems or feeling tired all the time
* avoiding certain places or people
* eating less or more than usual
* drinking alcohol or smoking more than usual

How Stress Affects Our Bodies
1) Fight or Flight Response: Stress causes a natural nervous system response, which releases a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper, this is known as your ‘fight or flight response’. Unfortunately, your nervous system isn't very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats.

2) Body Response: Being in a heightened and frequent state of stress can impact our overall health. Chronic stress can disrupt our immune system, digestive system and increase your risk of heart related conditions, so it’s important to take the steps you need to manage stress as best you can.

Nutrition Tips For Stress Management

- Omega Fatty Acids: As almost 60% of the brain is made of fatty acids, omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in maintaining healthy brain and nerve function. Tip: Aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish/week (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines), as well as walnuts, chia seed and flax seed (or oil). Recommended Supplement: If choosing a supplement, for therapeutic effects, opt for an omega-3 supplement with a high ratio of EPA:DHA such as Solgar Omega 3 Triple Strength
- Include a range of good quality lean protein: Your body makes feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin from protein foods so ensuring a steady supply is vital if you’re feeling low. Food Sources: high-quality protein such as lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, chickpeas and lentils.

- Reduce The Sugar: Whilst you may crave sugary foods such as sweets, chocolate or biscuits when you feel low or sluggish, it’s best to avoid them if possible. High sugar foods result in spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels which affect our energy levels and mood and may deplete essential brain nutrients. Tip: Instead opt for wholegrain foods such as brown bread, pasta and rice which nourish the body, stabilise blood sugar levels and improve our digestion

- Gut Health: Often referred to as the ‘second brain’ our gut contains billions of receptors and messengers which send messages to our brain and almost 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut. Our gut bacteria also send messages to the brain which can impact our stress responses. Tip: To keep your gut healthy try to include foods such as probiotic yogurt, fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha. It may also be helpful to take a course of probiotics, particularly if you have recently been on antibiotics (it generally takes about 3 months for the gut bacteria to re-balance). Recommended Supplement: Udos Super8 Microbiotic

- The B Vitamins: These play an important role not only in helping the body create energy but also in regulating the nervous system and the production of serotonin. Food Sources: Dairy products, eggs, lean meats, chicken, fish (tuna, mackerel, and salmon), wholegrain foods, dark green leafy vegetables, beans (kidney beans, black beans, and chickpeas), soya products, citrus fruits, bananas and nutritional yeast. Recommended Supplement: Sona B Vitamin Complex.
Vitamin D: In addition to playing a role in mood, Vitamin D also has additional benefits which include supporting our immune health. Recommendation: the current recommendation is that the entire Irish Adult population should take a supplement of 20-25 μg/day or 800-1000 IU/day, my preferred one is the Pharma Nord Vitamin BioActive D Pearls which come in 1520 IU and 3000 IU.

- Magnesium: Known as ‘nature’s natural sedative’, magnesium plays an important role in regulating our stress response, recovery, repair and sleep. Studies have also found magnesium to be effective for mild to moderate depression in adults. Food Sources: Wholegrain foods, oats, bananas, broccoli, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and soybeans. Recommended Supplement: Pharma Nord BioActive Magnesium

- Zinc: Essential for brain and nerve development and can assist in balancing GABA, the anxiety regulating messenger. Studies have also found that supplementing with zinc results in improved mood and brain function. Food Sources: Red meat, liver, eggs and wholegrain foods. Zinc again can be taken in supplement form which should be available in most pharmacies and health stores. Recommended Supplement: Pharma Nord BioActive Selenium & Zinc.
- Selenium: Plays an important role in the brain and nervous system, improves brain function as well as regulating dopamine (happy hormone). Food Sources: Lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, brazil nuts and wholegrain food. Recommended Supplement: (see zinc above)

Lifestyle Tips For Stress Management
- Talking It Out: For many, getting the words out for how we’re feeling can be challenging. However, talking about our problems with someone we trust, be it a friend, loved one or a therapist is so therapeutic. Not only does it release those bottled-up feelings but you may find that they can help and support you through it too.

- Get Organised: If you have a stressful day or week coming up, plan ahead, the HSE recommend the following, 1) Make a to-do list with important and urgent tasks, 2) Gather any things you will need (this includes meal preparation) 3) If you need to travel, work out the journey in advance, 4) Make time for the things you enjoy at the end of the day or during the week, 5) Think about who you can ask for help, if you need it

- Practising Gratitude: Now this is easier said than done when we’re going through a particularly stressful period in our lives. However, keeping a gratitude diary and writing down the things that we are grateful for and the things that are working out in our lives can really help to put things in perspective and shift us towards a more positive mindset.

- Being Present and Practising Mindfulness: One way to ease a racing mind is to bring yourself back to the present. Whilst this may sound challenging there are a few techniques that can help you achieve this such as 1) Meditation: Guided meditations with many free ones available on YouTube as well as many apps now available for this, 2) Music: This is such a great uplifter, why not make your go-to playlist with your favourite songs, 3) Dance: You can take it one step further and dance this incredible playlist or why not join a class, 4) Art: Whether you’re creative or not you can create your own drawings/painting, colour by numbers or an buy adult colouring book (I like the colouring book as I couldn’t even draw a stickman) and 5)

Exercise: Not only is movement good for us but it helps to release stress-busting feel good chemicals. Simply get lost in mindfulness.
- Don’t Forget To Breathe: When we’re stressed, shallow and upper chest breathing is a natural response. However, it’s possible to reduce this stress response through conscious abdominal breathing, which helps to control the nervous system and encourages the body to relax!
Tip: If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, why not try the following which can be done from any location whether at home, parked in your car, or at work.

Simple Take A Breather - Breathing Technique
Sit in a comfortable and supportive chair.
Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your tummy.
Breathe as you would normally but notice where your breath is coming from in your body.

Concentrate on taking a deep breath and filling your lungs.
As you get used to taking deep breaths, try holding your breath for a count of 4 and then exhaling to a count of 6 - this will encourage you to take deeper breaths.

When taking a deep breath, it's important to focus on the exhale.
As you get better at taking deep breaths, try working towards exhaling for 9 seconds and inhaling for 7.
Now notice any changes in your body and if you are feeling a little more calm
If you or your loved ones are going through periods of stress and feel you need additional support, please contact your GP who can provide you with the guidance that you need.

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