Smack Down Your Stress for Lifestyle Success

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You hear it all the time, probably out of your own mouth more often than not:stressed woman at desk “I’m so STRESSED!”

In fact, stress is so ubiquitous that it’s become our way of life. We barely notice it because we don’t know what it’s like not to be stressed. Being busy is hailed as a virtue, and productivity is regardless of the cost.

At the same time, we pursue plant-based diets and carve out time for exercise, rightly assuming these things will help our bodies be stronger and healthier. But there’s one problem:

Stress can sideline your health journey.

As with any health concern, the more you understand how and why stress is affecting your body, the better equipped you are to take steps toward healing.

What is Stress?

Google defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” It comes in two forms:

  • Acute: “I’m changing lanes now and HOLY TOFU WHERE DID THAT TRUCK COME FROM?”
  • Chronic: “I’m stuck in traffic yet again on the way to a job I hate, drinking my third cup of coffee and still feeling exhausted.”

In other words, acute stress spurs you to life-saving action, whereas chronic stress wears you down little by little in ways you may not even be aware of.

Some (Not So) Surprising Stress Statistics

According to Statistic Brain and the American Psychological Association, the top causes of stress in the U.S. are:

  • Job pressure
  • Money
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Media overload
  • Politics

When asked, around 48 percent of people say their stress has increased in the last five years, and the same percentage also admit stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.

The Stress Effect

Not surprisingly, 77 percent of people say they have poor physical responses to stress — although I would imagine the true number is higher because stress isn’t always considered as a culprit when you’re feeling out of sorts.

But stress is a powerful thing. When you come up against a stressor, you body reacts with a cascade of changes meant to give you a short-term way to deal with an immediate problem:

  • Digestion and other non-essential functions slow down
  • Cortisol is released
  • Blood sugar and epinephrine rise
  • Blood pressure becomes elevated

After the stressor has passed (you slam on the brakes, don’t hit the truck and arrive safely in the intended lane), your body’s processes are supposed to normalize as you come back down from the jolt of the acute response.

In today’s society, when we go from traffic jams and coffee to tedious jobs to smartphones constantly interrupting us with news we’d rather not hear, our bodies never have a chance to normalize completely.

Cortisol Complications

Why? The main culprit is cortisol. This hormone, triggered through a cascade of chemicals from the brain and adrenal glands, prompts your body to break down stored glycogen and convert it to glucose for a quick source of energy during the stress response. Chronically elevated blood sugar decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning your body has to keep making more in order to get sugar into cells. Eventually, you could find yourself in the beginning stages of Type 2 diabetes as your cells simply refuse to respond or insulin production begins to drop off.

stressed lego man at desk

Cortisol can also break down proteins for fuel. Add to this a decrease in growth hormone production and problems dealing with stomach acid, and you could be at risk for muscle loss. Stomach acid is a key player in breaking down the proteins you eat, and if it’s not doing the job, your cells won’t get the protein they need.

And of course, we’re all familiar with the feeling of our hearts racing during times of acute stress. Blood pressure that stays high when it shouldn’t puts a strain on blood vessels, especially small vessels in areas like the eyes and brain. The heart itself is also affected as the body asks it to work harder than it’s meant to when you’re at rest. It’s little wonder some of the most common stress symptoms reported are fatigue, headache and muscle tension.

Stolen Hormones

The other problem with cortisol? It’s a hormone. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t share some of the same precursors as other hormones you need — namely, sex hormones.

Your body has a specific and efficient process for making sex hormones. Part of this process involves pregnenolone, a hormone precursor normally used to make DHEA and, in turn, estrogen and testosterone. It’s also used to make progesterone and aldosterone through a different pathway.

When you’re not under stress, this process should work just fine, but stress “steals” your pregnenolone to make cortisol. As this continues to happen during chronic stress, important hormonal balances are disrupted and your blood sugar goes even further out of whack due to lower insulin sensitivity from a lack of DHEA.

Together, the effects of chronic stress can spell trouble for anyone, even those who practice healthy habits in other areas of their lives.

The Missing Link

Which brings me to my most important point in this post: Even if you have your diet on track and stick to a regular exercise regimen, you could be putting yourself at risk for some serious problems if you’re constantly under stress. A 2016 study provided a graphic illustration of this when it suggested stress has the potential to negate the effects of healthy meals by making the body react the same way as it would to a large influx of saturated fat, namely by increasing inflammation.

Just like the stress response, your body’s inflammatory cascade is helpful when it works the right way. It sends the proper immune cells and compounds to damaged areas to clean up and speed healing. That’s why you experience redness and swelling when you get an injury.

But what happens when the process becomes chronic? A constant state of low-grade inflammation appears to be at least one of the major underlying factors in heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. One possible reason for this could be an increase in “adhesion molecules,” compounds that facilitate the formation of the arterial plaques associated with heart disease. Excess cortisol circulating in the blood can also lead to a less robust immune response, leaving you vulnerable to all manner of invaders and making it more difficult for your body to repair itself.

Smacking Down Your Stress: Techniques to Trystress relief this way

I don’t think I have to tell you how to know you’re under stress. As I said at the outset — just about everyone is! You may feel tired, apathetic or just plain “blah.” You may struggle with headaches or stomach aches with no apparent triggers. You’re probably not sleeping very well. And all of it is undermining your plant-based diet and the time you spend at the gym, running trails or whatever you like to do for exercise.

Identify Your Stressors

The first step in breaking the cycle and gaining control over your stress is to pin down the causes. To do this, grab a notebook and start a stress diary. Every time you feel stressed out, write down:

Over time, you’ll begin to see patterns. For example, if you look back at your diary for the week and see a lot of entries like,

“Boss called another last-minute meeting. Critical; everyone had to go. Got angry and fumed through the whole thing. Ate too much Chinese takeout for lunch.”

Or,

“Husband called ten minutes before kids needed to be picked up and asked me to get them. Essential; couldn’t make other arrangements. Didn’t talk to him all through dinner. Stormed around slamming things until I felt better.”

…you know you need to learn a better way to cope.

Rule Your Stress

Fortunately, you don’t have to do anything fancy or mystical to bust stress. You don’t have to go on a retreat and do nothing except sit next to pools of calm water and listen to yourself breathe (unless you want to!). Here are some of my favorite simple, calming activities that I suggest to clients and have seen work for friends and family:

  • Reading favorite books
  • Adult coloring
  • Crafts like knitting or sewing
  • Stretching and/or restorative yoga
  • “Unplugging” from devices and media
  • Spending time with laid-back, supportive friends
  • Having a cup of chamomile tea before bed
  • Spending time in prayer, reading the Bible and connecting with God

You can engage in these activities any time during the day, but I recommend incorporating one or more into your evening routine. Stretching, fixing yourself a cup of tea and settling in to relax without your phone blaring push notifications at you every ten seconds helps you unwind from the day’s events and prepares you for a good night’s sleep — the ultimate restorative stress-buster!

You can’t escape all stress, but you can beat the stressors life throws at you every day. A stress management program is an essential part of staying healthy — without one, all the kale and burpees in the world won’t help you stay well!

Are you ready to get off the stress train and stop feeling “blah” all the time? Book a personalized 4-week package! I’ll walk you through the lifestyle changes you need to find relief and gain control over what’s stressing you out.

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5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains

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These robust plant foods offer a wealth of benefits

Grains. Love them or hate them, they’re the foundation of many traditional diets around the world and continue to be a staple in modern civilization. Most of the grains eaten today, however, have been refined to the point where they no longer provide the nutritional value that makes the original whole forms such an amazing staple food. These “empty calories” have given rise to the prevailing thought that grains are bad, carbohydrates are killing us and we all need to run in the other direction every time we see a bowl of rice.

Whole grains, however, are something we should be running to. Slowly but surely, the public eye is being opened to the fact that grains in their original, unrefined forms are among the healthiest foods out there. These grains are nourishing, power-packed choices that can be enjoyed at any meal. They’re delicious savory or sweet, with vegetables or fruit, tossed with herbs or seasoned with spices. However you like to prepare them, grains like rice, quinoa, millet, barley, amaranth, teff, corn and wheat can do amazing things for your health.

Better Heart Health

In How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger cites a study showing consumption of three servings of whole grains a day — which is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of cooked grains — reduced the risk of a heart attack by 15 percent and strokes by 25 percent. The Whole Grain Council reports higher numbers, showing a 25 to 28 percent risk reduction for heart disease and a 30 to 36 percent drop in stroke risk among those including whole grains in their diets.

stalk of whole grain oatsThe high fiber content of whole grains may have something to do with these benefits, according to Brenda Davis in her detailed compendium, Becoming Vegan. High fiber diets have been linked with a lower overall risk of cardiac events as well as a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the first place. Fiber combines with cholesterol-rich bile acids and lowers fatty acid synthesis in the liver, leading to lower blood levels of these potentially damaging substances. Fiber may also work to remove undesirable blood clots by breaking down the fibrin necessary for clots to form.

Methyl donors may be another reason why grains are so good at protecting heart health. When the body metabolizes the amino acid methionine, an intermediate compound called homocysteine is formed. Unless homocysteine is remethylated — that is, unless it gets a methyl group from another compound such as choline, betaine or inositol, all found in whole grains — it may lead to an increase in inflammation and promote adhesion within blood vessels. Inflamed blood vessels don’t heal well, and prolonged damage to the inner lining, called the endothelium, can promote clot formation and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Whole grains also contain vitamin B6, folic acid and zinc, which also play a role in controlling homocysteine levels.

Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Fiber is at least partly responsible for the statistics showing that consuming three servings of whole grains a day can lower diabetes risk by one third. A study by Harvard Medical School showed similar benefits in a group of 11 overweight and obese subjects consuming six to 11 servings of whole grains per day. Even with partially refined foods such as breads, pasta and baked goods included in the serving count, subjects experienced a 10 percent drop in fasting insulin, lower insulin secretions and greater glucose infusion into cells when compared to a similar diet containing refined grains.

When fiber-rich foods are ingested, the fiber delays absorption of both fat and carbohydrates, resulting in a more stable glucose response, which in turns reduces the need for high levels of insulin to normalize blood sugar. Since high blood sugar and excessive insulin production may both contribute to type 2 diabetes risk, it makes sense that whole grains appear to confer benefits. The Whole Grains Council places total risk reduction between 21 and 30 percent for people who consume whole grains.

Cancer Risk Reduction

Phenols, lignans and saponins are phytonutrients found in whole grains, and they’re superheroes in the fight against cell damage. Cells throughout the body are bombarded every day by artificial compounds in food and body care products, chemicals in the environment and the daily effects of metabolism. When left unchecked, the effects of these encounters have the potential to initiate cancer as cells mutate and multiply. Phytonutrients have antioxidant properties to prevent the damage from getting out of hand. The compounds found in whole grains are particularly effective against colorectal cancer. Eating three servings per day has the potential to lower the risk of the developing the disease by 20 percent.

Lignans also act as phytoestrogens, notes Dr. Greger in How Not to Die. These “plant estrogens” create a buffer to control high levels of estrogen associated with hormone-driven cancers, especially those of the breast and prostate. By docking on hormone receptors, phytoestrogens block the more aggressive estrogens believed to play a role in the development of these cancers. To get the benefits of lignans, however, you need a healthy gut. Whole grains contain only the precursors to lignans; a strong community of friendly gut bacteria is necessary to transform them into the final product.

Improved Digestion

whole grain brown rice in a jarEven before people knew what fiber was or how it worked, its role in digestive health was clear. A visit to the General Store & Apothecary Shop at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT, reveals a surprisingly large collection of products created to counteract the effects of inadequate fiber intake in a population that ate a great deal of cured meat and other high-fat, low-fiber fare. The same problems are evident in the large amount of shelf space modern pharmacies devote to digestive aids.

Unfortunately, Americans and other cultures eating predominantly Western-style diets continue to consume levels of fiber far below the recommended amounts, with average intakes hovering around 15 to 17 grams. Adequate Intake (AI) levels are set at 38 grams for men ages 19 to 50 and 25 grams for women in the same age bracket. Older men should consume at least 30 grams and older women at least 20 grams.

Those eating vegan diets that include whole grains average between 35 and 50 grams of fiber per day, and whole-food plant-based diets may provide up to 60 grams of fiber per day. Grains often figure predominantly in these eating plans. Fiber consumed at these levels provides enough food for the diverse community of bacteria that thrives in the human gut. As these bacteria break down strands of fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids that strengthen colon walls. Complex sugars called oligosaccharides act as prebiotics to provide more nourishment for these bacteria.

A strong colon is a healthy colon, and people who eat more fiber may be at a reduced risk for diverticulitis, irritable bowel disease, hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer. In fact, one study showed that consuming ten extra grams of fiber per day reduced the risk of this type of cancer by 10 percent.

Nutrient Content

Refining grains strips away the outer bran and germ, removing up to 80 percent of the healthful compounds that give the whole forms their benefits. When eaten in their unrefined states, grains provide a range of nutrients, including:

  • B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Each of these nutrients supports one or more essential bodily processes. Some, like selenium and zinc, act as antioxidants. Zinc is essential for over 100 enzymatic processes, and selenium is a critical component in thyroid hormone conversion. Many B vitamins support energy production and a healthy metabolism. Folate is essential for cell division, which is why pregnant women are encouraged to consume more of this nutrient. Magnesium balances out calcium to promote bone health. Other benefits for immunity and cell activity can also come from these vitamins and minerals.

Learn More About Whole Grain Benefits

The Vegan Health Guide: Whole Grains — Discover the health benefits of specific grains, why you should choose whole instead of refined and how to find the best grains when shopping!

Health Studies from the Whole Grains Council — Search by grain or health condition to find studies detailing the perks of including whole grains in your diet.

More Than Just Fiber? — This abstract discusses the “whole grain package,” suggesting the benefits of these foods may come from far more than the nutrients usually studied in isolation.

Lignans: The Linus Pauling Institute — An objective scientific look at the potential health effects of lignan consumption.


I’d love to hear about why you love whole grains. Share your favorite grains and recipes in the comments!

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