How to Feed Your Brain to Combat Stress
There’s a very strong relationship between stress and our physical body. Muscle tension, for example, is a type of reflex reaction to stress. It’s the body’s way of shielding itself from danger. It might feel like a nagging or gripping pain in the back of your neck or lower back as you type at your computer. Headaches are a close cousin. The relationship is so strong that it has its own term: “stress headaches” (also called “tension headaches”). Stress even causes digestive problems. It alters the concentration of stomach acid, which can lead to bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and even peptic ulcers. Plus, stress upsets insulin production in the body, which can lead to diabetes and can cause strokes and heart attacks. Healthy diets have been shown to prevent all these harmful physical effects and even reverse the aging process. Your life is short. Your diet is an easy way to take control and maximize your wellbeing.
Having a healthy diet will make you a more effective leader. You owe it to yourself to fuel your brain and brody properly, so here are four steps to create a successful diet plan.
1. Prioritize breakfast.
It’s important to start the day off right. You should make a habit of eating breakfast. Skipping breakfast may make it difficult to maintain stable blood-sugar levels. It matters what you put into your body. Try to choose high-fiber foods such as high-fiber cereals, steel-cut oatmeal, whole grain bread and fresh fruit. Fiber-rich foods digest slowly and keep you feeling full. They also jumpstart your metabolism and stabilize your blood-sugar levels. This will allow you to stay focused and reduce your anxiety and stress levels. As a leader, breakfast really can be the most important meal of the day, but it doesn’t end there. You should constantly fuel your body and mind. Intermittent fasting for sugar control and weight loss can negatively affect your mind and relationships with your team. When you value the close connection between your stomach and your mind, you make the most of each day. The gift of life is short and fleeting.
2. Limit refined sugars and processed foods.
Certain foods are toxic to your brain. You should try to steer clear of refined sugar. Try to avoid foods containing high levels of white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. And you shouldn’t put these foods in front of your team, either. You want to set them up for success. Diets low in sugar have been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a peptide responsible for the creation of new neurons. BDNF causes neurons to connect and combine and plays a critical role in neuroplasticity. Try to avoid stocking your breakroom or vending machines with products that are high in sugar and make for poor food choices. Also try to avoid foods with a high glycemic index like pastries, soft drinks and fast foods. Instead, try to go for fruits, honey or maple syrup. Or better, yet go for a natural protein such as soy or seitan that will help to build muscle. Refined sugars will give you a quick boost of energy, but they’ll quickly send your blood sugar on a roller coaster –and not an enjoyable one. When your blood sugar drops, your adrenal glands release stress hormones like cortisol. Your performance as a leader will suffer. You’ll be more irate in conversations, your relationships will suffer, and you won’t be able to make the right decisions that your team trusts you to make.
3. Embrace omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a gift to any leader. You deserve to include them in your diet. Nuts and seeds, including flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, are your friends and partners. Nuts are known to be heart-protective and contain many antioxidants. Walnuts are especially health-promoting and are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower heart disease risk and reduce total cholesterol and LDL (aka bad cholesterol). Ultimately, omega-3s help to stabilize your adrenal hormones and prevent them from rising too high, especially when you’re stressed. They are a powerful antidote against stress.
4. Limit caffeine and alcohol.
It’s natural to crave caffeinated foods such as coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate, but it’s important to recognize that these foods can harm your overall well-being. Caffeine stimulates the production of cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone and causes anxiety. It’s okay to have the occasional cup of Joe, but try to avoid caffeine near bedtime, as it may cause insomnia. You should also think about when and if to consume alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and a sedative and alters the neurotransmitters in your brain. It may be tempting to grab a couple of beers or glasses of wine after a hard day, but try not to do this in excess, as your performance as a leader might take a nosedive. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to give in to urges and impulses. You’re more likely to resort to using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, the effects can result in long-term harm and addiction. It’s best to avoid these temptations when you’re experiencing high levels of stress.
Related: Quick Healthy-Eating Tips for Entrepreneurs
Your eating habits and stress levels go hand-in-hand. When you’re stressed, it’s natural to want to reach for comfort foods like desserts, fast food and alcohol, but these foods can be addictive and might trigger a downward spiral. By fueling your body for success, you’ll reduce your stress, improve your productivity and strengthen your relationship with your team, so use these four steps to create a high-performance diet plan.
This is only a jumping off point. There are a lot of additional ways to create a stress-quelling diet. My book, Stress-Less Leadership, helps you with diet as you wave away stress using your fourth finger, your physical finger. For a deeper approach, check out my stress workshops. And most importantly, take good care of yourself.