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Reduce Stress with Diet and Exercise

By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

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More than one in 10 of those who responded to HealthyWomen's recent Web-based survey on stress said they coped with stress by doing unhealthy things such as overindulging in alcohol and food and other self-destructive behaviors. I can guarantee these actions won't help them feel any better; in fact, such behaviors only exacerbate the harmful effects of chronic stress on your health and likely add a whole host of other issues to deal with.

For the reality is that there is very little you can do about the stress in your life. What you can do something about, however, is how you let it affect you. And the best place to start is with a bedrock of healthy living. This strong foundation may help protect you against the harmful effects of the chronic stress we all live with.

That means following a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to eating and exercising.

Eat Your Way to Calm

Here's how to do it:

  • Skip the simple sugars and starches (chips, cakes and ice cream). The spike in blood sugar and insulin they cause, combined with your already high cortisol levels, can lead you to eat more as well as put you at risk of insulin insensitivity and diabetes. There's nothing wrong with reaching for comfort food, but take the attributes of the "bad" comfort food - creamy, crunchy, sweet - and try to find healthier alternatives.

  • Avoid coffee and other caffeinated food and drinks. They not only increase levels of certain stress hormones, but also mimic their effects in the body (increasing heart rate, for example).

  • Load up on vegetables and fruits and other high-fiber foods. The nutrients they provide lend an extra dollop of protection against the immune-sapping effects of chronic stress.

  • Choose complex carbohydrates. Their steady release of sugar not only keeps your blood sugar levels steady, but also induces the brain to release more of the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin.

Exercise

If I were to make a list of the studies showing the benefits of exercise on reducing stress hormones, it would be longer than my arm. Simply moving-walking, running, biking, swimming-changes the balance of stress hormones in the brain.

Studies suggest that by making the body stronger and healthier, exercise enhances your ability to respond to stress, thus thwarting many of its negative effects such as anxiety, depression and heart disease. Regular exercise also helps flush out the byproducts of the body's stress response - those hundreds of chemicals released in response to a stressful situation - enabling you to return to a normal state quicker.

Then there are the meditative benefits of exercise. There is a "zone" you get into when you swim, or walk, or jog, an enhanced feeling of self-esteem that results from doing something you know is good for you and from seeing the physical results of that action, the social support if you're working out with a friend, and even the fact that physical activity improves your sleep.

It doesn't really matter what kind of exercise you do; what's most important, studies find, is that you do something you enjoy, not something you feel you simply have to do. Otherwise, you're just stressing yourself out again!