Leaders of both large and small businesses always need their cognitive faculties to function optimally, but this need is now heightened during the unprecedented and trying time that COVID-19 has presented us with.
Similarly, the need to manage stress levels effectively during this overwhelmingly uncertain time is critical. This helps to avoid decision-fatigue, foggy thinking and knee-jerk, stress-fuelled, poorly contemplated responses.
The pressure on business owners and leaders to find solutions to problems they’ve never encountered before, to be agile in response to such, and to manage teams that are themselves also battling stress and overwhelm can be exhausting.
Working from home has also presented a new set of challenges, some of which have further increased the already high stress levels of small business owners, leaders and teams.
Results from recent research report that prescription medication to manage anxiety, sleep challenges and depression have been on the rise since COVID-19 reared its head and specifically after it was announced as a pandemic.
Although numerous articles advise business owners to manage stress via exercise, meditation, mindfulness and being grateful, there is a paucity of information explaining why and how food can support stress resiliency among those running their own businesses, leading teams and trying to cope with an extraordinary event in our personal and economic history.
Exactly how do our dietary choices impact our capacity to handle stress?
- Nutrients fuel every single one of our +-70 trillion cells to metabolic action. The brain is the most metabolically active organ we possess, and its demands use upwards of 20% of the glucose derived from the carbohydrates we consume. Brain tissue uses 22 times more energy versus an equivalent sized piece of ordinary muscle tissue. Glucose, oxygen and nutrients reach the brain via our blood supply and any spikes and dips in blood glucose impact brain function directly. Some people experience more of an effect from blood glucose instability than others, but everyone will eventually experience long reaching effects if this instability is maintained over time.
- Stress is expensive from a neural perspective because the adrenalin and cortisol it forces into synthesis demands the presence of a variety of nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and zinc. If the diet is lacking in such nutrients, which occurs when stress drives increased consumption of processed and nutrient-deficient foods, the synthesis of other brain messengers, neurotransmitters, is compromised.
- It becomes more challenging for the brain to re-calibrate towards a calm state, as neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, required to do such are in short supply. This is why you can feel tired but wired at the end of long, stressful days. The brain is battling to make the neurotransmitters needed, such as serotonin and melatonin, which allows you to slip into deep, restorative sleep, because many of the same nutrients are required to synthesise stress hormones. And we all know that a lack of sleep increases stressful feelings and stops effective decision making, and clear and creative thinking.
- Poor sleep leads to metabolic shifts that drive the consumption of high calorie, nutrient deficient foods, because the brain and body are tired and a quick energy spurt is desired. Poor sleep also increases the circulation of stress hormones and impacts gut bacteria negatively.
Our natural inclination when feeling stressed is to …
Reduce those feelings. We do this by eating processed, refined, nutrient deficient foods because we’ve learned through prior experience that they quickly provide a spike in blood glucose, which supplies a jolt of joy and pleasure.
What most people don’t know is that they simultaneously reduce stressful feelings by introducing into central nervous circulation opioid-like compounds. So yes, we’re getting a hit of pleasure via an opioid reaction deep within our central nervous system.
Unfortunately, apart from easily creating a habit, this behaviour also leads to another challenge: unstable blood glucose levels.
Keeping blood glucose stable supports stable moods
The brain runs on glucose and when its supply is comprised, brain function isn’t optimal. Apart from cognition, mood is negatively impacted when the brain runs short on fuel – think ‘Hangry!’
Highly refined foods also lead to blood glucose spikes and dips, which directly impact brain function. And they also impact gut health, which further compromises the brains access to nutrients and increases the chance of both gut and brain inflammation.
When faced with consistent overwhelm and uncertainty, as many business owners, leaders and teams are facing presently, the subsequent feeling of stress leads to blood glucose spikes and dips too, simply as a result of the neurophysiological response to ongoing stress. Recurring blood glucose spikes and dips lead to an independent stress response, adding insult to injury.
The human brain evolved to only experience stress for between 30 and 60 seconds
Unfortunately for us, this system works perfectly when we’re faced with a tiger, as we’ll either escape its attention or be devoured within this time frame. Anyone in business for themselves, or business leaders and team members are being exposed to a new kind of stress, one which has no time limit.
The brain and body aren’t getting a break from being exposed to the stress hormones that this situation invokes. We’re way past the 30 – 60 second stress time limit!
The perfect storm
So, stress in isolation leads to blood glucose spikes and dips, which stimulate the stress response too. This is followed by a desire for, and increased consumption of foods that further cause blood glucose instability, and lead to a deficiency in nutrients required to stabilise mood and improve stress resiliency.
And both the consumption of these foods, and the stress response on its own, decrease gut health, which also leads to a decrease in stress resiliency. Add poor sleep and the effects of such to the mix, and the situation becomes very challenging to change.
What we eat must be taken seriously. Wherever we eat, at the office or at home, with the latter being the situation for many business leaders and teams now, the quality of our food needs to be a top priority.
Food provides the nutrients upon which our entire physiology depends, including our sophisticated and sensitive brain, which is presently in the firing line of the incessant stress we’re exposed to:
- Buy real food versus junk food, and prepare it with care and attention, ensuring that all meals and snacks comprise clean protein, colourful carbohydrates and good fats; find delicious recipes which support brain health to avoid feeling deprived
- Treat yourself to snacks that are nutrient dense, such as a few blocks of dark chocolate with some nuts or fresh fruit with nut butter; try apples or pears with almond or peanut butter
- Eat sitting down at a table versus eating in front of the fridge; this should stop you watching the news and eating simultaneously and will enhance your digestion as you’ll chew well which allows your brain to register satiation
- Drink enough water, as even being dehydrated by 1% results in an increase in stress hormone synthesis; herbal teas, such as chamomile or mint, are a great change from ordinary water, as are warming almond or coconut milk drinks with a drizzle of maple syrup and a sprinkle of cocoa, cinnamon or nutmeg. It’s also possible to make hot chocolate with health in mind that doesn’t sacrifice decadence!
- If you find yourself relying on coffee to give you an energy boost during the day and into the night make an effort to ensure each meal and snack keeps blood glucose stable AND avoid coffee after 2pm to ensure restorative sleep
Becoming stress resilient isn’t only about what you eat.
Naturally, eating to support optimal brain health is the smartest foundation from which to become more stress resilient.
However, how you plan our days, the thoughts you think, and the other strategies you use to align yourself with our goals also play an important role in dealing with the day-to-day events that can lead to stress and overwhelm. Here are a few ways in which you can position yourself psychologically to become more stress resilient:
- Become very aware of what your values are. When you know what they are you are better able to prioritise what to do, and when. This has a natural anti-stress effect on your daily activities and reduces overwhelm.
- Separate your thoughts about how things can go wrong by using the words ‘I notice that’ in front of the distressing thought. This allows you to create some distance between the feeling that the thought invokes. That distance ushers in perspective, which is all we need to shift our ability to see things as they are, not as we fear they are.
- Use gratitude for what you have to give yourself a neurochemical ‘lift.’ Because feelings travel much faster in the brain than thought, the feeling of gratitude can shift our mood very quickly. And the mood shift allows for positive thoughts to enter what may have been a gloomy space before we practiced feeling grateful. So feeling grateful is more important than thinking about what to be grateful for. Images can illicit feelings quickly, so you don’t have to try and think about what to be grateful for. It may take a while to get into the habit of feeling grateful, but like any new habit, once it’s established it will be persistent.
Although it’s impossible to control the consequences of what has happened since C-19 appeared, it is possible to take responsibility for what we do in trying circumstances. We don’t know how long we’re going to need to be resilient against this ongoing stress, although it is extremely likely that business owners, leaders and teams will need to become stress resilient using all the strategies they have at their disposal. Eating for stress resiliency is an important part of this strategy and carries with it the added advantage of keeping leaders and teams physically healthy. It’s also the foundation of our capacity to choose thoughts that support stress resiliency.
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About your host, Christine
Transition and Lifestyle Coach, Host of The Corporate Escapists TV Show & Podcast, Speaker & Educator. In a past life, I was a corporate queen, earning the big bucks & working my way up that ladder. From the outside, I had it all, but I felt completely dead inside. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I really discovered what was missing from my life. I realised I had no idea who I was.
What lit me up. What was setting my soul on fire? What was my passion in life? But after years of doing the inner work, I have rebuilt my life and now I want to help you do the same.
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