Fight or Flight: The Physical Effects of Stress

By Kara Carper, MA, CNS, LN
August 17, 2016

article_brain-mentalhealth_fastwalkers.jpgHave you noticed that the pace of our lives seems to be like watching a movie on fast forward? One day seems to blur into the next, and the hours are packed with multiple events involving work, carpool, kids, errands, family, and social events. It is no wonder that stress and the health issues caused by it cost billions of dollars in healthcare each year.

Stress from Way Back When vs. Present-Day Stress

The stressful situations that originally initiated a stress response were very different than the stressors we encounter today. Robert Sapolsky, PhD, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004) explains that the stress response used to be stimulated when humans were attacking prey for food, or running from predators, which is what we know as the fight or flight response. The adrenal glands produce the chemicals cortisol and adrenaline to help us respond to something dangerous, like being attacked by an animal. This is to our benefit in these types of situations because these chemicals temporarily give us more strength, focus, and energy.  

Today, most of our stressors are coming from busy schedules, financial crises, rush hour traffic, relationship issues, and the list goes on. If there is a perceived threat, the stress response is the same as being chased by a tiger. Here is an example of what might be considered a typical day that for some people would create a rush of cortisol and adrenaline:

  1. The alarm goes off after sleeping for five hours.
  2. Breakfast is skipped due to lack of time, so a cup of coffee is grabbed while running out the door for work.
  3. Traffic is backed up because of an accident.

By 8:00 am, the person experiencing this start to the day feels like a tiger has chased him/her for two hours! It's easy to burn out and feel anxious, tired, and irritable when this pattern continues for days at a time. During times of stress, it is more important than ever to try and get adequate sleep, regular exercise, and good nutrition, but often these are neglected when you're stressed.  

The Nutritional Link to Stress

The most important nutritional advice to reduce the stress response is to keep your blood sugar balanced. This is achieved by eating within thirty minutes of waking, and eating every three hours (at least five times per day). The meals need to be balanced with adequate protein, fat and complex (not refined) carbohydrates.  

Here are two examples of breakfasts that are quite common in our society:

  • Coffee and no actual food
  • A bowl of cereal, milk, and a banana

Both of these breakfasts will cause your blood sugar to rise too high, which leads to blood sugar bottoming out within a couple of hours. Both the highs and lows can lead to feelings of anxiety, irritability, lack of focus, fatigue, and even panic attacks.

A better breakfast choice is one that is balanced and helps you make serotonin (a chemical that reduces anxiety, irritability and low moods). For example, start your day with two eggs, a piece of whole grain toast and butter. This meal will cause your blood sugar to go up just slightly, which means that not very much insulin is needed to bring your blood sugar back down after eating. Also, your blood sugar won't come crashing down resulting in low blood sugar. Remember that having blood sugar that's too high, or too low, can create a stress response in your body.

Many years ago I suffered from a panic attack while I was at the Mall of America. Anxiety is something I've been prone to having, and at this point in my life, I did not yet understand how balanced blood sugar could have prevented it. I was Christmas shopping at the mall fueled by several cups of coffee and not very much food. I found myself lost in the middle of the mall (lack of focus), weak (fatigue), anxious, crying, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I truly believe this would not have happened if I had skipped the coffee and eaten a balanced meal before my shopping excursion. Now, when I go shopping for an extended period of time, I eat a balanced meal right before I leave and I bring snacks in my purse to prevent low blood sugar.

The Final Word on Stress

If you find yourself experiencing the fight or flight feeling in response to your daily routine, look to your food habits. Poor choices like junk food, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, low-fat or low-protein diets, and skipping meals, only feed your body's stress response. In fact, they can increase cortisol and adrenaline production even when you don't consciously have anything to be to be upset or stressed about.

By balancing your meals with protein, fat, and healthy carbohydrates; eating five to six times per day; and avoiding processed foods, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol you are taking steps to prevent the fight or flight response. Also, when something comes up that is truly worth stressing about, you will be able to deal with the situation in a calmer and focused manner.


About the author

Kara knows the power of real food to heal almost any health concern—from anxiety to weight loss. She discovered the power of food for herself when she used nutrition to heal her insomnia. Kara received her M.A. in holistic health studies at the University of St. Catherine with an emphasis in herbology. She is nationally recognized as a certified nutrition specialist through the American College of Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist through the Minnesota Board of Dietetics and Nutrition.

View all posts by Kara Carper, MA, CNS, LN

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