No matter what type of stress we are faced with, our bodies react via the same mechanism. As athletes, we are spending a good portion of our time putting stressors on our bodies for a desired performance outcome. While this type of stress is planned for and something that we are aiming to make adaptations from, it is a stress, nonetheless. The goal of this article is to help us learn how to minimize stress where we can and support our bodies using nutrition so we can cope with our training load and reach our goals without injury, fatigue, or eventual performance decline.
Both acute and chronic stressors cause the “fight-or-flight” response. During this response, hormones are released that result in pumping blood and oxygen quickly to our cells, increasing our heart rate and mental alertness. If this stress continues, the adrenal glands release cortisol, which stimulates the release of glucose into the blood, increases the brain’s use of glucose for energy and slows other body systems such as digestion to allow the body to focus on the stress response. This is not good as poor digestion can make us feel unwell and this in turn can be a source of stress.
These hormones do not return to normal levels until the stress passes. If the stress remains, there is a cascade effect that can lead to inflammation and cellular damage. With acute stress, the effect is brief and hormone levels will gradually return to normal. With chronic stress, hormone levels are consistently increased; this can result in many undesirable health outcomes such as:
- Digestive dysregulation
- Weight gain, especially visceral fat deposition
- Immune system disfunction
- Skin conditions
- Muscular pain
- Sleep disruption
- Anxiety and depression
Chronic stress can also impact the body’s use of calories and nutrients as stress creates higher demand for nutrients. Failing to eat a balanced diet can result in nutrient deficiency, which in itself is stressful. This creates a chain reaction that continues the chronic stress response that can result in the above heath issues. Stress can also induce eating behaviors that result in other health problems down the road. When we experience chronic stress, we may:
- crave comforting foods such as highly processed snacks or sweets, which are high in fat and calories but low in nutrients.
- feel too overwhelmed to prepare balanced meals.
- skip or forget to eat meals.
- use stimulants to increase energy such as with caffeine or high-calorie snack foods.
- have increased appetite due to leptin and ghrelin hormone imbalance from poor sleep quality and increased visceral fat deposition.
- make poor nutritional choices that further increase stress physiologically and mentally.
Here are some strategies on how to use nutrition to manage stress. Take your time implementing these strategies; the goal is not to increase your stress level trying to reduce stress. I suggest you pick one or two options to start with, get comfortable with them and then add another to your routine. After a few weeks, they will become a habit and you will feel like you are in control of supporting your body and reaching your performance goals.
Eat Regularly to Balance Your Blood Sugar
Fluctuation in your blood sugar is a stressful situation for your body. When we consume carbohydrates there is an increase in your blood sugar (glucose), initiating an insulin response to unlock the door to your cells, so that glucose can go into the cells, and out of the bloodstream. This process helps to bring your blood sugar levels back down to a normal range and provides the necessary energy for our cells to function.
Eating too many processed carbohydrates, when not participating in an athletic endeavour, or not in combination with protein and fats, stresses this process. Our body becomes resistant to this insulin response, which means that insulin is no longer able to unlock your cell doors, resulting in insulin resistance. As you become insulin resistant it becomes more and more difficult for the body to burn body fat, and easier and easier for you to gain weight, and this is stressful.
At the end of day, the simplest way to start balancing your blood sugar is to focus on whole foods. Whole foods are loaded with fibre, nutrients, proteins and fats. Ensure that all of your meals and snacks (when not participating in an activity) contain protein, unrefined carbohydrates and fats and eat smaller portions multiple times a day to keep your energy consistent and so you are not trying to process large meals at once.
Meal and Snack Prep
Knowing that it can be hard to make good meal and snack decisions when we are stressed and that is likely that we will crave refined carbohydrates, sugary and fatty items, it’s important to be prepared. When preparing your balanced meals, make extra servings and freeze them so you have them handy for those tough times. Have healthy snacks ready to go in your fridge so that it is just as easy to grab some veggies and hummus as it is to grab a handful of chips.
Include Adequate Protein in Each Meal
As athletes it is especially important to increase our protein intake. Ideally increase your protein intake to 1.2 to 1.5g per kilogram of bodyweight daily depending on your activity level. The more active you are, the more protein you should consume. The extra protein is needed to maintain muscle mass and strength, preserve bone mass, and prevent skeletal degeneration. Spread protein intake over three meals and snacks to improve the way your body absorbs and uses this nutrient.
When looking for good lean protein foods, you can utilize an omnivore diet or a plant-based diet. There are many options for both. When focusing on plant-based protein options, focus on getting in all 9 essential amino acids.
- Hemp hearts (10g per 3 Tbsp)
- Chia seeds (4g per 2 Tbsp)
- Quinoa (5g per serving)
- Soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh – about 9 grams per serving)
- Nuts & seeds (~5-6 grams per one ounce serving)
- Lentils, beans (~7 grams per half cup cooked serving)
- Rice, oats, buckwheat, millet (~4-6 grams per serving)
- Algae (spirulina, chlorella – about 6 grams per Tbsp)
The omnivore diet can be any kind of lean mea
t preferably bison or organic , beef, chicken, fish, and eggs.
- Organic, free-range eggs (6 grams protein per egg – half in yolk, half in white)
- Grass-fed, wild, organic meats, poultry, and fish (~25g per 3oz serving)
- Grass-fed whole milk cheese (~7g per ounce), yogurt (12g per 3⁄4 cup serving in full fat Greek yogurt), kefir (9g per one cup)
Fuel Your Body for Your Current Activity Level
Nutrient timing is super important. To get the most out of all the hard work that you put into your training, enhance tissue repair, improve mood, and not get into low energy availability, nutrient timing is one of the most critical aspects to consider. You want to think about what you are fueling with before, during and after your activity.
The amount of carbohydrates to take in before you workout will depend on the intensity and duration of your activity. If it’s short and easy (these two words together is important) then you don’t really need any or maybe a small, low glycemic load snack or meal if you haven’t eaten in a while. If your workout is intense or will be over 90 min then take in approximately 1-1.5g/ kg BW around 1-3 hours prior to exercise. You should choose easily digestible foods that will sit well in your stomach. The time before is individual and will also depend on the type of workout. If it’s a really hard session like a track workout or VO2 max intervals, you may want to eat closer to the 3-hour mark but if it’s an easy endurance ride you may be able to eat even up to 30 min before. It’s important to test what will work for you.
If your session is short and easy (again, these two words together are important) then you don’t need to fuel during your activity as long as you eat well balanced meals throughout the day. If you plan a session with intensity or are going for longer than 90 minutes, you will need to plan to take in some nutrition during your workout.
If your workout will be hard or long, aim for approximately 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour and consider adding electrolytes to your hydration strategy if your workout will be longer than 90 min.
Ideally you want to time your intake so that you will ingest small doses of carbs, evenly spaced out throughout the entire workout. I suggest you start fueling within the first 15-20 min of starting your workout and keep a steady flow every 15-20 min after that. This will be an individual process, but these smaller doses will allow you to process what you’ve taken in before adding more to your digestive system. While you are exercising under intensity or for a long time, you have limited blood flow to your digestive system to allow for absorption and distribution of the nutrition that you take in. If you take in too much at one time you could get a back up and potentially digestive distress, and no one wants that. Try different options and see what works for you and the best timing system based on the activity you’re doing.
Post workout is the most important nutrient timing to pay attention to, and this is what I will focus on today. We have all had training sessions that were harder than planned or went longer than anticipated. Usually, you feel okay and get the session completed. The key is to support your recovery from that situation and each session you do, so that you are ready and able to hit your next target and intensity goal. We know that we need that strong neuromuscular stimulation and force along with a protein dose to achieve our goals when estrogen is low. And in order to hit that target, you need to recover well from your last workout. My philosophy is that you are not really fueling your current workout but preparing your body for your next one.
Ideally, you want to have your post workout recovery nutrition, with a protein dose, within 30 minutes. A base estimate is about a 40-gram dose, including 3.5-4grams of leucine, with your other essential amino acids. This dose sends a signal to the body to stop the breakdown response of exercise, reduce cortisol, and works with the exercise stress to stimulate that anabolic response that estrogen used to give us to build lean mass and keep our skeletal muscles strong and working for us.
Eat Your Greens
Dark leafy greens including kale, spinach, arugula, and chard are low in calories, yet high in fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients that have many benefits for your body above and beyond helping to reduce stress. Leafy greens contain the compound chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, which enhances our tolerance for oxidative stress (and we generate a lot of oxidative stress when we exercise).. They also contain antioxidants that aid in recovery.
Dark leafy greens are among the best sources of magnesium, and magnesium intake can calm stress, improve mood and enhance sleep. All beneficial in reducing stress. They also contain folate, a vitamin that helps produce the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. Incorporating leafy greens into your diet can help lower blood glucose levels, increase vitamin C for immune system and adrenal support and provide adequate fibre for optimal elimination to remove waste from the body, further reducing stresses on the body.
Include Omega 3’s
A key benefit of omega-3 fatty acids is in reducing inflammation. While exercise is a form of stress that we want to put on our bodies, there is still an inflammatory response from the production of free radicals, a by-product of generating energy.
Omega-3 fatty acids help support your body by counteracting inflammation, keep the lining of your arteries smooth and clear, which allows the maximal amount of oxygen-rich blood to reach your working muscles. All these benefits reduce the overall stress on your body. Here are a few ways to incorporate them into your diet:
- eat at least 3 ounces of omega-3-rich fish twice a week
- add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily to your oatmeal or smoothie
- add 1 ounce of walnuts to a salad and yogurt or eat alone as a snack
Focus on foods containing Vitamins B and C, and Magnesium
The complex of B vitamins contributes to many functions in the body from helping to release energy from food, supporting red blood cell production, aiding in digestion and can help you feel more energetic after a stressful episode. Incorporate these foods into your diet to get all eight B vitamins:
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)
- Meat (red meat, poultry, fish)
- Eggs and dairy products (milk, cheese)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Dark, leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale)
- Fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas)
The adrenal glands contain the largest store of vitamin C in the body and are important in the production of stress hormones. Vitamin C also plays a role in immune responses, is a powerful antioxidant, is a component of collagen and
helps make several other hormones and chemical messengers used in the brain and nerves. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C:
- Citrus (oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit)
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower)
As mentioned above, magnesium intake can calm stress, relax muscles, improve mood, and enhance sleep, all beneficial in reducing stress. Increase your magnesium intake by eating:
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Dark, leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale)
- Dark chocolate (75-85%) yay!
You can also take a relaxing bath with a good handful of Epsom salts as these contain magnesium that can be absorbed through your skin. And who doesn’t find a nice relaxing soak a good option to reduce stress?
Support Your Sleep
Given the significant implications for performance, health, and general well-being, it’s important to establish a good sleep hygiene routine and monitor how your new habits are supporting you. I suggest you keep a sleep journal and track alertness, rate of perceived effort, injuries, illness, etc.
Establish a Bedtime Routine
- Aim for a routine that will allow you to do the same things every night before bed. This will help to establish the habit.
- Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before bed. Large meals or snacks too soon to lying down can impair your sleep as your body is focused on digestion and not sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine within four to six hours of bedtime. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, you may need to eat your dark chocolate at lunch instead of after dinner.
- Limit your sugar. Ideally you should be eating your fast acting carbohydrates around your workouts already, but as it also acts as a stimulant, it will impair your sleep. It’s also a good idea to limit sugar for the overall health benefits.
- When you feel sleepy, go to bed. Your body is telling you something so don’t try to push through it.
- Try your best to keep a regular sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time. This is fantastic for regulating your circadian rhythm.
Try Some Herbal Remedies
- Add some essential oils to your diffuser. Try using calming oils like Lavender, Rose or Ylang Ylang.
- Herbal teas like Tulsi, Chamomile and Valerian help to relax the nervous system. Consume with enough time to get in one last bathroom stop before bed.
- California Poppy, Lemon Balm, Passionflower are other supplements that help to relax the nervous system. Always read the labels to check for contraindications first or talk to your health professional.
Nourish Your Body for Sleep
You’ve already done your daily exercise, had your last meal 2 hours before bed and put away your electronics. Now you can add a final drink of tart cherry and magnesium bisglycinate to your routine.
- Drink tart cherry juice. Just 1/2 a cup (or 2 Tbsp of concentrate) will help as it contains the amino acid called, L-Tryptophan, that increases your body’s production of melatonin.
- Tart cherry juice also contains anthocyanins, which are anti-inflammatory compounds that may help recovery and performance.
- Waking in the middle of the night may be from low blood sugar, tart cherry juice before bed can keep this stable while supporting recovery.
- Magnesium bisglycinate or citrate helps to relax muscles and support your nervous system.
- Avoid magnesium oxide, which is a stool softener and probably much less helpful for your sleep.
Reduce stress where you can, support your body’s ability to cope with stress and you will ultimately be able to make the adaptations from your training, recover better and perform the way you want to.
Eat and relax well!
Sports Holistic Nutritionist
Strength and Conditioning Coach