Eat, Sleep, Breathe: Three Ways to Mitigate Stress

As residents of a technological age, not only have we learned how to automate our coffee machines, do our shopping online, and condense the work of three people onto one, we are also taking on longer working days, which leave us tired and stressed at the end of the day. The reality of modern life is that it is going to be pressured and harried. That’s simply the reality for most of us.

But within that framework, we can make choices that will minimize stress, beat back cortisol (a hormone released when under stress, that not only triggers our fat cells to hold onto fat but also slows the body’s metabolic rate) and other stress hormones, and help us achieve overall health and wellness.

1. Breathing. This may seem obvious—after all, you have to breathe no matter what, right? But few of us breathe deeply or consciously. Think about it—when was the last time you took a long, slow, deep breath, and equally slowly let it out again? Deep breaths of that kind take you out of your immersion in momentary stress, they oxygenate your brain and tissues, and they help to reduce stress hormones. Take breathing breaks throughout the day, or, better yet, pair those breaks with a quiet walk to disassociate from the stress. Just a couple of minutes of walking, a few long, deep breaths, and you will start to see the results in your body.

2. Sleeping. Adequate sleep is a key component to stress management (1) and when you are tired, you are more prone to irritation and making poor decisions. But sleep also plays a role in overeating, and consequently may be further enhanced by stress. Sleep deprivation can raise levels of ghrelin, a hormone that causes the sensation of hunger. So if you don’t get enough sleep (at least six hours), you may find yourself unusually hungry the next day—and sooner or later you may break down and snack on the most immediate source of satiation: sugar, fats and simple carbohydrates. And if you remain sleep deprived over time, those calories really start to add up, as can your stress levels.

3. Eating. Look, it doesn’t really matter how organic and preservative-free your food is if you eat it in a hurry and in the company of other distractions, such as eating while answering emails. When you eat unconsciously your brain is cheated of the sensory experience that accompanies hunger and can fail to send signals of satiation to your body (2). Alternatively, when you eat too quickly, the feeling of fullness is delayed, and you tend to overeat. Either way, you get hungry very soon, and in your distracted state, are liable to idly grab a handful of cookies to take care of the problem.

One of the best ways to avoid unconscious eating is the start your day off with a healthy and balanced breakfast. By eating breakfast within one hour of waking up, you will increase your metabolism, maintain an alert and clear mind, enhance memory and improve cognitive abilities, all of which help to mediate stress. Try these two breakfast recipes from my new book, Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes (HCI, October 2013) for a healthy, low stress start to your day:

Cacao Blueberry Maca Shake
Serves 1

At the height of their empire, Incan warriors consumed maca before entering into battle, believing it would give them strength and endurance. While less extreme, a high stress load can often lead to an inner battle, thus throwing off one’s internal, homeostatic clock. Maca isn’t only a concentration and immunity booster, but also an adaptogen, whereby it helps with hormonal balance and can bring one’s energy and mood back into balance. Have this shake in the morning and experience the energy-boosting power of maca plus the double antioxidant power of blueberries and cacao.

Ingredients:
1 cup milk of choice
1 tablespoon maca
1 tablespoon cacao
¾ cup blueberries, frozen or fresh
Protein powder of choice (add according to manufacturer’s directions)

Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Enjoy.

Quinoa Brex
Serves 4

Quinoa has long been a staple of Peruvian cuisine and by itself is a complete protein containing 21 amino acids, 10 of which are essential to our diets. Not only does the high protein and fiber content of quinoa keep you fuller for longer, but also regular consumption of certain amino acids, antioxidants, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids found in quinoa have been associated with increased brain function. I love using quinoa as an alternative to oatmeal. Served warm with fruit or nuts, it’s filling, comforting and delicious—with extra protein to kick-start the day!

Ingredients:
1 cup quinoa, dry
2 cups water
1 banana, mashed
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
Pinch of salt

Directions:
Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan and stir to combine. Bring the water to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the quinoa is cooked, roughly 15 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves. Enjoy!

References:
1. Coe, S. (2011). Can a poor night’s sleep stop you from losing body fat? Nutrition
Bulletin, 36, 99‒101.
2. Rozin, P. et al. (2003). The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science, 14(5), 450-454.

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