Plant Powered Stress Management
Get a full night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and take the morning to clear your head with a walk, a run, or some music. This is the mantra of midterms and finals, the advice we hear from just about every professor right before a major exam. And thankfully so, for it is good advice! The message is clear: stress does not help performance. This is true in all aspects of our lives, be it test-taking, a busy work day, a hard work out, or even mood and relationships. In this case, however, the devil is in the details: what does “a good breakfast” really mean? And why is this advice only ever given right before the exam?
Even if they are the famed ‘best years of our lives,’ our college years are stressful. Between days full of classes, labs and group meetings, and nights (or even the dreaded ‘all-nighters’) of readings, papers and lab reports, stress seems unavoidable, and often unmanageable. If we’re not careful, it doesn’t take long to become completely overwhelmed and lose sight of the bigger picture. So what’s a college student to do?
There are two broad categories of stress, short-term and long-term (or chronic) stress, and what we eat is deeply relevant to both. Short-term stress, the body’s normal coping mechanism to challenging or stimulating situations, is generally a good thing. Whether you’re getting ready to ace that test or getting ready to run for your life, the body is flooded with stress hormones that trigger the fight-or-flight response, temporarily increasing breathing, heart rate and blood pressure and decreasing digestion and immune responses, in order to allocate your body’s energy to where it’s most needed. The problem comes when our stressors are a daily part of our lives and these stress hormones become persistent in our bodies. The effects of long-term stress can take a serious toll on the body: anxiety, depression, suppression of the immune system, uncontrolled weight gain or loss, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, stomach ulcers, infertility, and early signs of aging are all possible and all too common outcomes.
So where does diet come into this picture? A better question would be where doesn’t diet come into this picture! What we eat can (and does) affect our stress response in one of two ways:
(1) The Standard American Diet stresses the body. So let’s say that before that big exam you eat a “hearty” breakfast of a three egg, two cheese, ham omelet and a side of white bread French toast with maple syrup, to make sure that you walk into the test loaded with energy and ready to go. Well, the meat and dairy from your omelet now have your liver working full force to process the excess of animal protein that your body can neither use nor store for energy. The refined sugars and carbohydrates in the syrupy French toast now spike your blood sugar levels, causing a panicked response in the body to flood your system with insulin, leading quickly to a crash. Thus, due to this one, single meal that you thought would energize you, your body has already fatigued itself by trying to process the antagonistic foods that you’ve fed it.
Over the long term, a poor diet of animal products and highly processed, calorie-dense foods exhausts the body through nutritional stress, depriving the body of vital nutrients that it needs to manage this stress, and contributing to the very same ailments as chronic stress (such as negative moods, weight gain and heart disease) through different mechanisms, compounding the effects. Ironically, many try to manage stress with the ‘comfort’ of the very foods that contribute to and aggravate stress, digging themselves further into the hole. Luckily, your firefighting friends at E2 have arrived to throw you a line!
(2) A whole food, plant-based diet prepares the body for the short-term stress response when it needs it, while preventing, reducing and reversing the adverse effects of long-term stress. Let’s say that omelet had actually been a plate of breakfast greens with black beans and salsa, and that the side of French toast had been a bowl of oats with berries and a handful of nuts. Now your body is full of easily digestible, nutrient-rich and long-lasting, energizing foods that are sure to get you through your test and well into your day with everything your brain and body needs to succeed! Instead of having your body work for its food, you’ve had your food work for your body, leaving it fresh and fueled for whatever challenges the day has in store for it.
And if the yumminess of your breakfast didn’t brighten your day enough to get you off to a stress-free start (although we’ll bet you a papaya that it will), you can rest easy knowing that a whole food, plant based diet has a host of ways to stress-proof your body! By helping you manage stress hormones, boosting your immune system, your cardiovascular health and your mood, and ultimately keeping you young and vivacious, a plant strong diet makes sure that a little stress is nothing you can’t handle.
Studies show that most stresses in our lives source from the things that we can’t control. Diet does not need to be one of them! Take control of your diet, and you’ll get a leg-up over stress to keep you happy, healthy, productive and plant-strong. Swap out the bag of potato chips for a bowl of leafy greens and you’ll realize that “stress-eating” can actually be beneficial, given you’re eating the foods that counteract your internal stress instead of adding to it. And if you’re stressed because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, recognize that taking just one of those hours to throw together a scrumptious, plant-strong meal and enjoy it with friends and family is probably just what you need to keep your body happy, your mind sharp and your stress levels in check. Plus, if you cook in bulk, then you can freeze the leftovers and save yourself the need to cook for the rest of the week!
The holiday season in particular, while a fantastic opportunity to spend time with loved ones and celebrate the things that really matter, is inevitably chock full of stressors that we could all do without. Whether it’s holiday shopping, party planning, final exams or simply bad weather, things tend to pile up quickly. But you can rest assured that by eating right every day, you’ll be focused, energized and happy to turn every challenge into a step forward and every hassle into headway. With a belly full of plants and a brain full of positive attitude, you’ll be ready for any test that life has to throw at you!
-The College Greens