Caution - Under Stress! How to Eat and Exercise to Make It Through the Tough Times

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I’m in the middle of one of those stressful times in my graduate school program when several 20-plus page papers are all due on an extremely tight timeline. In fact, my brain feels like it is cramping (but please don’t tell my doctoral chairman).

    I’m sure I’m not alone. We all seem to get in those time crunches periodically when it feels like everything is closing in around us and we can’t see the forest from the trees. So what can you do to ease the stress level?

    First of all, you can look at your diet. Women’s Health Magazine’s website noted that certain foods can actually calm you down when you are under stress. Their recommendations include:

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    -    Almonds, pistachios and walnuts. Almonds have vitamin E, which boosts the immune system, and B vitamins, which may help your body deal with stress. A handful of walnuts or pistachios have been shown in research to lower blood pressure when you’re under stress.
    -    Avocados. The thick, rich texture may help you avoid overindulging in the bad stuff (such as ice cream). And avocadoes have monounsaturated fat and potassium, which together can lower blood pressure.
    -    Skim milk. It turns out that calcium can reduce muscle spasms and ease tension.
    -    Oatmeal.  The carbohydrates in high-fiber oatmeal assist the brain in producing serotonin, which helps your brain relax. Women’s Health recommends taking the time to make the old-fashioned oatmeal (also known as steel-cut oatmeal), which takes longer to digest, thus keeping your serotonin levels high for a longer period of time.
    -    Oranges – The vitamin C in OJ helps people feel less stressed. Additionally, blood pressure and cortisol levels return to normal levels faster after eating oranges and other fruits that are high in vitamin C.
    -    Spinach – Magnesium helps to lower stress levels. Also increasing magnesium levels may help you feel less fatigued.
    -    Salmon – This fatty fish has omega-3 fatty acids, which lowers cortisol and adrenaline levels, and also protects against heart disease. I had already tried out this research when it was shared by Dr. Mehmet Oz on a 2007 edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show (which I wrote about for's Alzheimer's site). Dr. Oz suggested eating fatty fish when facing stressful situations. At the time, I was dealing with my mother (who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease as well as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) who had just been taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital for observation. My tendency would have been to run for the comfort food (which, for me, is cheese). Instead, I made sure that when Dad and I ate out after visiting Mom in the hospital, I would opt for salmon or another type of fatty fish. Making that commitment to watching my diet was important to lowering my stress level during that time as well as the weeks that followed since Mom ended up dying soon after that stay in the hospital.

    When you’re under stress, you also may want to find a way to squeeze in a little exercise. I have to admit that because of those upcoming deadlines, I’ve limited my workouts. However, I have noticed that if I take the dogs for a quick walk around the block, I will return with a refreshed body and brain and find myself ready to plunge back into the books. I also have been grabbing the hand weights to exercise during the nightly news. I’ve been doing lunges and squats, but the weight-lifting exercises I’ve appreciated the most have been focused on the arms and shoulders since I find that I put my extra stress in my shoulders and neck (not to mention that those muscles are tight from sitting at the computer all day). The other exercise break that I’m planning on taking soon is a little raking since I still have lots of tree pollen as well as some old leaves in my yard. I’m anticipating that the fresh air, the repetitive exercise, and the time spent away from graduate school papers will do my mind (and body) some good.

  • Stressful times do happen. Sometimes we have to plow right through with our nose to the grindstone. When those times happen, your body (and mind) will thank you if you are as thoughtful about what you eat and how you exercise as you are about the task at hand.

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Published On: April 13, 2010