Being a caregiver is stressful work. There is no doubt about it. The constant worry, emotional fatigue, interrupted sleep patterns, and the general hustle and bustle of care giving can cause a lot of stress.
While we can’t often change our care recipient’s situation, there are things we can do to help manage our own stress. Certainly exercise, taking time for one’s own needs, and meditation are good stress reducers. But concentrating on our nutritional intake is also a necessity in order to keep our stress level down.
We know that certain substances can actually increase the stress levels in the body. Caffeine is a big contributor. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee, cola, cocoa and caffeinated teas seem to supply the body with a boost of energy, but the caffeine really spikes adrenaline levels in the body. The production of adrenaline starts with the intake of caffeine, but after just awhile, the production of adrenaline slows down, and in effect the body feels lower energy. After this lower energy is felt, most people will turn to more caffeine or sugary foods to again spike the adrenaline levels in the body. Consuming caffeine on a consistent basis puts the body on an adrenaline seesaw which will only create more stress. Caffeine is also a diuretic (causing increased urination) which can also deplete the body of water, nutrients, and mess up the natural chemical balance of the brain.
The best way to counter this stress, is to replace caffeinated beverages with water. Water will not deplete the body of nutrients like caffeine does. It is important to drink enough water, because a dehydrated body does not perform at its peak. Dehydration can slow down the mentality of a person, making it hard to think, or physically move around. When someone is feeling mentally foggy and physically uncomfortable, it becomes hard to perform tasks that are usually quite easy to do. Being unable to get things done or to think clearly can make a person stressed out. Drinking plenty of water should keep the hydration levels of the body on an even keel, which in turn will make tasks and routines more easily accomplished. Adding a slice of lemon, lime or my new favorite, cucumber, can make drinking water more palatable. Also, be aware that some bottled waters add SALT (sodium) for increased flavor.
A couple of the nutrients that caffeinated beverages tend to deplete are vitamin B, magnesium and potassium. Stress, itself, can also cause a depletion of these nutrients. Ask your physician if a vitamin supplement might be a good addition to your diet.
Proteins are essential for maintaining good brain function. The amino acids in proteins release serotonin, dopamine, and tryptophan, which all have a calming effect on the mind. Consuming protein keeps these levels of serotonin, dopamine, and tryptophan consistent. Often when the body is feeling stressed, it is due to a depletion of one of these chemicals in the brain. Too often, people reach for sugary or white starchy foods to spike the serotonin in the brain. This spike in serotonin levels will eventually come down just as fast as it was raised. Continually reaching for sugary and starchy foods will create an imbalance of those essential calming chemicals in the brain, and the result of imbalanced or low levels of these chemicals is stress. The best way to keep the mind calm is to consume enough protein on a regular basis. This means to regularly reach for chicken, steak, and eggs rather than cookies, donuts or even protein bars which contain a lot of simple carbohydrates (sugars).
Carbohydrates release serotonin in the body, but white starchy carbohydrates are digested more quickly so will also release the serotonin more quickly. This means that the calming effects will last only a short time. Reach for more complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, “whole” (meaning unprocessed) vegetables, and raw nuts. These take a longer time to go through the body and digest meaning that they will not cause that high spike/low drop. The serotonins will be released at the same rate they are being absorbed in the body, meaning that the calming effects of the serotonin will last longer than they would if refined starches were consumed.
These kinds of complex carbohydrates will also work to avoid constipation. We all know how constipation can cause irritability, and physical discomfort thus leading to increased stress.
On a side note, the more ingredients found on the label of a food, the less nutritious it is for you. For example: almonds….contains JUST almonds. On the other hand, peanut butter, although it sounds very healthy (and does have some nutritional value) can read like this: peanuts, sugar, molasses, hydrogenated vegeatable oils, monoglycerides, diglycerides, salt. In general, frozen vegetables are more nutritious because they have less additives and preservatives.
Omega 3 fatty acids which can be found in salmon can literally stop stress hormones in their tracks. Eating enough omega 3 fatty acids by consuming 3 ounce portions of fish like salmon and light tuna two or three times a week can help to reduce stress.
Both overeating and undereating can be a reaction to stress, but they can also create stress, both physically and mentally. Experimenting with smaller portions and more frequent meals can help with both of these situations and will also be helpful to your care recipient who probably cannot tolerate larger meals. This sounds like more work, more stress, but it can be accomplished simply by eating a piece of fruit and a couple of whole wheat crackers.
By incorporating these habits little by little: drinking less caffeine, drinking more water, eating less simple-sugared foods and more complex carbohydrates, less processed foods and more “whole” foods, a healthier diet resulting in less stress will be yours in no time.
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