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Can Stress “Undo” the Benefits of Eating Healthy?

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Most fitness and health practitioners focus on “the big three:” nutrition, exercise, and sleep and the role they play in health. No doubt, these are all vitally important for good health. Yet, there’s something left out of the equation – stress. The role stress plays in how good you feel and the risk of developing chronic health problems is often underplayed. In fact, a new study shows that even if you eat a healthy diet, stress can override the health benefits you get from eating a healthy diet.

What the Study Showed

In this study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers divided women, some of whom were breast cancer survivors, into two groups One group ate a morning meal rich in unhealthy fats, similar to a typical fast-food breakfast. The other group ate a breakfast high in monounsaturated fats, a form of fat you find in heart-healthy foods, like nuts and olive oil. Both groups ate each breakfast on two separate days. Before and after, the researchers measured inflammatory markers and other markers predictive of future disease risk, especially heart disease. As expected, inflammatory markers rose more when the women ate the unhealthy breakfast. In total, the researchers measured four inflammatory markers and all four were higher in the women who ate the unhealthy meal.  No surprise here!

Here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers also questioned the women about their level of stress they were under using a questionnaire called the Daily Inventory of Stressful Events survey. What they found was women who scored high on the stress survey showed an increase in inflammatory markers even when they ate the healthier breakfast. In other words, stress seemed to negate the protective benefits the healthy breakfast offered. In fact, their inflammatory markers were more consistent with participants who had eaten the unhealthy, fast food type meal.

Stress Impacts Health Too

What does this study suggest? Even if you eat a healthy diet, uncontrolled stress can still create an unhealthy, inflammatory state. That’s important because research now links inflammation to a variety of chronic health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and some types of cancer. Although inflammation is helpful when you have a cut or injury, this type of inflammation is self-limited. It comes and is gone just as quickly. However, chronic, low-grade inflammation, the kind you can’t feel or even know you have, sticks around and damages tissues and the lining of blood vessels. We focus on diet as a way to ease inflammation – but shouldn’t we also focus on stress management?

The Link Between Stress and Inflammation

Researchers at Carnegie Melon University looked at the link between stress and inflammation in a 2012 study. What they found was that long-term stress changes the way cortisol, the stress hormone, behaves. In the short-term, cortisol release stymies inflammation, at the expense of suppressing your immune system. However, as the researchers found in this study, over the longer term, immune cells lose their sensitivity to cortisol. This allows inflammation to proceed unchecked – not what you want by any means.

Based on this study, it’s not just a bad diet, lack of sleep, smoking, and exposure to toxins in the environment that fuel inflammation. Stress can do it too. Yet, stress is something we can’t control as easily as diet. Unless we live in a controlled environment, we’re forced to deal with stress every day. So, what’s the best way to calm stress and cool the flames of inflammation?

The Ultimate Stress Reliever: Exercise 

Stress relief may not be the number one reason you exercise but it’s one of the many benefits of working up a sweat. Not only does exercise help you deal with your worries, it has anti-inflammatory benefits independent of how it impacts your body’s response to stress. Research shows that contracting muscles release anti-inflammatory chemicals called myokines. These chemicals may explain some of the health benefits that exercise offers.

Exercise also enhances your body’s ability to handle another type of stress – cellular stress and oxidative damage. Studies show that exercise strengthens your body’s own natural defenses against oxidative damage. In a sense, exercise is the ultimate antioxidant. When you exercise, it transiently creates free radicals. These free radicals activate your body’s natural free radical defense system. This transient rise in free radicals partially explains why exercise improves insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. The key is the free radical increase is brief and your body adapts to become better at dealing with them.

Other Stress Management Strategies

As effective as exercise is for relieving stress, it’s dose dependent. You eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. Exercising without giving your body adequate time to rest between workouts can have the opposite effect – it may trigger bodily stress and an inflammatory state. Your body adapts in a positive manner to the stress you place on it – up to a point. A behavior scientist, Hans Seyle, coined the term “general adaptation syndrome” to describe how your body adapts to exercise.

As you know, working out places physical stress on your body. This stress initially compromises bodily function. In response, your body adapts to become stronger and better able to deal with the new stressor. However, you can exceed your body’s ability to adapt. If the stress continues without giving your system adequate rest and recovery, your body’s adaptive ability is exhausted. As you might expect, this is harmful to your health. So, some degree of stress, as long as it’s short-term in nature, is beneficial because it forces your body to adapt. However, chronic stress is likely to be harmful.

The Bottom Line 

Stress doesn’t get the attention it deserves. As this study shows, uncontrolled stress can override the good things you do to protect your health, like eat a healthy diet. So, why not make it part of the equation? Adopt a four-pronged approach to health – nutrition, exercise, sleep AND stress management. There’s no doubt that stress exerts widespread effects on your body and it’s a force to be reckoned with. Balance intense workouts with lighter days where you stretch or do a yoga workout. Your body needs to be challenged but it also needs time to rest and recover.

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