by Andrea Bryant, MS, RD, LD
Springtime is a beautiful time of year. The days get longer and there are more activities and gatherings outside. This time of year can also bring challenges and stress. Schedules become fuller with the end of the school year, testing and exams, sport practices, recitals and performances, extracurricular activities, family gatherings and holidays, vacations, weddings, and the list goes on. It is common to hear that there is so much to do yet so little time. How does a person handle the extra challenges and stress?
One good rule of thumb is to go back to the basics. The basics are sleep, diet, and self-care. It seems counterintuitive, but prioritizing the basics allows one to better handle the challenges and stressors that come.
1) Sleep is important in both physical and emotional health and wellbeing. It affects nearly every type of tissue and system in the body. Although the functions of sleep are complex and not fully known, sleep does have an effect on memory and learning, mood, and brain function. Sleep also helps the body to repair and recover cells and tissues physically, maintain the balance of hormones, and helps the immune system function adequately. These are all reasons why adequate sleep has been shown to improve memory and learning, increase creativity, and help in problem solving and making decisions. Sleep needs vary depending on age.
2) A balanced diet is also important in overall wellbeing. The body relies on carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins and minerals from our diet to function. In order to function adequately, a well-balanced diet is needed to meet the body’s requirements.
- Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars such as glucose. Glucose is the primary source of energy for cells in the body. The brain consumes glucose as an energy source more than any other cell in the body. Multiple vitamins and minerals are needed for glucose to be converted into energy. The ability of the brain to use glucose effectively is tied to thinking, learning, and memory. Glucose metabolism is tied to the brain being able to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin. When under stress, eating carbohydrates such as oatmeal and whole grain breads, breakfast cereals, and pastas can help the body mediate the stress response and stabilize blood sugar levels. An added bonus to eating these carbohydrates is that they also have good amounts of B vitamins, which are needed for carbohydrate metabolism as well as managing the stress response. Adding in foods with vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, cherries, kiwis, berries, lychees, and broccoli to name a few, helps with carbohydrate metabolism, promotes collagen synthesis and supports the immune system. Magnesium is a mineral that is also needed to help carbohydrate metabolism. It is essential to hundreds of metabolic reactions in the body, from brain function and mood to cardiovascular function, and is needed for whole body health. Good sources of magnesium in the carbohydrate category include dark chocolate, whole grains, and bananas. Magnesium is also found in nuts, seeds, yogurt, and leafy greens.
- Proteins regulate metabolic reactions, help the body fight against infections, and are involved in neurotransmission. Proteins are involved in every tissue and system in the body to some degree including the muscular system, cardiovascular system, brain and the immune system. Proteins are broken down into amino acids. Essential amino acids, from our diet, are needed by the body to function properly. A good example would be the amino acid tryptophan (an essential amino acid), which is converted into serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and can then be converted into melatonin. Serotonin is commonly known for its effect on mood, but it also has effects on the immune system, food intake, and sleep. Also, about 95% of serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract. To help with stress, good sources of protein containing tryptophan include nuts, seeds, lentils, eggs, beans, turkey, and tofu.
- Fats include compounds in the cell membrane bilayer, coatings for myelin sheath in the brain, triglyceride compounds, as well as steroid and messenger compounds. Essential fatty acids are fat compounds needed by the body to function and must be consumed through the diet. Two common fatty acids are the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are essential in helping the body with inflammation responses (immune system), vision, and are essential for nervous system function including brain health. Good sources of fats in the diet include fish such as salmon and tuna, avocados, and nuts and seeds.
3) Self-care is important to overall health and includes both adequate sleep and a well-balanced diet. It also includes taking time to enjoy the world around you and giving your body, mind, and soul space to recharge. This calms the body and allows it to function better. Self-care looks different for each person. It could include spending time with friends, reading and/or journaling, taking a bubble bath, being creative by making something or decorating, being in nature, planting flowers or herbs, and listening to music. In times of challenges and stress, it seems most logical to skip self-care. However, taking a break for self-care is often the best option to gain perspective and be refueled to handle the stress. Some practical ways to practice self-care may include:
- Add in a snack before bed. This calms the body and can help the body produce melatonin for a good night sleep.
- Set a bedtime and wake-up time each day. Aim for adequate sleep to feel ready for the day ahead!
- Give yourself some free time. Allow yourself to be present in the moment. Take time to reflect on what is important and what matters most in life.
Although it is counterintuitive, the best plan to managing challenges and stress that comes is to prioritize the basics. By making adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and self-care a priority, the whole body is fueled to meet the challenges that come more effectively.
Andrea Bryant, RD, LD, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She received her B.S and M.S in chemistry from Furman University and completed her M.S in Food Science and Human Nutrition at Clemson University. Andrea teaches at a local college and works at a behavioral health facility. She has experience in a variety of clinical, behavioral, and educational settings working with children, adolescents, and adults.