Nutritional stress: is your food stressing you out?

by | Jun 3, 2018 | Mindfulness

I’ve just come back from several weeks of intensive mind, body, spirit detoxing. The biggest takeaways have to do with health, but I can’t tackle the entire subject of health in a 1,000 or so words, so I’m going to share what’s really got me all abuzz right now: internal stress, external stress with a larger focus on nutritional stress. I’m back in the real work with a mind filled with exciting realizations, so let’s get started!

External stress

What do you think about when you think about stress? You think about situation like those I described in ‘Living Peacefully with Stress,’ perhaps? Meetings, deadlines or traffic. Those are called external stressors and we are all very familiar with them. They make us uneasy and we can’t control them.

Internal stress

What do you think of when you think about internal stressors? Did you immediately think about personal expectations, being a perfectionist or maybe perceptions? Those are just a few of stress that we impose on ourselves, or internal stresses. Unfortunately , we create our own internal stress, so it is self-induced. Most of us know that stress impacts our health. No matter what kind of stress, internal or external, the symptoms are more or less the same.

“No matter what kind of stress, internal or external, the symptoms are more or less the same.”

—Pamela J. Alexander

Nutritional stress

Did you know that there is another, equally deadly, kind of internal stresses? It’s bad nutrition. I’ve known that it’s important to eat right. We all know that, right? But I never thought of eating poorly as stressful. As “research continues, there is an increased understanding that the gut and brain interact with each other on a variety of levels. There’s also ongoing research into how stress interacts with the body’s immune system, which may affect healing.” Long story short, generally speaking we can say that the body responds to poor nutrition in the same way it does any other kind of stress!

Symptoms of stress

Here are just a few of the symptoms:

  • Low energy.
  • Headaches.
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea.
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles.
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat.
  • Insomnia.
  • Frequent colds and infections.
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Etc.


“Every human has four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change.”

—Stephen Covey

Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor for United Healthcare writes, “Whether internal or external, stressors can usually be managed. Sometimes you can learn to respond to the stressor differently. You may try stress-relief techniques [like meditation, deep breathing, etc.]. And sometimes adjusting your thinking to a positive attitude can help. Eating a well-balanced diet and staying active with exercise also are important tools in helping manage stress.” See entire article here. Here are some simple things that I have adopted to help keep nutritional stress at bay.

Good-Better-Best principle

I’ve adopted the whole farm to table idea, eat whole, organic and local food philosophy. Until I have my own home with kitchen garden, chickens, a few goats with a hydroponic greenhouse to keep my philosophy in balance with reality, I’ve also adopted the Good-Better-Best Principle. What’s that? The idea is to eat the best foods you can and not worry if and when you can’t. For example, for me, GMO and fake fish products are bad, so I avoid them, period. Commercially raised fish is good. But BPA-free canned or frozen wild-caught fish is better. And fresh, local wild-caught fish is best. The Good-Better-Best Principle reminds me that eating real, whole food is not an all or nothing proposition. It keeps me from getting involved in semantic food arguments like “What do you mean margarine is bad? Wonder if it is made out from olive oil?” And it ensures that perfectionism doesn’t devour me. Here’s a nice infographics that expands on the principle nicely.

80/20 rule 

Going further with this idea I want to be healthy, but I want to enjoy life too. What is life without the holidays, birthdays and celebrations, right? To that end, the Good-Better-Best Principle works really well with the 80/20 rule. Simply stated, 80% of the time fill eat fresh, whole foods like veggies, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, dairy, lean meats, and fish. Your 20% of the time eat what you want, though it’s best to stick to foods you truly love. “Those treats will give you the biggest boost of satisfaction.” See full article here. The goal is to eat healthy, but again not to stress over it. Perfection does not equal winning in this game. Seeking perfection is often stressful and that’s what we are trying to avoid!


I drink a glass of water every 2 hours or so. I was reassured when at a workshop in the UK a few weeks back, the presenter said that a 5% loss of water in the body leads to a 33% loss in brain function. I was floored and asked her to repeat herself just to make sure I understood correctly! While I have yet to find the citation to support that particular claim, I’ve found lot of others that support the general idea. So the final piece to the how to reduce nutritional stress puzzle is drink water. In a 2017 report, clinical scientist, Natalie Prose Ph.D., suggests that 1) attention, memory, or executive functions are impaired in mildly dehydrated schoolchildren and the elderly, 2) adults experience a clear and consistent worsening of mood when dehydrated and 3) performance is often impaired in adults when dehydrated. You know where I’m going with this right? And dehydration seems to result in the same kinds of stress reaction and response in the body as all other internal and external stresses, which may specifically include slow metabolism and constipation. Research also links it with depression, fear and anxiety!

There you have it. There are three kinds of stress: internal stress, external stress and nutritional stress. They all have the same kind of effect on the body. Usually nutritional stress is looked at as tool to manage stress rather than a cause of stress in and of itself. Still, despite the fact that the focus is usually on internal and external stress, even with those two areas in relative balance, if we are nutritionally out of balance our bodies can still experience high levels of stress. Because of what I know about stress and its effects, I’ve shared my cornerstones for dealing with nutritional stress: the Good-Better-Best Principle, the 80/20 rule and drinking lots of water. There’s nothing mind-blowing here, but looking at the same end-game from a new direction can sometimes be the difference between failure and success.

What do you think? Anything you can add? Leave a comment!

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