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Stress & the role of diet and exercise

We all face periods of stress in our lives from time to time. Sometimes this is a positive thing as it gives us huge energy to tackle chores, or dealing with a difficult situation, get organised or even fight infection. But stress that is constant, without a break, becomes damaging to your body and social wellbeing.

Understanding the stress response in our bodies is of great benefit – it allows us to be aware of when stress is starting to have an effect on our health, and to introduce some proven interventions to help us manage the strain and recover quickly.

Stress can be defined as the way that we react to a given situation, and that reaction can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health – and this, is of great benefit to us. Because understand our own “stress response” allows us to spot at an early stage the signals that we are beginning to struggle, and then lets us put in place some practical, and scientifically proven, ways to get through it. We can then try and reframe the stress response is also a positive way in order to help us manage our lives in a healthy and sustainable way.

Stress often defined as the “flight or fight” response as it triggers our endocrine system to release adrenaline and noradrenaline into the blood stream. This has an instant effect and can cause increased heart rate and breathing, increased muscle tension, dilation of pupils and arteries, improved hearing, and a release of free fatty acids into our blood stream. Brilliant if we are in a crisis situation and need to be alert and run fast, but not so useful when we sit at our desk and our heart pounds, we feel fear, noise is too loud, and lights are too bright. Don’t worry, we can mop up the adrenaline and help calm down in some simple ways.

We can find that we have an increasing irritability with the world as our stress rises, mainly due to the affect of increase cortisol in the body – also causing us to feel more anxious, or feeling low, making concentrating on tasks difficult and diminishing our ability to respond to daily life challenges effectively. We may also notice that our immune system gets depressed, and we pick up colds and viruses, or find cuts take longer to heal and an out break of spots or greasy skin. Over time, we can find that cortisol can also make us lose our energy levels, with that feeling of great difficulty in “getting going”, feeling constantly tired, and yet sleep not providing any refreshing relief.

Cortisol can also trigger “metabolic syndrome” changes where we increase the stored fat around our internal organs leading to more cardiometabolic health changes such as a larger waist, increased blood pressure, increased blood sugars leading to Type 2 Diabetes and higher cholesterol in the body putting a strain on our heart and fitness.

It seems sensible then to be able to tackle stress effectively to help protect our health, improve our mood and joy of living, sleep better, and support our immune system. Luckily, there is a wealth of research to support small lifestyle changes that will make you feel better. We know that we are able to access the body’s biochemicals through activity, our diet and time for wellbeing. These neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin are drivers of mental energy, they are essential for concentration, problem solving and underpin our resilience. Understanding how we can harness these natural anti-depressants so that we can help regulate our mood and increase our enjoyment and anticipation of a great life.

Here are 3 key stabilisers to stress:


Low to moderate activity has a positive effect on depression and anxiety. This means that the simple act of walking extra steps will help us mop us the adrenaline and noradrenaline, alongside using the free fatty acids circulating in our bloodstream and using up the white stored fat around our body.

This type of exercise needs to follow a rhythmic pattern where you walk continuously for at least 10 minutes. It can have and instant impact on your mood, which is further enhanced if we can manage to do this in an outdoor environment. We know that viewing a broader horizon, being able to have sunlight on our faces, or listening to the wind in the trees or the smell of the sea, all contribute to super boost the positive effect of exercise. Longer walks are of course also brilliant for our health – but sometimes a short walk around the block during the day or night when you are feeling overwhelmed is sufficient. Make time to do this on a regular basis to support your health and wellbeing – best thing is to do this first thing in the morning before work, take your flask of tea/coffee with you and go for a stroll.

However, there is great benefit in doing structured high intensity exercise as it has a positive effect on neuroplasticity – that is to say it makes our brains more resilient to stress. This can be done by following a cardio group workout, going to the gym, going for a run, or adding in some high intensity spurts in your walk like climbing up steps or a steep hill. I also find it feels good to have a more aggressive way to get out the stress with exercise that pushes up your heart rate, makes you sweat and closes out the world for 40 minutes. If you have health issues that preclude you from this, then just try sequences of brisk walking during your daily activity.

All types of daily activity and organise exercise improve our body functions, boost our immune system, and support neuroplasticity which slows down the ageing system. Make sure that you build this into your daily life.



Food also helps neurotransmission function and improves brain transmitter connectivity. Our choice of food can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety. We may not always be aware of how food interacts with our body as we often make our choices on the perception of what is “good” for us. We can sometimes think that food is a treat when we are stressed, and chose items that then further increase the body’s stress when it has an inflammatory response to what it has eaten. We know that certain foods can provide an anti-inflammatory response too, and these are the kinds of things we want to include so that our body is better able to process stress and reduce our health risks. Before listing and looking at this, it is worthwhile reframing how we “see” food, and make sure that we associate the food below as satisfying, healing, feel-good items and not to feel that we will be hungry, or that “healthy food is disgusting”. So much of our perceptions of food influence our choices – and as we said in the beginning, you have an influence on your stress and how you behave, so you too also have an influence on your food and how you perceive it impacts on our health. Start by seeing food as a positive healthy friend to support you when you are feeling low, stressed, anxious and depressed – but also that you know which food is the true friend, and which food causes you to feel worse.

Food supports brain development (at any age, so even when you are older), bone health, your cardiovascular system, mental health and aids restful sleep. We know that certain types of diets will consistently provide weight loss and improved health – especially those that moderate dairy, meat intake – that is not to exclude, but to be aware of how much of these we eat on a daily basis, and try to balance out with an increase in “plant based” food which would include beans, legumes as well as fruit and vegetables. Changing to use olive oil, avocados and nuts instead of saturated fats helps to protect our heart and immune system. Moderating alcohol and trying to consume during mealtimes is also of great benefit.

We know that a “westernised” diet is associated with increased depression, mild cognitive impairment, and ADHD, and that those who followed the guidelines above have nearly a 50% less chance of having depression. The diet above contains food that provides us with the building blocks for the neurotransmitters, they are anti-inflammatory, support health microbiome, rich in omega 3 and foster BDNF to help our brain to adapt and learn. Try to make small changes to your diet in the first instance, by adding more fruit and veg and reducing the amount of process sugar, and food that have undergone an external additional chemical process before it gets to your plate. More to follow on this next week.

Time out

Like rotating a field to be fallow, so that it can grow again, your body and mind also require time to reset and adjust at the end of each day. Taking the time to support your body to do this will reward you with better sleep, improve mood and clarity, boost your immune system, and many other health benefits. Time is the key to this – both as in time of the day, and the time you give to yourself.

When we first wake up, we tend to have a higher level of drive to action, so get done the chores that you find most taxing like the cold-water dip or the exercise session you need an extra bit of motivation for. And as the day progresses, you will find by mid-afternoon, this energy starts to wane and so start to do the things that you find easier to complete, or that you enjoy more – it might be like me that this is the time I love to walk the dogs, or that you practice the piano, sing, dance, exercise – whatever makes you feel good.

The end of the day is where we start to take steps to help our body unwind and reset. Light is key to this, and dimming the lights, reducing the blue light glare, reducing the food intake, or even stopping to eat from 8pm if you can, will all be of benefit. Melatonin is our biological sleep, and encouraging a good cycle of day and night contrast really helps our bodies to be able to process stress. Deep breathing is shown to reducing anxiety and practicing slow out breaths alongside both quick inbreaths and slow inbreaths can calm you down and make you feel more positive. Diary writing is also helpful as long as it does not feel like a chore – this is not the time of day to force yourself to do things you find challenging – willpower is low at this time of the day. Listen to music, read a book, have a hot bath, slow things down. Let your body heal.

I am going to finish with the sentence I started with – and that is that you influence your stress. Think about how to support your mind and body with the friends of activity, diet, and rest, but also lean on others for the social and emotional support that is so important to us humans. This too will pass. These things just help it pass quicker and stop it coming back sooner. Take Care of yourself – you matter x


Happy Café Hapus – changing perceptions on fitness & wellbeing

Rachel Hubbard


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