One of the easiest ways to repair your body after a period of stress or mistreatment is through adequate nutrition and natural supplementation.
Remember though, none of these changes to your diet or the addition of supplements will work if you don’t pair them with proper rest and other necessary lifestyle changes (e.g. more sleep, meditation and the other tips I posted in part one of this blog!) - so implement these steps wisely and be realistic about what they can achieve for you.
Eating to reduce stress and balance hormones.
I’ve always prided myself on my diet and how many healthy foods I consume on a daily basis….but that doesn’t mean my diet has necessarily been ideal or effective in meeting what my body truly needs. The past few weeks have made me realise that there are definitely some tweaks I need to make to my diet, and that I need to start eating more purposefully and mindfully - irrespective of my macros, any preconceived beliefs about ‘clean foods’ or what I see other people eating.
If you’re like me and enjoy investing in your diet and nutrition, then the good news is that you can greatly improve and manage your hormone levels simply by prioritising a diet rich in functional whole foods and a variety of macro and micro nutrients.
While focusing on a diet low in processed foods and high in essential healthy fats, adequate protein and fibrous carbs will be key in balancing your hormones and setting your body up for a successful path toward healing - keep in mind that even the most seemingly insignificant eating habits, certain ingredients lurking in healthy foods, inconsistent blood sugar levels, high levels of inflammation and a history of chronic dieting can all contribute to high cortisol levels and other hormonal imbalances. So don’t underestimate the power of your diet even if you’re already hitting your macros and eating ‘healthy’.
Here's 5 key tips you might need to consider if your body and hormones stops responding positively to your 'healthy' efforts:
Tip #1: Stop under-eating!!
For me personally, my recent hormonal issues came about after a period of complete inconsistency with my diet, and a subtle shift towards lower calories, less carbs and low fat. Even though it wasn’t an intentional shift, it was my way of retaliating and a desperate attempt to gain control in the face of stress and anxiety. Though brief, it was enough to send my body into panic mode. Here's why.
My history of restrictive dieting and disordered eating really took a toll on my body, and I truly believe that if you’ve put your body through anything like this before, it becomes so much more responsive to stress than the ’normal’ stress response most people experience. Our bodies remember past experiences of under-eating, become hyper-sensitive to similar ‘restrictive’ periods, and remain hyper-vigilant and ready to protect themselves in the face of this perceived ‘danger’ and starvation again.
This means even the briefest periods of under-eating can trigger your body to go into overdrive with a heightened fight-or-flight response, initiate a metabolic stress response and trigger a cascade of hormonal imbalances. For me, I notice this pretty quickly - a few days of not eating enough and my digestive system slows down as my body diverts resources elsewhere, my anxiety plays up because my body becomes flooded with stress hormones, and my weight increases due to water retention and inflammation caused by an internal system that’s preparing to fight.
This means that eating enough is your best weapon against a stressed body. It also means that once you're in this state, despite how frightening and counter-intuitive it seems to eat more - it’s possibly one of the most important things you could be doing. In the face of weigh fluctuations, bloating and poor body image caused by a stress body - you have to keep eating and eating enough.
We’re all going to have different needs and minimum calorie intakes, so my only advice is to figure out the tipping point beyond which your body starts to become reactive and hostile. Set this as your absolute minimum daily intake, and aim to eat beyond this each day. It’s going to be a mind-game, and it might not be comfortable, but trust me - you can’t combat stress with more stress, and your body is only going to trust you once it perceives that you’re nourishing it well and realises that it doesn’t need to hold on to everything to protect you.
Work with your body, not against it, and always give it enough fuel to keep you thriving.
Tip #2: Keep your diet simple, minimally processed and balanced
Once you have a rough idea of how much your body needs, start prioritising the foods that give you the biggest bang for buck - and don’t fall into the trap of mindlessly eating to ‘fit your macros’ or relying on empty calories to sustain you.
And lastly, don’t think you can’t eat the foods you love. Eating wisely and eating to meet your body’s needs during this time also includes eating for enjoyment. Your favourite treat or a meal enjoyed out with your loved ones is only going to benefit you by relieving some stress and fulfilling your soul. So make sure you’re getting some of those ‘feel-good’ foods in your body too!
Tip #3: Eat consistently, regularly and with a purpose
You could be eating the most ‘perfect’ diet, hitting all your macro and micronutrient needs and still not be eating optimally for your body and for your hormones.
Why? Because you’re underestimating the importance of consistency and optimal meal timing to get the most out of what you’re eating. Yes, your overall weekly calorie intake is going to be most important, but that doesn’t mean that how you choose to consume those calories throughout the day/week don’t matter.
(Quick note: I am by no means wanting to create more ‘food rules’ for anyone - especially because most of us here are probably trying desperately to rid ourselves of such rules. So keep in mind that these aren’t ‘rules’ or ‘have to’s’ - they’re just little ways that you can make sure you’re giving your body the best support you can to restore itself.)
You don’t need to eat every X hours every single day - realistically, it’s not going to be possible for most of us to always get a healthy meal in at routine times throughout the day. What I can suggest though, is to always have a balanced meal or snack on hand so that your body isn’t going hours without any nutrients or fuel.
In a healthy system, meal timing may not be as important - but for a stressed system, it could potentially make or break you. Personally, I know I f*cked myself over by neglecting the importance of eating enough throughout the day, and getting in a bad habit of ‘hoarding’ my macros till the end of the day. I stopped giving my body the fuel it needed when it needed it most (e.g. in the morning and post-workout) and instead filled up with food right before bed. The result was inconsistent blood sugar levels, low energy, increased cortisol production and poor sleep due to indigestion and insulin spikes at night.
To keep this short: eat when your body needs it most, eat when you feel hungry, eat to perform and to function well, and don’t assume that your body will ‘know’ that it will eventually obtain it’s daily macro/calorie needs just because you know it will. Fasting and letting yourself go hungry and engaging in under-eating and over-eating cycles aren’t giving your body any positive signals - so don’t leave your body guessing, and remember to feed it with consistent nurturing and trust.
Tip #4 Cut back on the excessive consumption of caffeine
Ok, I’m keeping this really short because this is my least favourite tip.
Unfortunately, stimulants like caffeine are not conducive to a relaxed and restorative central nervous system.
I know how hard it is - especially when your body starts to crash and fatigue more and more, and the temptation to rely on stimulants to simply get through the day becomes increasingly appealing and comforting - but it’s really not at all beneficial for your body right now.
I try to remind myself that every single time I drink coffee, I’m encouraging my body to release cortisol. This is the last thing I really want to be doing right now, since cortisol is 90% of the reason why I’m feeling so sh*t. So for me, anything more than 1/2-1 serve of caffeine a day honestly isn’t worth it.
My advice is to just pick your poison and set yourself some boundaries without skimping on too much enjoyment. If you have to have your daily pre-workout, caffeine/energy drink or coffee, try to keep it under 250mg worth of caffeine, time it wisely (e.g. pre-workout or before midday, not before bed or after a workout when your cortisol is already heightened), savour it and then have some fun trying alternatives like Chai, Beetroot Latte’s and other herbal drinks.
Tip #5: Don’t overthink it and trust that your body will tell you what it needs
My last tip is this: eat what makes your body feel good.
Yes, we have to be mindful and proactive with our diet - especially now while we try to restore our hormones, but we shouldn’t be becoming more strict or stressed about our diet. I initially fell into the trap of imposing all these rules on myself and spending hours dwelling on whether I was eating the right things to heal my hormones. I became even more stressed and completely self-sabotaged my efforts.
Take a step back, and focus on what you can do to optimise your diet in a way that’s sustainable, realistic and enjoyable.
For me, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to try new meals and combinations to get more nutrients and variety in my diet, I’ve found a routine of consistent meal times that leave me feeling satisfied and at ease throughout the day, and I’m slowly becoming more and more confident that I’m giving my body what it needs to heal.
There will be days where you f*ck up and drink 3 coffees, where you don’t have time to eat and go hours without a meal and when you eat something that your body is insensitive/intolerant to….learn to accept some ‘misses’ in your diet, move on and make sure your next meal or next day is better for it.
This isn’t going to be a quick fix or smooth journey, so the best you can do is to be consistent, be patient with yourself and be kind to yourself.
Eat like you love your body - not like you’re disappointed in it, and eat with positive intentions - not with an intention to control or manipulate your body. It’ll feed off whatever you give it….so feed it wisely.
Part 3 on supplements to heal a stressed body will be coming soon! xx