Chronic stress and its effect upon the human body can destroy the body and recovery. Ill health, legal troubles, strained relationships, financial recompense, and the constant desire to amend the past can initiate a cascade of events within the body that may impair the production of essential hormones, promote blood sugar imbalance, and, ultimately, motivate the consumption of foods or substances that compromise sobriety. Fortunately, there are many foods we can eat and habits that we can develop in order to halt and potentially reverse the damage that may be caused by chronic stress and emotional demands associated with recovery.
Stress, or a stressor, is anything that disrupts hormone balance and the human stress-response is the body’s way of reestablishing normalcy. Stressors can be physical or psychological, acute or chronic and the product of internal or external stimulation. The initial stages of the human stress response are characterized by the rapid mobilization of energy and heightened cognitive and sensory skills. More specifically, the adrenal glands release a hormone known as cortisol, which stimulates the release of stored carbohydrates, proteins and fats to feed the “fight-or-flight” response. A beautiful adaptation that helped our ancestors escape physical threats from predators and a hostile environment. As we escape threat and the stress-response diminishes, the body goes to work repairing the effects of the “fight-or-flight” and the body returns to its baseline physiological function. If physical stress persists or if it is psychological in nature, the body is often unable to escape “fight-or-flight” and chronically elevated cortisol levels exhaust the adrenal glands to increase the risk of weight gain, immunosuppression, depression, anxiety, lethargy, and poor mental acuity.
Contrary to our hunter-gather ancestors and the physical threats to which the human stress response evolved to manage, the fast-paced, task oriented, hostage to deadlines society in which we live places an overwhelming amount of psychological stress on the human body for which it is ill equipped to handle, and promotes ill health, disease, and, in terms of recovery, seeking behavior and relapse.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Psychophysiology, alcohol use and abuse interacts with the body’s stress response in at least three ways:
The ingestion of substances of abuse causes an acute cortisol response.
Long-term substance abuse alters the secretion of cortisol.
Altered cortisol release seen in substance abusers may contribute to the propensity for alcohol and drug abuse in the future generations.
Collectively, these findings suggest that addicts and alcoholics have a blunted stress response that increases the likelihood of continued abuse and increases the risk of relapse in response to stress, which may be passed on to the subsequent generations.
Supporting the adrenal glands and nourishing the human stress-response with dietary and lifestyle modification may enhance recovery and reduce the risk of cravings and relapse. Concerning diet, the main goal is to stabilize blood sugar by limiting consumption of highly refined, carbohydrate rich foods while reducing the consumption of stimulating substances such as caffeine and sugar. In addition to reducing the consumption of refined carbs, sugar, and caffeine, incorporating an ample amount of protein and healthy fat will further promote blood sugar stabilization and a healthy stress response.
Emphasizing non-starchy vegetables such as zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, and green leafy vegetables and replacing refined grains with those that are whole is a great place to start. Sub brown rice for white and throw in some quinoa instead of pasta. As you gain control over your carbohydrate intake, adding in a good amount of complete proteins like those found in beef, poultry, pork, and eggs in addition to healthy fats such as those found in avocados, nuts and seeds will advance your adrenal gland supporting, stress-fighting routine.
In addition to modifying what we eat, changing when we eat will also help properly manage blood sugar and minimize the damage associated with chronic stress. A few guidelines to help you find a diet plan that best suits your nutrition and lifestyle need, include:
- Eat soon after waking, preferably within 1 hour.
- Eat an early lunch, somewhere around 11:00 or 11:30am.
- Eat a nutritious mid-afternoon snack between 2:00 and 3:00pm.
- Eat your evening meal between 5:00 and 6:00pm.
- Eat a modest snack an hour or so before bed if hunger develops.
Lifestyle modification should be aimed at reducing stress to minimize the demand placed upon the adrenal glands. Listing all the positive and negatives in one’s life and identifying the “energy robbers” is a good exercise to help pinpoint what hidden obstacles may be interfering with your health. Maintain a positive perspective and learn to take advantage of some unstructured time greatly improves mood and our ability to enjoy time with family and friends. Get plenty of sleep, anywhere between 8 and 10 hours each night. Practice yoga, meditation, or any variety of breathing exercises to promote relaxation and relieve stress.
Dietary supplements that play an important role in the healing of adrenal fatigue, include vitamin C, vitamin E, B complex vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and a host of trace minerals like manganese, zinc, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, copper and iodine. Consult your primary care physician or naturopath before starting any supplement regiment to make sure that they don’t interfere with any medications you are currently taking or have an adverse effect upon your health.
Chronic stress is a pernicious condition in which a general sense of being unwell and fatigue can permeate life, especially for those in substance abuse recovery. It can make seemingly simple tasks unmanageable while increasing emotional instability and interpersonal strife. Fortunately, adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle with an emphasis on blood sugar management and stress reduction can greatly improve wellbeing and recovery. Start fighting stress and supporting your adrenal glands today so that you can start living the life you deserve!
Matthew Lovitt is a holistic nutritionist specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction with food and fitness. He is the staff nutritionist for an all men’s long-term treatment facility in Prescott, Arizona and maintains a private practice where he helps addicts, alcoholics, children, families, and those suffering from specific, often acute, conditions restore health and well being through dietary and lifestyle modification. Matthew is a recovery alcoholic and drug addict with over 6 years of sobriety. You can learn more about him and his diet and lifestyle philosophy at twelvewellness.com, on Facebook and Twitter.