Ebb & Flow -

A few years ago, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. The beauty of these courses is that they are silent. Complete silence of body and mind.

I was in my mid 30s and by then the weight of modern living was very tangible, at least to me. I needed something to take me away from the noise, the rush, the achieving, the expectation of perfection and the need to appear ok to the world around me. It was such a life changing experience and if I can take one thing away from it to share with you today, it is the concept of stressors and our ability to manage our reaction to them.

We will always be surrounded by whatever makes us stressed.

Life can be a tough gig but as my Vipassana teacher told me, “the road might be full of pebbles, but if you wear shoes you can walk over them without hurting your feet.” So, it’s not necessarily about the surroundings, it is also about us: are we wearing the right shoes?

How can we make ourselves a pair of tough and resilient shoes? Shoes that make us connected to the ground and able to feel the pebbles, without being too stressed by them.

The food we eat, our lifestyle, and our support network all play a role.

Several studies suggest that incorporating healthy foods and a variety of nutrients into our diet plays an important role in reducing stress and improving emotional well-being. In fact, a randomised controlled trial published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources led to significant reductions in anxiety and perceived stress compared to a control group. (1)

While a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies etc, led to reduced cortisol levels and improved stress responses in a group of medical students. (2)

Similarly, many studies also suggest that lifestyle factors like mindfulness, exercise, yoga, and social support can play an important role in better managing the physical and emotional effects of stress…

  • A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that regular exercise was associated with reduced levels of perceived stress and improved psychological well-being in a large population-based sample of adults. (3)
  • A randomised controlled trial published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that a six-week yoga intervention led to significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression in a group of women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (4)

Stress is such a broadly used word – how do we know whether we are stressed? And whether it is stress driving our symptoms?

Today I am sharing Gaia’s story.

Gaia struggles with anxiety, sleep disturbances, brain fog, fatigue. She is peri-menopausal, struggles to lose weight, has high blood pressure, high glucose level and high cholesterol. Something we would define as metabolic syndrome. She has aches and pains throughout her body and has struggled with multiple colds and infections across the years. Work and home responsibilities are daily stressors. She skips breakfast, has lunch and dinner on the go, and craves high calorie foods multiple times a day.

We did few functional tests to understand the root causes of her symptoms; this is her cortisol level:


As we know, cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. When the body experiences stress, whether physical or psychological, cortisol levels increase as part of our body’s natural “fight or flight” response.


Fight or flight: we are running away from danger.

So, cortisol helps to mobilise energy stores, increasing blood sugar levels, constricting our blood vessels, increasing blood pressure, and suppressing our immune system, reproductive system, digestive system and any other thing that has no immediate purpose in saving our life from danger.

This is absolutely fine (actually amazing) in an acute scenario, and great for survival. It is the chronic levels of stress, where cortisol levels remain elevated for a long period of time that it can have negative effects on the body and contribute to a range of health problems, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain, and heart disease.


How can we support Gaia?

  • Skipping breakfast was not great for her, as her cortisol peak 2 hours after waking shows us. A balanced breakfast was added in her routine, with smoothies and overnight oats being the winners.
  • Gaia’s meals were all very poor in protein content. I asked her to include protein in every meal. Proteins are important to stabilise blood sugar levels and help reduce cravings, regulate mood, promote feelings of calm and well-being, improve muscle repair and good immune function.
  • Her meals were mainly beige; sandwiches, pasta, croissants, porridge. I asked Gaia to add at least 3 additional colours in her plate at every meal. Green to increase magnesium (relaxation). Berries to increase antioxidant content, including Vitamin C. And to aim for at least 20 different fruit and vegetables a week.
  • Fats were limited in her diet given her fear of gaining weight. But fats, especially omega 3 fatty acids, are essential to reduce inflammation and support brain health. We added things like salmon, anchovies, herring, as well as nuts and seeds like walnuts and flaxseed.
  • We cut down on processed foods and refined carbs, instead opting for complex carbohydrates and balanced snacks to help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce stress-related cravings.
  • Coffees were reduced and swapped with water (2 litres a day) and herbal teas.

When it came to her lifestyle…

The priority was addressing the cortisol peaks in the evening. Gaia was having her HIIT and cardio classes in the evening, so even though she was able to fall asleep exhausted, her sleep was very disrupted and she was not waking up feeling rested.

Yoga and more restorative practice were introduced in her evening and bed time routine, while cardio activities were moved to earlier in the day. We also made sure she had rest days to boost recovery, and exposure to nature and time for herself were added to the plan.

Gaia felt so much better after following these simple initial recommendations and she is thriving now.


1. (Molendijk et al., 2018)

2. (Delarue et al., 2003)

3. (Gerber et al., 2011)

4. (Rhodes et al., 2015)

Originally published: https://nutrimente.co.uk/is-stress-in-the-driving-seat/