Stress comes when our thoughts and feelings are out of synch with the actions we are taking. This can be particularly true over the festive season when there is considerable pressure to appear outwardly happy despite inner turmoil. Angela Attwood is Bourn Hall’s Nutritional Therapist specialising in nutrition for hormonal health, fertility and pregnancy. She describes how cravings may be a sign of stress hormone imbalance and how this may also affect fertility.
“When we are stressed our body reacts in the same way it has done for millennia – and equips our body to fight or run away from the stress,” explains Angela.
Eating to feel better
“Our adrenal glands produce stress hormones which (among other things) signal that we need a quick source of glucose—our body’s main source of fuel—so we go for whatever is readily available.
“Eating something high-sugar that is also high in fat (like donuts, chocolate, cake, biscuits and sweets) also triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and satisfaction. By falling into this trap, we train our brain to think ‘you need to eat this to help you feel better’.
“Using these foods to regulate our mood and lower our stress is a short term fix. In the long run, it just sends us on a rollercoaster – with our energy, our mood, stress levels and sleep.
“In contrast, when we have a steady release of glucose into the blood stream throughout the day via slow releasing carbohydrate foods such as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, pulses and beans, and protein we’re productive, sharp, and full of energy as well as being nourished and supporting our stress response.
“At Christmas time there is not only lots of sugary, high fat foods to tempt you, but there is also social pressure to eat them!”
Angela has given us some coping tips – see below.
Kate, now 35, met her husband Nick when they were teenagers and both knew that they wanted children one day.
“A few years later we got to a stage when we were secure and settled with a house and running our own businesses and decided the time was right to start a family.
“I was given lots of advice from people about how long it should be taking us to get pregnant and I tried not to worry too much about it but as time went on and nothing was happening, I started to think ‘why us?’
“I had got into the habit of just eating what I wanted when I wanted. I didn’t do any form of exercise, and at 25 I weighed 17 stone. We didn’t know how long it would take for me to get pregnant because you don’t know until you start trying but I recognised that I needed to lose weight if I was to maximise my chances.
“I tried to stay positive though and just focused on looking after my mind and body and keeping myself fit and active. I started eating really healthily and hit the gym and over the course of the next two years I lost five stone.”
Eventually Kate and Nick went to see their GP. “We were sent for tests but they all came back fine so we really didn’t know why I wasn’t getting pregnant,” says Kate. “We were told to go away and carry on trying.”
After a further two years the couple went back to their GP who referred them for further hospital tests. They were told that they had ‘unexplained infertility’ which is the reason given when tests can detect no underlying cause. The couple were told that their best chance of having a baby would be to have IVF treatment.
Fortunately, due to her determination to lose weight Kate now had a BMI of less than 35, which is the cut-off for IVF treatment.
The IVF treatment at Bourn Hall was successful first time and Kate is now mum to Amber aged 4. Kate has kept up with her fitness programme and now weighs just under ten stone.
“I feel so much healthier and happier,” she says. “Adopting a healthy lifestyle has given me a clear mind and keeps me motivated. It has definitely been a lifestyle change and not a quick fix, I am so much happier now, I feel good in myself.”
Having a healthy BMI is important for fertility as gaining or losing weight affects the balance of the hormones controlling your reproductive hormones, however it is important to enjoy your food. Small substitutions and changing when and how you eat can help to make a difference, as Angela explains.
Top tips for Christmas eating
- Choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate – the higher the cocoa content the higher the amount of antioxidants and the lower sugar – and it means you only want 1-2 squares at a time! So it’s best to go for 75% or above.
- Fill your plate with greens – ditch the potatoes if you are trying to keep off the pounds or have PCOS, as potatoes are high in starch which can rapidly raise blood sugar – something we want to avoid. A couple of roast potatoes on Christmas Day will be fine, or carrots and parsnips are a good alternative – but leafy greens will fill you up and reduce cravings for carbohydrates.
- Secret is in the timing – eating a large meal at lunchtime means we have more time to digest it and utilise the calories. We have traditionally been encouraged to eat three meals a day – but if you know you are having a celebratory lunch or are out for dinner try skipping breakfast to give your digestion a rest and reduce your calorie intake.
- A little of what you fancy – it’s best to avoid snacking if you can – but if you’re feeling left out, try some nuts (see the rosemary spiced pecans recipe) and fresh fruit, sliced apple and nut butter or feta or home-made popcorn.
- Enjoy what you eat when eating out – focus on the good stuff – veg or salad and protein, ideally chicken or fish. Eat slowly, savouring your food, taking small bites to make it last longer and you will feel full sooner.
- Stay hydrated with water before your meal – this will help to ensure you don’t over-eat.
- Ideally skip dessert – restaurant desserts are loaded with sugar – or choose fresh fruit. Peppermint tea is always a nice refreshing way to end a meal.
- Walk it off – going for a nice walk after Christmas dinner will improve your blood sugar levels and lift your mood.