Stress and nutrition – How little did I know

How little did I know about the role nutrition plays when it comes to stress before I started my journey as an endurance athlete.

I think one of the most eye opening moments came when I read the book from Brendan Brazier, a former endurance athlete himeself and advocate of plant based nutrition. His view on how nutrition when it comes to controlling and regulating stress was very interesting. It got me excited and after reading his book it made totally sense to me. After I have turned to a plant based diet over a year ago I have experienced on my own what impact nutrition plays when it comes to stress.

I would like to use this article to sum up the most important aspects of this book in regards to stress. The content of the next sections are mainly referenced from the book Thrive and mixed with my own experiences I have made over the last year since I have changed the way I see nutrition. I think a lot of people are not aware how much impact nutrition can have on stress and how powerful it can be to turn things to the better or worse!

Please note, I am not a specialist in the field of nutrition, neither do I want to make nutrional recommendations. It’s simple a summary of the book mentioned above, mixed together with my own experiences.


The role of cortisol

Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone which gets released into our body in response to stress. Depending on the level of stress, cortisol gives the body an energy boost. It allows us to be more alert and process information more quickly. If the body feels stressed he activates his internal defence mechanism. Cortisol stimulates us and helps us to deal with stressful situations but too much of cortisol stimulation leads to exhaustion. The result is that we feel tired and exhausted.

A stressed body is more likely dependent on carbohydrates and sugar as a fuel source and stores fat in the body rather than burning it! People who are stressed tend to take in more carbohydrate rich foods (e.g. usually sweets and other highly processed foods) which are a kind of physiological stress to the body again.

In addition, stress can mess up other hormones in your body as well which can lead to hormone imbalance.  Your body is struggling to maintain your water balance which leads to problems delivering enough nutrients to your cells. This is a big issue which can lead to malnutrition as your cells can’t absorb the nutrients from your food. In addition as we all know stress impacts your deep sleep as well. A lack of sleep causes again a rise in the cortisol level. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to serious health issues.

Physical exercise and stress

116238-114220Physical exercise is another form of stress. As endurance athletes we train sometimes a crazy amount of hours, over weeks, months and years. Someone would assume the more you train the less likely it would be to struggle with weight problems or loosing fat. If you put your body under lots of training stress and your cortisol levels stay elevated, it’s difficult for your body to recover and it will affect your quality of sleep. It’s harder to get into the deep sleep phase (delta sleep phase), hence you try to sleep longer to cover up the loss of sleep.

Another common thing that people experience is gaining weight, despite the fact that the train more and more. The usual conclusion is to cut back on nutrition and reduce the caloric intake in the hope to lose weight again. Usually this makes the situation worse and people gain even more fat and weight. It’s a protective reaction of the body to store fat which again is related to the elevated level of stress. If your cortisol level are permanently elevated due to a high level of stress (e.g. too much training that your body can’t handle) you’ll notice an increase in weight and fat.


The role of nutrition  

Usually when people are stressed they tend to eat unhealthy and eat food which is very low in nutrients. This adds additional stress to the body and the gut which increases your risk of gaining weight and increases your time to recover from training.

As mentioned before reducing your food intake is not necessarily helpful for losing weight, instead it would be more beneficial to eat more – eat more of the right food which is rich in nutrients which promotes stress reduction in your body.

When I first started with triathlon training I wasn’t necessarily losing much weight, as I didn’t pay much attention to my nutrition. Thinking I can eat whatever I want as long as my caloric intake is not higher as what I was burning.kjfdjgldkf

Little did I know what a healthy balanced and nutrient dense diet can do to your body to help you loosing fat, build up lean muscle mass and reduce your stress levels, improve your overall health, sleep quality and the quality of life in general.

I never thought that you can control stress with nutrition and I doubt that you have ever heard someone saying when you are stressed out to check your nutrition. I think very little attention is paid to the important role of your eating habits when it comes to stress management.

Your cognitive abilities

Ever wondered why you feel sluggish and tired after a heavy meal? Do you feel like having a nap after lunch at work? Struggling with concertation and paying attention. I did. Especially at work after lunch I felt terrible. Super tired and no energy.

I am glad this is a thing of the past now. What usually happens when you eat a heavy to digest meal is that your blood is going to your gut to help with digestion. This takes a lot of blood away from your other organs which then leaves you tired and with little energy. If your brain doesn’t get enough blood it’s difficult to think straight.

Switching over to a nutrient dense plant based diet your gut system doesn’t have to work as hard and need less energy which leaves more energy for your other organs. I hardly experience tiredness after a meal these days. It’s actually the opposite.

Another interesting thing are food cravings. We all know them. Too much stress leads to tiredness and worse to depression. To balance that out our brain tries to help by calling out for sweets. Nowadays rather than helping ourselves with eating fresh fruits to deliver the necessary sugar we need, we tend to eat highly processed food which consist of simple carbohydrates which are usually high in refined sugars (chocolate anyone??) but lack any nutrients. Eating sweet stuff makes us feel good, it’s a comfort food and usually we tend to eat a lot of that, especially if we had a hard day at work. Ice cream or donuts give you a great kick and make you feel good. But only for a little while. That’s why you grave for more to maintain that positive feeling. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of nutrients and that’s why your body will never be satisfied and grave for more. Again it’s a vicious cycle.


Types of Stress

When we feel stressed out and seek help, the usual advice we’ll get is to take it easy. Don’t work so hard, go on a holiday to relax etc. Yes, this might help to reduce stress but on the other hand leads to unproductivity and if you are someone who wants to be productive and achieve great things, that’s probably the last thing you want to hear. Good nutrition allows us to be still highly productive and reduce a lot of stress at the same time.

It’s interesting to know the different categories of stress there are:

  • Non-productive stress
  • Productive stress
  • Performance stress

Productive stress is helpful for us to grow and become better in what we are doing. Sport is a great example. If helps us to tolerate physical activities and stress better. As we become fitter, it’s less stress for the body to deal with physical exercises. If we are fit we tend to become less sick and our immune system stays stronger as well. Engaging in fitness activities on a regular basis with the right does allows us to minimise stress. If you don’t keep fit you will feel that certain physical activities (e.g. climbing up some stairs) will leave you exhausted and tired, which again causes more stress to your body as it’s not used to it.

Performance driven stress is all around us every day. Working towards a project dead line, training for an event or dealing with certain life related challenges. In a performance driven world we live it’s hard to avoid that stress. It’s a by-product of life.

Training for an Ironman event puts your body under a lot of physical stress for a certain time while you are training. If you imagine to put additional stress on top of that you can end up with a pretty messed up body if you can’t control your other stress factors in life. The reward in the end is big and worth the stress for a certain amount of time. Working hard toward a goal is stressful yes and hardly avoidable these days. I personally think it’s good to set big goals and work hard to achieve something great. It’s a big reward you don’t want to miss. But in order to do that we should limit our non-productive stress as much as possible to stay in control and balance.

stress categories

Source: The Thrive Diet

Un-productive stress is usually defined by

  • Nutrition
  • Environment
  • Psychological
unproductive stress

Source: The Thrive Diet

This form of stress doesn’t do any good and is of no purpose and harmful. We should try to eliminate that stress as much as possible. Good nutrition is the best way to do that. It’s the biggest contributor towards un-productive stress but the good thing is we are in control. We are able to regulate that stress whereas other stressors e.g. work stress is mostly out of our control.

Studies have shown that 60% of the overall stress that we experience these days is un-productive stress. That’s quite a lot. And the wrong nutrition plays a big part in that. A year ago I was not aware that “nutritional stress” even exists.  It’s the stress our body experience from unhealthy nutrition.

Most of the food we tend to buy these days in the supermarket are processed. They are highly refined, full of simple carbohydrates, full of fat and sugar which are regarded as unhealthy. Not only that but also the absence of nutrients in our body increases the stress. Such as a lack of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins, essential amino acids, antioxidants, probiotics and dietary fibre. Without these essential nutrients we run the risk of malnutrition and don’t give our body the necessary resources to recover and heal.

By providing our body with nutrient dense whole foods we support the body with all the necessary nutrients needed to heal and recover and build up a strong immune system. Nutrient dense food consist of unprocessed and unrefined foods such as vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds, legumes, algae and whole grains.

Processed food on the contrary contain very little nutrition as most of them got removed during the production process and are usually rich in simple carbohydrates and saturated fats.

An interesting fact from the book outlines that as we consume processed food on a regular basis we develop a lot of different food allergies and can’t handle certain food groups. Over the time it gets harder and harder to change our eating habits (it’s like an addiction) as our hormone system gets out of balance which affects the regulation of our organs and other functions in our body.

Our immune system weakens, we get sick more often, it speeds up the aging process and unfortunately in the long run we have to deal with serious diseases.



In the previous years I have experience a lack of motivation and a willpower to get things done. I was simple too tired and in a bad mood quite often. Even though I wanted to I simple didn’t have the energy to do so. Very often we think that people are just lazy and lack of motivation in order to get things done but very often we forget that the wrong nutrition has a big impact on that as well. Again it’s the unproductive stress that sucks out most of your energy and leaves you frustrated and tired.

If you can reduce un-productive stress you will end up with more energy and will power. This will open up new opportunities as well and you can experience an immense boost of self-esteem which will impact a lot of other areas in your life.

The good news is that we can change. We are able to get out of this vicious cycle of malnutrition and take it in our own hands. It helped me so it can help anyone else. It’s a matter of taking the first step in the right direction. It doesn’t happen overnight, it will take some time but once you get over the initial hurdle you’ll be amazed how great it feels to feel good again.

As a first step into the right direction I can recommend to anyone to be more open and to start educating yourself about nutrition. Question the things you have been doing in the past and why you feel the way you feel. Don’t believe everything you hear or read in a newspaper article, rather do your own research, get different opinions and find out what works best for you.

I have tried a lot of different things in the past, read a lot of books about nutrition, tried different diets and got overwhelmed with the confusing information that is out there today. Everyone tells you a different story, a new fancy diet is popping up every day. It can be crazy and very frustrating, no question.

As a follow up to this article I will write about my own plant based nutrition journey. I think it’s worth sharing as I hope to help other people as well to start their own journey to find the best possible nutrition that works for them. We are all unique and different and I think there is no perfect diet out there that works for everyone in the same way.

I feel I have the obligation to share what has worked for me to help others as well. Seeing people close to you getting sick, die of cancer or struggle with other health issues is very hard and makes me sad. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can change that and I want to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Take care and thanks for reading & Namaste



Andy Gesellmann

aspiring endurance athlete with an holistic approach to fitness, health and nutrition