Author: Christian Maino Vieytes, B.S. Nutritional Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, M.S. Candidate, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
For a long time, it has been common knowledge that stress kills. Scientific knowledge has come to the forefront while attempting to answer how stress mediates this effect. Indeed, there are now enormous research efforts examining the relationships and mechanisms by which psychological stress mediates decreased longevity. Population-based research has demonstrated that those that bare higher amounts of psychological stress also have a higher risk of death as compared to their more jovial counterparts1.
What do we mean by stress? Stress is routinely dichotomized into two varieties: eustress and distress2. Eustress can be thought of as “good” kind stress and is the kind of stress that motivates you to engage, for instance, in the activities one enjoys pursuing. Distress, on the other hand, is the type of stress associated with feeling overwhelmed or fatigued. Namely among the variables impacted by high amounts of distress are physical activity, sleep, and diet/nutrition. By understanding how psychological distress influences this three-legged stool we get a better sense of how we can address them. Thankfully, there has been much research examining this matter.
Lack of sleep stemming from significant stress can be problematic because it also affects the other two legs of the three-legged stool we have identified (diet and physical activity). Studies have demonstrated that a lack of sleep can cause an increase in the amount of calories we consume on a given day3. Negative mood stemming from psychological stress and lack of sleep may also be responsible for evening-time overeating patterns4. The way that decreased sleep may impact eating patterns is by its effect on our hunger hormones5. Lack of sleep may also contribute to a lack of engagement in physical activity, which then leads to poorer outcomes and a higher risk of stress and chronic illness6.
Importantly, however, is that the other two legs of the stool (diet and physical activity) also exert effects on sleep quality. A 2017 study done on 5,062 women found that those women who exercised more tended to be protected from insomnia7. In a meta-analysis review of multiple studies looking at the effects of exercise on sleep, researchers found that regular exercise imparts benefit on and impacts total sleep time, sleep efficiency, sleep onset latency, and on sleep quality8.
The question of how diet can affect sleep is also an interesting one that has gained attention. In a cohort study of 3,816 men that examined eating and sleeping patterns in men, researchers from Penn State and Harvard Universities found that those that overconsumed calories had low intakes of fruits and vegetables, and had the greatest intakes of sodium and trans-fat also tended to have the highest likelihood of experiencing insomnia9. Several studies have suggested that consuming a diet that is more Mediterranean in nature may be a way of combatting insomnia 10,11. Research focusing on specific dietary nutrients that may be associated with sleep quality and insomnia have narrowed in on the importance of getting adequate amounts of vitamin D12 (which we obtain primarily from the being outside and exposed to sunlight!).
The 3-legged stool framework examined and explored here was only modestly addressed. The extent of the research on the effects of combatting stress through a comprehensive lifestyle and wellness regimen that focuses primarily on sleep, diet, and physical activity, is massive. Nevertheless, the following big-picture conclusion is substantiated by the research reported as well as novel and ongoing research: following a plan that focuses on consuming a diet that revolves primarily around whole-foods, limits the consumption of high-fat and processed foods, and incorporates a daily physical activity regimen is likely to, in some way, impart benefit to the psychological distress you face in your life13.
- Okely JA, Weiss A, Gale CR. The interaction between stress and positive affect in predicting mortality. J Psychosom Res. 2017;100:53-60. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.07.005
- Le Fevre M, Matheny J, Kolt GS. Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology. 2003;18(7):726-744. doi:10.1108/02683940310502412
- McHill AW, Wright KP. Role of sleep and circadian disruption on energy expenditure and in metabolic predisposition to human obesity and metabolic disease. Obes Rev. 2017;18 Suppl 1:15-24. doi:10.1111/obr.12503
- Liu Y, Song Y, Koopmann J, Wang M, Chang C-HD, Shi J. Eating your feelings? Testing a model of employees’ work-related stressors, sleep quality, and unhealthy eating. J Appl Psychol. 2017;102(8):1237-1258. doi:10.1037/apl0000209
- Stern JH, Grant AS, Thomson CA, et al. Short sleep duration is associated with decreased serum leptin, increased energy intake and decreased diet quality in postmenopausal women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014;22(5):E55-61. doi:10.1002/oby.20683
- Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Compr Physiol. 2012;2(2):1143-1211. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110025
- Spörndly-Nees S, Åsenlöf P, Lindberg E. High or increasing levels of physical activity protect women from future insomnia. Sleep Med. 2017;32:22-27. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2016.03.017
- Kredlow MA, Capozzoli MC, Hearon BA, Calkins AW, Otto MW. The effects of physical activity on sleep: a meta-analytic review. J Behav Med. 2015;38(3):427-449. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6
- Cheng FW, Li Y, Winkelman JW, Hu FB, Rimm EB, Gao X. Probable insomnia is associated with future total energy intake and diet quality in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;104(2):462-469. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.131060
- St-Onge M-P, Mikic A, Pietrolungo CE. Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):938-949. doi:10.3945/an.116.012336
- Jaussent I, Dauvilliers Y, Ancelin M-L, et al. Insomnia symptoms in older adults: associated factors and gender differences. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2011;19(1):88-97. doi:10.1097/JGP.0b013e3181e049b6
- Grandner MA, Jackson N, Gerstner JR, Knutson KL. Sleep symptoms associated with intake of specific dietary nutrients. J Sleep Res. 2014;23(1):22-34. doi:10.1111/jsr.12084
- Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Diet Quality for Sodium and Vegetables Mediate Effects of Whole Food Diets on 8-Week Changes in Stress Load. Nutrients. 2018;10(11). doi:10.3390/nu10111606