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Mental Skills Research Paper: The Vicious Cycle of Unhealthy Diet, Stress, and Eating Behaviors

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Although stress is an everyday occurrence in life, most people take for granted and underestimate the degree to which we are able to influence the level of stress we experience. When we think of the word "stress," we usually associate it with something external that causes us to feel stressed. In various research sources, adults reveal work as a leading cause of stress (Peterson & Wilson, 2004), whereas teenagers revealed that school as one of their biggest sources of stress (Wilburn & Smith, 2005). Being in graduate school I actually relate more with the teenagers and would certainly rate school high on the list of the various things that cause me stress, along with: money, my relationship with my partner, my appearance, my weight, my health, and many other aspects. Interestingly, both groups identified "too many things to do, and not enough time in the day" as a significant contributor to the stress in their lives. When there is not enough time in the day, the things we take for granted--like our diets and eating habits, in terms of what and when we eat--often suffer as a result. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder this is very true for me and I definitely fall into the vicious cycle of not taking care of my body leading to further stress which leads to less self care and more stress.

The truth is that diet and stress are very closely related. The food we eat affects the way our bodies function; the way our bodies function affects our tendencies to perceive events and situations as stressful. The purpose of this paper is to examine and report on specific areas where diet and stress are connected, and then discuss how diet affects the body and, in turn, levels of stress. A report on the related literature will assist in highlighting the diet-stress connection, the connection between food and brain chemistry, what exactly stress does to our bodies, the foods that prevent and induce stress, as well as stress in relation to unhealthy food behaviors. A discussion will follow relating the diet-stress connection to mental skills; specifically, problem- and emotion-focused coping strategies.

Definition of key terms

The following terminology is essential to the literature review and discussion portions of this paper:

* Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit messages and impulses between neurons in the brain.

* Serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine are neurotransmitters that minimize or decrease stress responses by increasing or decreasing physiological arousal.

* Stressors are events or situations that are not necessarily positive or negative, but can be perceived as either positive or negative depending on the person, and depending on the person's brain chemistry.

* Eustress is a positive stressor, whereas distress is a negative stressor.

Food and Brain Chemistry

The Oregon State University Student Health Services [OSU-SHS] has published extensively in the area of nutrition, diet, and stress, and they claim "stress often leads to poor eating, and habitual poor eating leads to a more profound stress response"(Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006). In other words, we often respond to stress in our lives by eating unhealthy foods, then the foods we eat have a direct effect on the chemistry in our bodies, which causes us to feel even more stressed and opt for more unhealthy food. Furthermore, the unhealthy eating habits developed in this cycle negatively affect our bodies' ability to handle future stressors. The reason for this--according to the OSU-SHS--is the relationship between the food we eat and its effects on our brain chemistry:

[The brain's] primary means of communication between nerve cells (neurons) is chemical. The chemical messengers are called neurotransmitters--substances that transmit messages between neurons...Because neurotransmitters are synthesized from the nutrients in our food, dietary practices can have a profound influence on brain chemistry (Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006).

Some neurotransmitters have excitatory effects on the brain and others have inhibitory effects; furthermore, a change in the supply of a single neurotransmitter will increase some kinds of activities in the brain and reduce others. Because these brain chemicals and neurotransmitters are diet-responsive, "the manner in which one experiences or responds to stressful events depends as much on diet as it does on coping skills" (Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006).

The Army Physical Fitness Research Institute [APFRI] agrees, in that "food affects the production of neurotransmitters, most notably serotonin, which are vital for brain functioning" (Army Physical Fitness Research Institute, 2006). "Serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine are neurotransmitters that influence the various aspects of the stress response; essentially, by minimizing or increasing physiological arousal" (Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006).Thus, a connection can be made between food, body chemistry, and stress: "Inadequate amounts of serotonin can manifest itself in wakefulness, irritability, enhanced sensitivity to pain and mood disturbance" (Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006). Further, "it is likely that when brain cells lack serotonin, they will trigger a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods that can facilitate serotonin production" (Oregon State University Student Health Services, 2006). Since serotonin is derived from amino acids in the foods we eat, a dietary lack of serotonin can result in stressful symptoms.

Of most noteworthy importance is that there is a vicious cycle involving food, our body's reaction to the food, and stress--the foods we eat can cause us to respond negatively to stress, and often times our reaction to stress is to indulge in unhealthy eating behaviors. As it is an integral part of this cycle, it is important to understand exactly what stress does to our bodies.

The Body's Physiological Response to Stress

Simply put, the body does not respond positively to stress, but it is not the body that ultimately determines its own response to stress. Stress first manifests in the mind, where a given situation is either perceived as a eustress or a distress; then, depending on the mind's perception of a stressful event, the body undergoes physiological changes that are characterized by what is called General Adaptation Syndrome [GAS] (McEwen, 2005). GAS starts when the mind encounters a situation



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