When was the last time you were in a stressful situation? Last week? Last month? Today? Many of us have experienced some level of stress in the not too distant past, and will probably experience more in the near future.

But what exactly is stress? How can we deal with it?

In its simplest terms, stress is something that causes mental tension. Stress is considered a bad word by some, but not all stress is bad. Some stress is good, like the butterflies you might feel when you're about to play in a big game, or when you prepare for that big interview. That short-term stress can be good for you. It gets your blood flowing. The stress we need to be concerned with is the bad stress.

Ask yourself: What upsets me? What makes me angry? Or what’s keeping me up at night worrying? This is the type of bad stress that we need to be concerned with.

For some, it’s dealing with obnoxious drivers or sitting in rush-hour traffic every day. For others, it's a demanding boss, pressuring you to meet an important deadline. Others can't sleep because they're thinking about their bills. Unruly kids, marital issues or other challenges can quickly make a pleasant day extremely stressful and put you in a situation that must be quickly dealt with.

Whatever the cause of your stress, it can be detrimental to your health in many ways.

Long-Term Stress

Here are some of the issue associated with long-term stress, according to health experts:

  • Heart problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure (increasing the risk of stroke, heart failure, kidney failure and heart attack)
  • Susceptibility to infections (Allergies and autoimmune diseases, arthritis and multiple sclerosis)
  • Skin problems (acne, skin rashes, eczema)
  • Diabetes (some doctors believe stress causes the immune system to destroy insulin-producing cells)
  • Infertility (people who are trying for a baby are more likely to conceive when on vacation or when facing little stress, and fertility treatment is more successful at these times)

These are serious issues and shows the importance of keeping stress in check.

Coping with Stress

How do you cope with stress? There are many ways to deal with stress — some good, some bad. Exercise is a positive way to deal with stress, as well as having a hobby like playing an instrument or reading books.

Again, not all stress is bad, but negative stress must be acknowledged and addressed properly and in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, many of us are doing just the opposite, and are making things worse my eating comfort food to feel better.

Here's a list of some of the most popular comfort foods:

  • Fried chicken
  • Cake
  • Pizza
  • Hot dogs
  • Chocolate cake
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Apple pie
  • Ice cream

If stress is known to raise your blood pressure, how wise is it eat foods high in sodium such as hot dogs and fried chicken? If stress affects insulin and could increase your risk of getting diabetes, is it possible that cake, cookies and chocolate may do more harm than good?

Understanding Stress

Stress also affects the body in other serious ways. Prolonged stress increases the metabolic needs of the body because stress hormones tend to accelerate heart rate; increase muscle tension; elevate blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels; and cause a cascade of other metabolic changes.

These changes increase metabolism and accelerate your body's use of carbohydrates, fats and protein. As that usage changes, there can be a resulting increase in blood sugar, free fatty acids and protein loss (negative nitrogen balance), respectively.

The increased metabolism can also cause an increase in the use and loss of many nutrients such as vitamins A, C, D, E, K and B complex, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and chromium.

In other words, negative stress can throw your body out of whack.

Think of your body as a high-octane sports car, jet engine or space shuttle. In order to perform at its peak level, it needs optimum fuel, and that means eating foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients on a daily basis. When we are stressed, the body uses even more fuel. As a result, we need to eat even more healthy foods to replenish the nutrients lost during those stressful times.

Stress affects people in different ways, and what one person finds stressful another may not. The key is to know your body, what you consider a stressful situation, and how your body reacts to it. It's important to listen to your body and know when you're feeling the strain of stress so you can protect your body from its harmful effects. This is when your diet becomes a factor.

As described above, stress can dramatically increase the amount of nutrients your body needs, and binging on comfort foods will only make a bad situation worse. Please note: if eaten in moderation, comfort foods are OK, it's when they are the primary source of calories and nutrients the problem arises.

When it comes to diet and nutrition, we must change our mindset. The foods we eat play a vital role in our health and well-being and as a result, it's crucial we eat the foods that are designed to help us, not hurt us.

Next time you're stressed, instead of filling up on comfort foods, eat these instead:

  • Blueberries contain high amounts of vitamin C, which — along with other beneficial antioxidants — helps to combat the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Low-fat milk helps your nerves stay healthy. It can also stabilize your blood sugar, stopping you from feeling those extreme highs and lows when you eatsugar.
  • Oranges are an excellent source of Vitamin C, which helps your immune system function under stress more efficiently.
  • Brown rice is a whole grain that can help reduce stress. Unlike white rice, brown rice doesn't increase blood sugar and cause fluctuations that can contribute to higher stress levels.
  • Green veggies like broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce, etc., have magnesium, which is a mineral that helps lower your stress level by keeping you in a calm state.
  • Sweet potatoes are a good source of iron, which is important for red and white blood cell production. Iron is also resistance to stress, assists in proper immune functioning and the metabolizing of protein.
  • Water is essential. There's a strong possibility you're dehydrated when under stress because your heart may increase and you're breathing heavier than normal. As a result, you lose fluid. On the flip side of binge eaters, you have those who don't eat or drink, thus making their dehydration and nutritional needs worse.

Be proactive. Take better care of your body and your body will take care of you.