Which STRESS SUIT do you wear?

Tired? Bloated? Sore?  Nutritionist Charlotte Watts claims that chronic stress manifests as different symptoms in different people. Find out which ‘Stress Suit’ you’re wearing and what to do to take your’s off!

When we’re under stress, we get a heightening of all our body’s physiological responses. Adrenalin is pumped into our muscles to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’, and blood is taken away from less vital organs such as our reproductive and digestive systems and skin, to allow our bodies to get ready to literally fight the enemy. This is normal, healthy stress. But when stress is prolonged or we don’t have enough rest after challenging, stressful times, our bodies can start to show symptoms of chronic stress and these can manifest differently in different people. For example, you might get bloated because your digestive system suffers most during long, stressful times while someone else may get terrible PMS because for her, it’s the reproductive and endocrine (hormone) systems that feel and show symptoms of stress the most.  

Start the day with a protein breakfast to support your adrenals and blood sugar balance

In my book The De-Stress Effect, I have coined the different sets of chronic stress symptoms I have observed in people as the Stress Suits .If you look through the signs, symptoms and habits listed beneath each one, and regularly see 3-4 of these occurring, read on to see how you can help yourself with simple lifestyle and food measures.


Most of us see more than one Stress Suit pop up for us, but there is often a predominant pattern, so start there and add in other suggestions that feel right to you.


Symptoms and signs

  • being on ‘constant alert’
  • quick reactions to stressful situations
  • little relaxation time or an inability to relax
  • feeling the need to constantly ‘do’
  • long-term life demands and/or emotional stressors
  • feeling less ‘able to cope’
  • mood swings, irritability, thin on patience
  • light-, sound- or crowd-sensitive
7 stress suits

DON’T BE THAT GIRL… the wired stress suit makes you irritable and prone to mood swings

Subjecting our nervous systems to constant stimulation from sounds, sights, lights, information from our 24/7 hyper-connectivity, we can be stressed and wired without realizing it – with a heightened, jangly state feeling like our ‘normal’. Ultimately this is exhausting and if it’s not addressed with lifestyle measures, a Wired Suit can quickly turn to a Tired one (below) and symptoms can take longer to recover from.

How to fix it:

1. Let go a bit If you are used to ignoring your body’s signals of tiredness and stress, it’s time to start listening to your body’s need for continual rest and recovery. Take breaks, sleep more, slow down, start the day mindfully and step away from the need to ‘do’ as much as possible.

2. Walk outside This naturally move stresses through your body without adding to its load. Moving as we were designed to do helps us relax shoulders and reset breath patterns that stress can make shallow and tense; especially if we walk in greenery.

3. Take magnesium (or eat foods rich in it) Our ability to calm and regulate mood relies on the mineral magnesium and stress uses it up fast. Deficiencies can show as anxiety, insomnia, headaches, muscle cramps, depression, fatigue, panic attacks, IBS and blood-sugar issues. The best food sources are green, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, cauliflower, tahini, parsley, traditionally prepared soy, lentils. You can also supplement 300mg of magnesium citrate with dinner.


Symptoms and signs

  • feeling tired or unrefreshed on waking
  • increasing reliance on sugar and/or stimulants for energy
  • energy dips
  • feeling fuzzy-headed or having ‘daytime fog’
  • exhaustion in evening
  • feeling cold and sluggish
  • sleep disturbances
  • fluid retention
7 stress suits

The stressed and tired suit can be avoided by a
high protein breakfast and small bouts of exercise

Many of rotate between the Wired and Tired Suits, even in the course of a day. Years of being Wired without rest and recovery can tip over into Tired where energy drops, metabolism slows, weight gain becomes more likely and weight loss harder. Years of high stress hormones can result in crashes that leave you unable to create energy without sugar or stimulants.


1. Cut down on stimulants It can seem difficult energy fixes like stress itself, sugar and/or stimulants like coffee, alcohol or cigarettes when they seem to be the only things keeping you going, but these ‘uppers’ are wearing you down and depleting nutrients your body and brain rely on to create energy and deal with stress.

2. Have a protein breakfast Start the day with a protein breakfast to support your adrenals and blood sugar balance for natural energy production. Eggs, smoked salmon, nuts, Greek yoghurt and feta cheese are all great examples, especially with rye bread and alkalizing salad part like watercress, avocado, cucumber or spinach.

3. Keep moving – not just bouts of exercise but Spontaneous Daily Movement (SPA). Studies show that muscle quickly atrophies without movement and metabolism slows down when it seems that energy production isn’t needed. Getting up from your desk every hour prevents stagnation and sluggishness.


Symptoms and signs

  • waking feeling unrefreshed
  • less and less energy
  • reduction or loss of hearing
  • feeling colder than others most of the time
  • fluid retention and poor circulation
  • hair thinning or loss, especially outer edge of eyebrows
  • feeling demotivated and unable to concentrate
  • hoarse voice
  • hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)

Chronic stress signals the survival mechanism to conserve energy for potential action and the thyroid glands slow down metabolism, so weight loss becomes harder. Many women with these symptoms may have had a ‘normal’ result from a doctor’s thyroid test, as it’s possible to have a thyroid functioning slightly short of hypothyroidism, or because your body isn’t utilizing the hormones it does make, due to stress.

Chronic stress signals the survival mechanism to conserve energy… so weight loss becomes harder


1. Avoid sugar Low thyroid function can go hand in hand with blood sugar issues and weight piling on, so avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates and eat quality protein and good fats at each meal.

2. Exercise outside Exercise stimulates thyroid hormone secretion and enables your body to pick it up for use. Doing this outdoors and allowing yourself to get a little cold increases thermogenesis (heat-creation) that increases metabolism.

3. Do yoga (especially backbends) Yoga poses like backbends or inversions (where your head is below your heart), encourage blood flow and delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the thyroid, while encouraging the calming that supports it.


Symptoms and signs

  • bloating and/or gas after eating
  • digestive or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)-type symptoms worse when stressed
  • food sensitivities
  • constipation and/or diarrhoea – lack of daily ‘full and satisfying evacuation’
  • headaches
  • poor digestion of fats and/or greasy or pale-coloured stools
  • frequent or long-term use of steroid medications, anti-inflammatories and/or antibiotics
  • diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and/or grains
7 stress suits

A diet high in refined carbs and sugar can lead to you wearing the stressed and bloated suit

Stress lowers beneficial probiotic gut bacteria, which can prompt inflammation and is linked to conditions such as asthma, eczema and arthritis. The stress response immediately diverts energy, oxygen and nutrients away from the gut towards brain and muscle. Ongoing and chronic stress can cause spasm or constriction of gut muscles or uncomfortable cycles of diarrhoea and constipation as the gut struggles for balance.


1. Take probiotics Take a good quality probiotic (good brands are Quest, Lamberts and Biocare) to help you cope with stress and prevent the immune, detoxification and skin issues that disordered gut balance can create.

2. …and prebiotics Increase prebiotic foods in your diet – these feed the essential probiotic bacteria and keep it healthy and growing. Most importantly increase your vegetable intake, especially of those with the highest levels of prebiotics such as kiwi fruit, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, bananas, garlic, onions and leeks.

3. Eat mindfully – thoroughly chewed food has the best chance of complete digestion and less chance of causing food intolerances. It also helps the brain register ‘full’ signals before you’ve overeaten.


Symptoms and signs

  • inflammatory conditions such as hay fever, asthma, eczema, arthritis or psoriasis
  • frequent infections, including ear, nose and throat
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive conditions
  • bloating, fluid retention and sudden weight fluctuations
  • frequent or long-term use of steroid medications, anti-inflammatories and/or antibiotics
  • diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and/or grains
  • degenerative conditions such as osteoporosis, heart disease, joint problems
  • autoimmune conditions such as MS, diabetes, lupus

Stress creates an immediate rise in the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin, but cause crashes later

Low-level inflammation is at the root of many aspects of poor health, weight gain and chronic disease. Even if you don’t see obvious external inflammation, stress and poor dietary habits can set off an inflammatory cascade in tissues and blood vessels that contributes to symptoms and is exhausting. This starts in the gut where stress can also deplete levels of the anti-inflammatory antibody secretory-IgA.


1. Reduce sugar Inflammatory AGEs (advanced glycation end-products) are created in response to sugar and stress. These can contribute to the ageing of every cell in the body (including the skin) by ‘cross-linking’ or lost movement within cells.

2. Get your antioxidants Eat high levels of antioxidants to counteract the harmful ‘oxidizing’ effects of stress, pollution, exercise, sunlight and eating fried foods. Eat plenty of vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit as well as specific bioflavonoids in spices, black tea, green tea and garlic alongside antioxidant-rich treats like red wine and dark chocolate.

3. Cut back on starches We only started eating starches in any great amount since farming began – are linked to inflammatory conditions like acne and IBS. At least eat more vegetables in your diet than foods like bread, pasta, rice and pulses, or go Paleo and replace them with vegetables and nuts to see how your body responds.

MORE: How a paleo diet saved me from 20 years of dieting hell


Symptoms and signs

  • poor motivation and ‘get-up-and-go’
  • tendency to depression
  • feeling less positive than before
  • using sugar and refined carbs for comfort
  • late-night binges or overeating sessions
  • sleeping issues
  • wanting to withdraw from the world
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
stress suits

Late night binges and mood drops are all symptoms are tell tale signs of the stressed and demotivated suit

Stress creates an immediate rise in the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin, but cause crashes later, leading to mood drops and cravings for sugar as a quick-fix pick-up and an increasing reliance on sweet foods to ‘feel normal’. These craving cycles also cause weight gain, which can lower self-esteem and feed into habits of bingeing and/or overeating.


1. Get your fish oils DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, is known to be essential for serotonin and dopamine levels. Low dopamine and serotonin are linked to depression and other mental health issues. Eat oily fish twice a week or take an algae DHA like Opti-3 if you are vegetarian or vegan.

2. Increase beta-endorphins Natural opioids or ‘beta-endorphins’ are produced in response to laughing, music, socializing, hugs and sex, a fabulous reward system for keeping the species going. Sugar raises these too, so can be even more difficult to give up when we aren’t creating our own.

3. Explore Stressed and Bloated advice above Even if you don’t have those symptoms, there’s a strong gut-brain connection. Evidence shows replenishing probiotic gut bacteria also helps alleviate mild depression, as inflammation starts in the gut, is triggered by stress and has depressive effects on the brain.

processed forms like soy milk, soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein (TVP) tend to upset hormone-balancing abilities


Symptoms and signs

  • PMS or a history of menstrual problems
  • periods becoming heavier, more painful, less regular
  • female hormone issues, for example, fibroids, endometriosis, PCOS
  • premenstrual or ovulation sugar cravings
  • menopausal symptoms
  • fertility issues
  • long-term use of oral, IUD or injected hormonal contraception
  • hormonal phases of irritability, crying and/or negative thoughts

Your adrenal glands (located above your kidneys) directly affect the balance of oestrogen and progesterone in your body, and when they become unbalanced through stress, heavy, painful periods and other hormonal symptoms may result. Stress can also lead to weight gain in ‘female areas’ like the bottom, hips and thighs as well as tend us to lay down fat around the middles. See what other Suits you need to address above and add in and also do the following

Stress can also lead to weight gain in ‘female areas’ like the bottom, hips and thighs


1. Watch the alcohol  It can raise circulating oestrogen and may worsen PMS and heighten breast cancer risk, especially if you take it in drip-feed amounts and find that nightly glass often turns into half a bottle.

2. Go organic It’s more expensive but worth it, and if you can only make one organic choice make it this. Non-organic meat, eggs and dairy are higher in the growth hormones which disrupt hormone balance.

3. Avoid processed soy products Traditionally processed forms of soy, such as soy sauce, tamari (gluten-free soy sauce), miso, tempeh and natto, have long been associated with female health when eaten several times a week. Other processed forms like soy milk, soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein (TVP) tend to upset hormone-balancing abilities though.

More from Charlotte Watts

Stressed out? The secrets to dealing with it are in your BELLY – our blogger has 7 ways healing your gut can heal your head
5 office exercises to up your energy at work
10 ways to deal with stress and anxiety you’ve NEVER heard of
7 surprising signs you’re stressed
6 ways to have more energy through the day

charlotte_watts_1801.gifCHARLOTTE WATTS is a nutritionist and yoga teacher whose work has focussed on how nutrition and yoga can meet to help people cope with the type of demands we face in the 21st century. Her practice and teaching of mindfulness weaves these together and has culminated in her new book The De-Stress Effect: Rebalance Your Body’s Systems for Vibrant Health and HappinessShe has also authored The De-Stress Diet (with Anna Magee), 100 Top Recipes for Happy Kids, 100 Best Foods for Pregnancy and 100 Foods to Stay Young.

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