The Curious Link Between What You Eat and Your Emotions

Here’s how to keep emotional distress from burning you out.

Alexa Ippolito Stewart was on her honeymoon but she couldn’t enjoy it. She constantly checked her phone, which led to answering emails from her employer based in D.C. From the moment the trip began, Stewart lashed out at her husband—for walking too slowly when leaving the plane (then making him apologize for his slowness). Before the honeymoon, Stewart had been working anywhere between 40-80 hours per week for her job and was always on-call for last minute tasks.

Americans are putting in more hours than ever, and like Stewart, many are experiencing one of the major negative impacts of burnout—emotional distress. A 2013 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that professionals, managers, and executives who have smartphones spend 72 hours of the 168-hour week (a staggering 43 percent of their time) doing something related to work. Increasing research has found that everyone from teachers to medical professionals are experiencing burnout.

One of the major red flags of burnout is emotional distress. Whether it’s snapping at your spouse or bursting into tears at the smallest misstep, emotional distress can affect your physical health, your relationships, and even your work.

Stewart knows how that feels. “I was emotionally closed-off, I was tense, I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't in control of my emotions at all, and I felt out of control in almost every single way. I was on edge, so I snapped a lot, almost always at the wrong people,” she said.

Heightened emotions of any kind for an extended amount of time can put your body in a stressful state. Studies have shown that depression can weaken your immune system by boosting the body’s production of interleukin 6 (IL-6), a chemical messenger for the immune system. High levels of IL-6 have been linked to long-term inflammation, which can affect your immune system’s response and make you susceptible to autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and other illnesses.

Similarly, when you get angry with someone, your heart starts pounding much faster than normal and your body releases large amounts of adrenaline and noradrenalin. These hormones are released by your adrenal glands and maintain blood pressure, regulate the pancreas, and control sugar balance in our blood. Excessive prolonged anger raises your risk for stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

In that way, unbalanced emotions can literally make you sick, which means you’ll be less productive at work and you might even have to take days off. So how do you take care of your emotions? We’ve collected expert advice on balancing your emotions when you’re working long hours.

Pay Attention to What You Eat

Your diet has a lot to do with your mood says nutritionist Julie Freeman. “It’s often said that our stomach is our second brain,” Freeman said. “If you’re feeling constipated, have diarrhea, or your stomach hurts, most likely your emotions are feeling out of order as well.” Make sure you eat well, even though when you’re busy, you'll tend to gravitate toward salty, fatty foods. Freeman suggests eating more whole grains because the sugar from refined carbohydrates can stimulate a rapid insulin release that will cause serotonin levels to drop. Making sure that you get enough fiber with your sugar will slow the insulin release and counteract its effects on your mood, Freeman said. Freeman also suggests pairing a protein with your carbs to give you sustained energy.

Supplement When Needed

Freeman says that some of the most common nutrient deficits she sees in patients with emotional and mental distress are magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium is known as the “chill pill” and studies have shown that taking magnesium can alleviate depression. Be careful though: magnesium can sometimes be hard to absorb so look for magnesium in aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms. Vitamin D is the only vitamin that is a hormone and it helps activate feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

Practice Mindfulness

Gail Brenner, psychologist and author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life, says that the first thing she has clients do is recognize and notice their emotions without feeling frustrated by them. “As you do this, the best way to take care of your body becomes apparent,” Brenner said. The American Psychological Association found that simple journaling can be an effective way to take care of your emotions. To try it yourself: Get a clean sheet of paper and start by writing “I feel…” and free write for about five minutes.

Remember Feeling Good

In 2002, researchers from the University of Michigan found that positive emotions often to lead to more positive emotions. That means that regularly reminding yourself of positive memories in the past can jumpstart feeling good now.

Get Moving

You’ve heard it so much now it’s almost become a cliché but the research is there—exercise is one of the best ways to stay happy.

Though it’s too late for Stewart to relax through her honeymoon, there’s still time for you. Watch what you eat, exercise, and be smart about the supplements you decide to make a part of your routine. But your best bet to avoid burnout is to give yourself a break from your biggest stressors. Don’t forget to do the things you love in addition to those that are demanded of you.

Image via Shutterstock


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