by Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD

The stress of caring for an older family member, of finding the proper resources, of learning how to effectively deal with the issues that arise can take a toll on BOTH body and mind. It is essential to understand that caregiving commonly causes stress. Therefore it's important to recognize signs that you are being overwhelmed, and then to begin to find ways of reducing the stress. This article will focus on food and nutrition as one important aspect of caring for yourself. There are many other avenues, such as support groups and associations to help you; but my intention is to focus on what is happening within your body as the situation demands more and more of your time and energy.

What is stress?

The stress response is a chemical reaction. Heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, and breathing rate all rise, to get your body ready for action. Cholesterol and triglycerides increase. Fluid is retained; platelet clumping and free radicals are increased. These are all undesirable conditions. Too much stress can is linked to various heart, digestive, and other diseases.

Let me backtrack. These are not undesireable effects if you meet a bear in the forest and have to act quickly in order to save yourself from danger. The heart rate speeds up in order to quickly provide the extra oxygen and nutrients your body will need. Glucose is released into the blood to fuel the "fight or flight" response. Blood pressure rises as vessels to unneeded parts of the body constrict. Respiration speeds up to provide extra oxygen. Cholesterol and triglycerides provide the building blocks for many metabolic functions. The immune system shuts down because it's not needed at the moment. The brain goes on high alert.

Top priority is given to systems that allow "fight or flight." When the demand has passed, the body shuts down the "fight or flight" system and begins to repair the damages caused by the stress. The stress response has saved your life.

The problem is that sometimes a stress demand doesn't go away. This is the case when dealing with a sick or elderly person who requires constant care, reduces your ability to get a decent night's sleep, causes conflicts between wanting to help someone else and to help your self. Many people (commonly known as the sandwich generation) are caught between the needs of parents and the demands of their family.

If the stress doesn't stop, your body never gets a chance to heal itself. The immune system stays shut down, so infections, sickness and disease occur more easily. There's increased risk for heart disease, because the cholesterol and triglycerides stay elevated, the blood pressure stays high, arteries stay constricted, and there's decreased blood flow to the heart. Risk of cancer is higher because the immune system is depressed. And there's likelihood of depression due to the drain placed on the brain and nervous system. It's not healthy to maintain this "high alert" level on a constant basis. Your health depends on caring for yourself and getting stress under control.

What can you do?

First, recognize the signs of stress. Here are some common ones:

Dry mouth
Skin problems
Clammy hands
Feeling faint
Inability to talk/talking too much, too fast
Chain smoking
Muscle spasms/tightness
Hair twirling/pulling/tossing
Heart palpitations
Fingernail biting

Once you've identified stressors, take action. Your best bets are:

1) nutrition
2) exercise
3) relaxation

Nutrition And Stress

Plan regular meals daily. Eat three balanced meals, with a small snack in between. This will maintain a steady flow of blood sugar, rather than sharp peaks and valleys. This has a calming effect. Good foods to pick from: Turkey, milk, bananas, pineapple, avocado, papaya, dates, plums, figs, pecans, walnuts, tomatoes, kiwi. These all contain tryptophan, an amino acid that can be used by the brain to form serotonin, a chemical that signals the body to relax. Get at least six servings of complex carbohydrates daily. This means whole-grain cereals, bread, pasta, rice, bagels, crackers or English muffins. Use butter and margarine sparingly, as well as fatty sauces and spreads.

Eat moderate portions of protein--two to three servings a day. Too much protein increases alertness rather promoting relaxation and calmness. Try to make at least one protein serving cooked dried beans, soy products, nuts, eggs--these contain lecithin, can improve mental state, memory.

Use fatty foods moderately. They make you feel full, and take longer to digest, so that you're less likely to eat complex carbohydrate snacks between meals.

Drink plenty of water--at least 4-6 glasses each day. Water decreases fluid retention. When we don't drink enough water, the body clings to whatever fluid it can get. But when we drink plenty of water, excess fluid drains out of the tissues, along with metabolic wastes that can build up. Lack of water can also lead to constipation, because the body prioritizes the water it gets. If there's not enough water to go around, the kidneys will get high priority, as will the brain and blood. There may not be enough left to soften stools.

Exercise And Stress

Exercise is a natural stress buster. And it doesn't have to mean running marathons. In fact, heavy exercise can be stressful itself. But aerobic exercise can help you work out anxiety as well as muscle tension. A daily workout can mean a world of difference in your outlook. Besides that it helps raise "good" cholesterol and lower "bad" cholesterol, and strengthen the immune system. That will help lower your risk of disease.

Good exercise can be walking, gardening, cycling, swimming, dancing or any other movement that gets your heart rate up faster than normal. Several ten-minute sessions throughout the day are just as good as a 30-minute workout.

Stretching is also good for reducing stress. Yoga, tai chi, and other stretching exercises are very good at helping you feel relaxed and at peace.

Other Stress Reducers

Find a way to make time for yourself. If necessary find a therapist who can help, a support group for caregivers, an exercise or relaxation class. Realize that you can't do it alone. No one can. You need to sleep, to exercise, to eat properly, to talk to someone who can help plan care for your family member that allows you to care for yourself as well. Many nursing homes have respite care than can provide you with several days of relief.


President's Council on Fitness and Sports
701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington DC 20034

Nolan Ryan Fitness Guide published by the President's Council has a guide for people over forty. You can write for a copy at Nolan Ryan Fitness Guide PO Box 22091 Albany NY 12201-2091

Nutrition Hotline
800-366-1655 up-to-date information on nutrition.


Kathrynne Holden is a registered dietitian with a Master's degree in human nutrition. She specializes in nutrition for people with Parkinson's disease, and their caregivers. For information on her books, manuals, and other materials: (877) 545-2665 or (970) 224-5066


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