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Nutrition to reduce motherhood overwhelm and stress


by Rachel Anne Hobbs R.D. Pg.Dip mHCPC


I am a mum of three; a teenager, toddler and newborn and I love it SO much … and also at times our house is wild and intense; sometimes it just takes the sound of the airfryer being turned on to just tip me over the edge and I notice this urge to scream … I am sure some of you can relate!



breastfeeding weight loss


Overstimulation and overwhelm can happen all at once or little by little. It occurs when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and automatically, ie. without our conscious control, makes changes to our body and brain in an attempt to help us survive. These changes are made as a result of our nervous system listening and learning to what is going on around us, between us and other people and within our own bodies. 


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) activates it’s sympathetic pathway and signals to release adrenaline and cortisol which makes changes which either lead to bodily processes such as our heart rate and breathing rate speeding up, this is referred to as fight and flight (Polyvagal Theory - this paper explains more) or hyperarousal (Window of Tolerance Theory); if this happens we often feel stressed, anxious and angry … this is where the terminology mum rage comes from. If speeding up our body process’ doesn’t work then our ANS activates it’s parasympathetic dorsal vagal pathway and bodily processes slow down into a freeze or hypoarousal response. This often feels like we are out of our own body, collapsed, stuck or unmotivated. We may refer to both these states as “survival mode”.




These states are evolutionary protective mechanisms, for example it is beneficial to have the flight response when we are being chased by a tiger, we want our heart rate to pump blood around the body quickly so we can run faster BUT it is not useful in response to the many smaller stressors in modern daily life such as our toddler having a meltdown at the library, waiting in a long queue at the shops when the baby needs a feed, the washing bin overloading, arguing with a partner or having a long to-do list; this constant hyperarousal leads burn out. When we are in survival mode we often refer to this as feeling “dysregulated” 


Often when these small daily stressors happen little by little we don’t notice it until we get to a place of complete overwhelm and end of shouting at the kids or snapping at our partner or reaching for a tub of ice cream. These are ways in which we are unconsciously attempting to self regulate BUT they are not beneficial ones if they cause ourselves or others harm or distress. 


If we are able to recognise when we are experiencing some dysregulation by the sensations we are experiencing such as an increased heart rate or muscle tension in our shoulders, or perhaps the feelings and thoughts we notice or the behaviours we engage in, we can attempt to take a moment to restore ourselves in a way that feels healthy so we don’t get overstimulated. 


It is important recognise that our prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain which is partly responsible for rationally thinking, becomes dysfunctional when we are in survival mode ie. stressed, angry, annoyed so that is why our thoughts can sometimes seem extreme in those moments. 


For me personally, I notice dysregulation by tension in my shoulders and neck, a hot sensation, a racing heart and this strange sense of urgency. My thoughts become quite negative and I become less rational, I understand that this means I need something, often what I need is a break, but mum life doesn’t always offer that when we need it so I came up with a list of ways I can reduce the overwhelm and stimulation to allow my nervous system to restore; this all involve ways to bringing  more safety and connection into my space, we call these “safety cues”.


This may look like:


  • Taking three deep breaths where the exhalation is longer than the inhalation

  • Stepping outside and noticing all the green things 

  • Shaking my body out 

  • Washing my hands under warm water 

  • Turning everything off that makes a noise e.g. airfryer, music, hob 

  • Dancing 

  • Punching a pillow

  • Do 10 star jumps 

  • Getting the crayons out and doodling with the kids 

  • Pushing against a wall

  • Having quiet time reading stories


 


Nurturing the nervous system through nutrition


There are also ways in which we can support ourselves and nervous systems through the foods that we eat to be able to reduce feelings of overwhelm or burn out  and increase our ability to cope in times of stress.   We do this through supporting our nervous system and the neurotransmitters it produces.



This  study suggests that the nutrition of the entire body influences the production of neurotransmitters in the brain,  neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin as well as cortisol and adrenaline and these in turn affect how we experience stress, joy and life in general.


It also highlights something really important for us all to remember, especially if we are chronic dieters, the brain does not have the ability to store nutrients so it requires a continuous supply of accessible sources of energy, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It is so important that we eat enough food regularly, not only for the health of our body but for the health of our brain and nervous system.

 

The brain does not have the ability to store nutrients so it requires a continuous supply of accessible sources of energy, carbohydrates, proteins and fats.


The aspects of nutrition we want to pay particular attention too if we want to support our nervous system and reduce the impact of stress and overstimulation include: 


  1. Energy ie. calories : for its fairly small size, the brain needs a lot of energy to work effectively, this study suggests around 23%; therefore if we are not eating enough food it will take this energy from other body functions which can lead to us feeling tired, run down and more than a little impatient! 


  1. Carbohydrates : white potatoes, sweet potatoes, wholegrain rice, wholegrain pasta, whole grain bread, cous cous, bulgar wheat, lentils, oats, cereals. When our mood is low, consuming carbohydrate containing food has a calming effect due to increasing tryptophan and serotonin synthesis in the central nervous system. This study indicates that a low carbohydrate diet often precipitates depression.


  1. Omega 3 : salmon, trout, tuna steak (not tinned tuna), sardines (fresh or tinned), mackerel (fresh or tinned); this plays a role in the brain and nervous system structure as well as being anti inflammatory


  1. Dairy products : milk and greek yoghurt; peptides are formed from milk proteins which have an important role in brain function. These neurotransmitters have an opioid action which makes us feel good too


  1. Glutamine : beef, pork, poultry, milk, yoghourt, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, raw spinach, raw parsley, and cabbage this may support our nervous system directly or indirectly through improving gut health,


  1. Taurine : tuna, beef, poultry, dairy , this is produced by the body but not in adequate amounts.


  1. Tyrosine :soy products, chicken, turkey, fish, peanuts, almonds, avocados, bananas, milk, cheese, yoghourt, cottage cheese, lima beans, pumpkin seeds: this is important in the formation of adrenaline and dopamine.


  1. Tryptophan: Chicken, eggs, fish, milk, sunflower seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds: this is important in the production of serotonin which is a relaxing, pain relieving neurotransmitter 


  1. Phenylalanine: soy, dairy products, legumes, sesame seeds meat, fish, poultry, and legumes.: this is important in the communication between nerve cells 


  1. B vitamins : meat, poultry, tofu, eggs, ,yoghurt, legumes : low levels  of B vitamins have been linked with mood disorders and depression. Plant based eaters, vegetarians and vegans will need to supplement with a vitamin B12


  1. Zinc: chickpeas, cashews, oats, dairy, meat, fish, Zinc is necessary for the proper development and function of the brain.


  1. Magnesium : pumpkin seeds, black beans, spinach, almonds, cashews 



If we choose to lose weight it is important to recognise that we might be putting ourselves at risk of deficiencies, especially if we cut foods or ensure food groups, this in turn has an impact on our ability to restore our nervous system function after times of overstimulation. Ultimately dieting often decreases our window of tolerance because we have less resources available, making it easier to end up feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. This is not to say we shouldn't diet, I am a huge believer in body autonomy, just that it is important to make decisions from an informed place. What we choose to eat matters. 



 

Example meals


Here are some example meals that support nervous system health and self regulation:


Breakfasts 


  • Eggs on whole grain toast with spinach and mushrooms topped with pumpkin seeds

  • Milky porridge with peanut butter and raspberries 

  • Greek yoghurt topped with cashews, strawberries and blueberries 


Lunches 


  • Salmon and ricotta wholegrain sandwich with spinach, peppers and cucumber.

  • Sweet potato and chickpea salad with spinach, cabbage and carrot 

  • Wholegrain rice salad with chicken or tofu and spinach, roasted peppers and courgettes 


Dinners 


  • Whole Grain pasta with chicken or tofu and ricotta with spinach, onion and broccoli 

  • Lentil dahl with sweet potato, carrot, spinach and wholegrain rice 

  • Beef and/or Black bean chilli with tomatoes, roasted peppers and wholegrain rice. 


Snacks


  • Greek yoghurt with berries 

  • Air fried potato chips with cashew and coriander dip

  • Wholegrain toast with hummus 

  • Banana with peanut butter 

  • Dark chocolate



Final comments


Overwhelm and overstimulation in motherhood is common, but it doesn’t have to feel constant. Placing gentle focus on ensuring we are eating enough food regularly and making wholegrains, nuts, legumes, oily fish, fruits and vegetables and lean meats a regular part of our daily diet can support us to expand our window of tolerance so we can find more joy in motherhood.


Rach x

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