Balanced diets may improve work energy and productivity levels

My last posting concentrated on new evidence suggesting that desk work could be contributing to overeating.  Staying on the work theme I wanted to briefly mention a recent(1) study published by ComPsych Corporation that reveals how healthy eating seems to improve our energy levels at work.

ComPsych Corporation is the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programs, operating in 92 countries.  They also provide services to address employee behavioural health, wellness and work-life balance.  Their 2008 workplace wellness study, which surveyed over 1000 employees in the US, revealed that 50% of workers with balanced diets have high energy compared to only 5% with those with unbalanced diets.  In addition to the aforementioned results the study also found that of the employees with healthy diets 73% reported having high levels of productivity compared to 24% of employees with poor dietary habits.  51% of employees who were not overweight had high morale compared to 25% who were overweight.

It seems obvious to me that continual feelings of high energy will help keep us motivated and hence productive at work.  Healthy eating can impact us in many ways.  Providing the body with optimal nutrition will keep us functioning well both mentally and physically.  Not rocket science really!

In the last post I mentioned the stress hormone cortisol and the possible effects of work on our blood sugar balance.  ‘Stress’ within the workplace is really a ‘fight or flight’ response to a mental challenge but it can become a problem when it is too much for an individual to handle.  Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood the body during stressful times and cause digestion to slow, muscles to tense, heart rate to rise and blood sugar levels to fluctuate.  In a situation such as a tiger about to attack us this is a beneficial response as we use all our energy to flee the scene!  If we are at our desks in a work situation and this energy and tension is not discharged it starts to have an effect all of our organs and cells which can lead to health problems ranging from high blood pressure to digestive problems, sleep problems and even cancers.  Each of us responds differently under pressured situations so stress is a very personal issue.  There are many ways that we can attenuate the negative effects of too much work and mental pressure.  Exercise, relaxation, avoiding caffeine, reducing alcohol levels, making room for fun and eating a balanced and healthy diet can all help.

In addition to ensuring a diet that is as healthy as possible there are a few specific nutrients which may help support the body during times of stress.

Stress seems to promote the release of inflammatory chemicals in the body.  Omega 3 fatty acids may inhibit the ability of excess stress to initiate inflammation.  Excessive amounts of omega 6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils), and a relative lack of omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish and some nuts and seeds) also seems to promote inflammation in the body. Maintaining a balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids i.e. avoidance of excessive amounts of margarine and vegetable oils and the regular inclusion of oily fish (e.g. salmon and mackerel), walnuts and flaxseeds in the diet may therefore benefit individuals during times of stress.  In one(2) study twenty-seven university students had their blood serum sampled a few weeks before and after, as well as one day before, a difficult oral examination (a time of considerable stress).  This stress was associated with a significant increase in the production inflammatory chemicals in the body (cytokines).  Subjects with high omega-6 fatty acid levels had a greater production of these inflammatory cytokines compared with subjects with high omega-3 fatty acid levels. Another study (3) found that supplementation with fish oils inhibited the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to mental stress.  If you are not a regular eater of oily fish you may wish to consider a supplement that provides around 250mg of EPA and 250mg of DHA (long chain omega 3 fatty acids) daily.  Or, if you are vegetarian/vegan, a daily flaxseed oil supplement providing around 500mg alpha-linoleic acid.

Another useful nutrient during times of stress is the mineral magnesium.  Studies have shown that excessive stress may cause the depletion of magnesium within the body (4,5).  Many people in the UK do not get enough magnesium in their diets.  Rich sources include nuts, seeds, pulses (beans, chickpeas) and wholegrain cereals.  If you feel you are not regularly eating these foods you may wish to consider a supplement providing around 300mg of magnesium a day.  

Finally I would like to mention gut bacteria (for more information see IBS post part I). Studies have shown that excessive stress can cause the depletion of beneficial ‘good’ bacteria (such as species of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) in the intestinal tract (6) Individuals may therefore benefit from taking a probiotic and prebiotic in times of stress.  One study(7) evaluated the use of a probiotic multivitamin supplement in 42 adults suffering from stress or exhaustion.  The supplement was taken daily for 6 months.  At the end of the study, an overall 40.7% improvement in stress was noted.  In addition, decreases of 29% in the frequency of infections and of 91% in gastrointestinal discomforts, both established indicators of stress, were recorded.  This was probably due to a combination of both the vitamins and the probiotics.  It is also known that stress can cause depletion of certain antioxidant vitamins in the body.

A balanced diet that prevents fluctuations in blood sugar levels (see post dated Monday 8th September) that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits together with healthy fats from nuts, seeds and oily fish and minimal amounts of processed and refined foods will really help to support the body during times of stress (well at all times really!)

(1)ComPsych 2008 Health and Productivity Index.
(2)Maes M  et al.  2000.  In humans, serum polyunsaturated fatty acid levels predict the response of proinflammatory cytokines to psychologic stress.  Biol Psychiatry.  47(10):910-920.
(3)Delarue, J., et al.  Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men.  Diabetes Metab.  29(3):289-295, 2003.
(4) Johnson S et al.  2001.  The multifaceted and widespread pathology of magnesium deficiency.  Medical Hypotheses.  56(2):163-170.
(5) Cernak I et al.  2000.  Alterations in magnesium and oxidative status during chronic emotional stress.  Magnes Res.  13:29-36
(6)Lizko NN et al.  1984.  [Events in the development of dysbacteriosis of the intestines in man under extreme conditions.]  Nahrung.  28:599-605.
(7)Gruenwald J et al.  2002.  Effect of a probiotic multivitamin compound on stress and exhaustion.  Adv Ther.  19(3):141-50

Written by Ani Kowal