I am someone who has always believed in using my optimum stress level to my advantage. While some people crack under the weight of a huge to-do list, I know that I need a good-sized chunk of work on my plate in order to feel motivated each day. I also know when it’s time to say “no,” ask for an extended deadline, or raise my hand for help. Fortunately, I work with a team that is respectful of each individual’s bandwidth, and as such, I have had no trouble maintaining my sanity.

That being said, I am also aware that our bodies are equipped to manage a certain amount of stress. When we surpass our optimal stress levels, we begin to experience mild side effects such as exhaustion, insomnia, and trouble concentrating.

When we become stressed far beyond our capacities, that’s when food cravings, changes in our weight, anxiety, and depression begin to arise. And when we are absolutely overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, the chance of developing a serious illness or disease is increased.

While I pride myself on my ability to manage a higher-than-average stress load, I must admit that I have been suspiciously tired, irritable, and shamefully reaching for the junk food stash lately. At one time, I thought that perhaps since I am vegan, I was lacking essential vitamins and nutrients in my diet—something that people always confront me with when I reveal to them that I don’t eat animal products. A trip to the doctor’s office revealed that, in fact, I have more than enough iron and B12 in my body (the two vitamins that most people associate with veganism), and am generally in good health.

Then I started reading The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier as part of a Vegan Nutrition course that I’m taking in my spare time (part of what makes Actionable such an incredible place to work is the fact that we are encouraged to learn new skills and grow—even if the learning isn’t directly related to our roles). I’ve since learned that serotonin production declines as a result of high stress levels, whereas foods containing refined sugar (and lacking fibre) are known to release serotonin and improve your mood. I also learned that fat “helps numb the receptors in the brain that regulate emotional responses,” and when you find yourself feeling stressed, your body craves fat in order to cope with negative emotions.

I personally have always felt my best eating a high-carb vegan diet. That being said, veganism doesn’t negate the effects of stress, and I’ve been craving high calorie junk foods that contain a ton of fat and refined sugar, but virtually no nutrients. The information I read in just the first chapter of The Thrive Diet explains why.

The problem with stress-related cravings like the ones I’ve been experiencing is that they take up unnecessary space in the brain, making it difficult to focus on anything else until the craving is satisfied. Brazier calls this type of craving a form of “mental clutter,” as the concentration on cravings tends to block creative thought and reduce productivity in general. That’s why, in Brazier’s breakdown of stressors, cravings are categorized as a form of uncomplimentary stress.

The solution is obvious: reach for whole, unprocessed foods to satisfy the fat and sugar cravings while also serving your body with vitamins, nutrients, and fibre.

In his chapter about stress, Brazier also refers to “brain fog,” that familiar foggy feeling that causes us to yawn, makes it hard to concentrate, and reduces productivity after lunch hour. This is also, unsurprisingly, an uncomplimentary stress that stems from improper nutrition. Each part of the body—including the digestive system—requires blood flow to function properly. When we eat too much food, especially food that our bodies find difficult to digest, our digestive system will require more blood flow, and will confiscate some of it from the brain. And so, until digestion can return to normal, we’re left staring deeply into our laptop screens, unable to think of anything other than how great it would be to take a nap under the desk.

Once again, the solution is simply eating a balance of whole, unprocessed foods for lunch.

As a result of our natural fight-or-flight response, our immune systems tend to step up to the plate when we are stressed. As stress starts to dissipate, and our immune systems retreat back to a state of normalcy, hormone imbalances can trigger chronic pain, and viral infections are more likely to flare up. That’s why people who experience higher volumes of uncomplimentary stress during the work week will have their weekends and vacations ruined by migraines, bodily pains, and sickness.

60% of the average North American’s total stress is uncomplimentary, meaning that by definition it does not produce any beneficial outcome, and is instead detrimental to us. Nutritional stress—which is the result of a lack of vitamins, fibre, probiotics and other essential nutrients in the body—accounts for 70% of the average North American’s total uncomplimentary stress.

Think about it: it’s likely that 42% of the total stress you’re feeling right now is caused by your nutrition.

The other 40% of total stress is complementary, which is the kind that will have a positive outcome, such as taking steps toward achieving a goal or becoming healthier and more resilient.

Let me take a moment here to mention that one of the many advantages of working in a ROWE is having flexibility in my work schedule. While many people may find themselves regularly nodding off in a rolling office chair, I am grateful to work for a company that offers me the opportunity to use my time and energy effectively and as a heavily trusted individual. The issue I am facing is not my inability to be productive, and I certainly do not find myself lacking complimentary stress. The issue is that I’m tired of taking naps—I’d rather be healthy, happy, and well-rested at all times.

My theory is that by improving nutrition in order to reduce uncomplimentary stress, and managing complementary stressors with intention, it is possible to increase productivity, and be a happier, healthier, more energetic human overall. This is my goal.

Fortunately, being a part of Team Actionable means that I am able to automatically avoid many triggers associated with nutritional stress. We don’t have a communal kitchen fully stocked with candy and doughnuts, and nobody pops by my apartment to gift me with leftover birthday cake from the weekend. I’m also able to make a homemade lunch every day instead of running out to buy whatever can be cooked and eaten in under an hour. Unfortunately, succumbing to cravings for junk food is ten times easier when I can walk to the corner store or order food to my apartment at any hour of the day.

Reading The Thrive Diet has helped me identify that I have been allowing stress to influence my food cravings, and my food cravings to contribute to my stress levels. I have decided to combat this spiral of stress by investing in my nutrition—something that my teammates have been super supportive of. As I embark on this journey, I know that the team will be cheering me on in the ActionableHealth slack channel, offering their own tips and learnings, and supporting my efforts to be a less-stressed, more productive member of the team.