As we step into Stress Awareness Month this spring, it’s a good time to examine how stress can damage our health, particularly for women. Why? Women consistently report higher stress levels compared with men, and that gap appears to be widening, according to the American Psychological Association. Work pressure, financial issues, strain in relationships, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and health challenges top the list of stressors. Stress prevents us all—women and men—from living well and thriving.

Continued or prolonged stress can rob the body and mind of their ability to balance. The body’s stress response can exhaust our adrenal system and create lowered resistance to diseases, including type 2 diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart disease, asthma and gut problems. It can also increase symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and sleep disturbances.

The body’s response is geared to deal with everyday pressure. Extreme or unrelenting stress can become harmful. The remedy? A proactive plan that aligns nutrition and lifestyle strategies with belief systems. This approach allows us to react to stress more positively, and move and balance through stressful life situations.

The best starting place for developing such a plan is to examine the nutrients you take in. Under stress, the body can lose valuable stores of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, especially magnesium and vitamin C, which your adrenal glands require to function properly. Foods rich in these nutrients can keep your system strong under stress and possibly offset the damage it can cause. I recommend a daily multivitamin as one part of your preventive medicine strategy.

I am also a fan of certain adaptogenic herbs, such as holy basil, licorice root, astragalus and ginseng, for stress prevention and treatment. Adaptogens support and revive the adrenal response to stress.

Daily exercise, meditation, journaling and yoga are also proven methods for preventing and decreasing stress.

Eat Better, Bust Stress

Decrease caffeine: It weakens your adrenal response to stress and compromises sleep.

Decrease alcohol: It can change the way your body responds to stress, making it more difficult to handle adverse events.

Decrease refined carbohydrates and simple sugars: They cause hypoglycemia, which can affect how the brain gets its primary food source, glucose. Stress hormones can also starve the brain of glucose, interfering with brain chemistry and deregulating your moods. Refined carbs include soda pop, most packaged cereals, and baked goods and pasta made with white flour. Simple sugars include cane sugar, corn syrup and fructose.

Eat more complex carbohydrates: They help raise serotonin levels. Stress lowers our serotonin stores, which can dampen your mood, or even lead to anxiety and depression. Complex carbs include: greens; most vegetables; whole grains; plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt; and legumes.

Dr. Debra Rouse is a licensed naturopathic doctor and member of the Institute for Functional Medicine. drdebrarouse.com