Stress and diet have always been linked. It is possible that someone eating a healthy, balanced diet is going to be far less stressed than someone eating a poor diet. If you are feeling stressed, your digestive system is probably under a great deal of strain, so making changes to your diet could be key to feeling better physically and emotionally.
Here is an overview of stress relieving foods and habits to include in your diet and certain foods to avoid which may help to improve symptoms.
Eat More Of:
Vegetables and Fruit
Likely this is not a surprise to you, but first and foremost, eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit will ensure you get plenty of nutrients and minerals. This is important when your body is feeling stressed and using more nutrients than it would normally. Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system and affect the body’s defences. This leaves a person more susceptible to infection and disease. Aim to eat at least seven to eight portions of vegetables and fruit a day to get a sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals, and focus on foods containing vitamins B, C and magnesium.
- B vitamins – These provide the body with energy after a period of stress. They are found in bananas, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, meat, fish and dairy products.
- Vitamin C – The largest store of vitamin C lies in the adrenal glands, which are responsible for the production of stress hormones. Keep these healthy by eating plenty of vitamin C rich foods such as oranges, tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens and broccoli.
- Magnesium – This mineral can help to relax muscles and reduce anxiety, while also playing an essential role in hormone and energy production. Nuts – particularly Brazil nuts – are high in magnesium, as are beans and lentils, whole grains and leafy greens.
Eating healthy snacks throughout the day (e.g. fruit, raw vegetables, yogurt, nuts and seeds) will help to keep blood sugar levels stable and metabolism functioning smoothly. On stressful days it is important to eat little and often to minimize peaks and drops in blood sugar and energy levels. This also includes eating a nutritious breakfast even though you may not feel hungry or think you do not have enough time. Eating breakfast can help to kick-start your metabolism and stabilise your blood sugar level. For some people, stress can make them skip or forget to eat their meals. This increases the likelihood that they will reach for processed or sugary foods when they are hungry.
Eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates (e.g. whole grain bread, oats, brown rice, quinoa, legumes, green vegetables and berries) will help to enhance levels of serotonin – the mood-boosting hormone that helps you to feel happy and more relaxed. Keeping this hormone in balance is important for dealing with stress. In addition, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly than refined, processed varieties, which can help stabilize blood sugars.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) are vital nutrients, which help the body to function effectively – particularly the brain. EFAs also help to moderate the effects of psychological and physical stress because they lower the release of glucocorticoids (“steroid hormone”) under stressful conditions. To get the right balance of EFAs in your diet, eat oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Research into stress and diet shows that calcium may be able to help reduce certain symptoms, such as muscle tension and anxiety. Therefore, including plenty of calcium-rich foods in your diet (e.g. low-fat milk, yogurt, sesame seeds, kelp, cheese, leafy greens and broccoli) may be beneficial. Eating these in the latter part of the day is thought to help with absorption.
Eat Less Of:
Caffeine reduces our ability to deal with stress. This is because it acts as a stimulant, causing the adrenal glands activated by the fight or flight response to release more hormones like cortisol, which are already high due to the strain on our bodies.
In addition, caffeine consumption can deplete levels of energy producing magnesium and metabolism-boosting B vitamins from the body. Substituting coffees and teas for herbal varieties or green tea can help reduce your caffeine consumption.
Foods high in sugar
Cravings for processed and sugary foods may be heightened when you are feeling stressed, but it is important to avoid consuming these in high quantities. Not only can they negatively impact your overall health, but they can also make you feel worse in the long-term. For example, sugar will provide a short burst of energy and temporary relief from stressful feelings, but this will be quickly followed ‘low’ energy levels when your blood sugar levels crash. This can lead to irritability and increased food cravings, which can put a lot more strain on the body.
Many people turn to alcohol as a means of dealing with stress. While it may have an instant calming effect on the body, in the long-term alcohol can increase the amount of stress in people’s lives. Sleep problems, nervousness and skin irritations are also common side effects of drinking because alcohol makes the body release larger amounts of adrenaline and impacts blood sugar levels.
Article written by Courtney Chisholm, Registered Dietitian at World Health Calgary Place.