6 Food Groups to Lower Stress
hy is it that when we are stressed, we crave foods that are high in refined sugar, such as biscuits, chocolate, sugary drinks, cakes etc? This article explains why and gives some useful tips on the foods you should be eating, and avoiding, when stressed.
The stress response is the ‘fight or flight response’, which causes our bodies to naturally crave the foods that break down into glucose the quickest, giving that intense spurt of energy needed to deal with an immediate threat. If the threat is real, the glucose that floods our system is quickly used up as energy as we either stand and fight, or turn and make a quick escape.
As our bodies do not differentiate between genuine life-threatening emergencies and the stress of facing work deadlines, sitting in traffic, relationship problems etc, we still tend to crave foods high in simple, refined sugars, despite having no need for them and no way of burning off the glucose. Instead that excess glucose will ultimately get stored as fat. It is therefore very important, when we are stressed, to recognise why we are craving the foods we are, and to decide instead to eat the foods that will support our health and strengthen our stress coping mechanisms. To learn more about what causes stress and what you can do to improve your relationship with it, please take a look at this article on A Nutritional Therapist's Guide to Stress
Chronic stress causes the release of many hormones, placing excessive demands on the body’s supply of vitamins and minerals. If we are, or if we become, deficient in the nutrients necessary to support us during stressful times, this can have serious health consequences. The foods we should be including in our diet to deal with stress include:
Vitamin C rich foods
Studies have shown that people with high levels of vitamin C in their body do not appear to be as strongly affected by physically and psychologically stressful situations as people with lower levels. The people with the higher levels also display more resilience in bouncing back from stress and trauma. The research suggests that vitamin C could be an essential part of stress management. During periods of stress, the immune system becomes weakened. Vitamin C is an important building block for the immune system. Some foods that are high in vitamin C include:
- Brussels sprouts
- American Persimmons
- Strawberries - One cup provides 99% of your DV
- Oranges - One medium-sized orange provides 78% of DV
- Kale (organic as it is now in 3rd place on the Dirty Dozen list of foods high in pesticides)
Foods high in fibre
Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are important for gut health, in particular for maintaining the integrity of the gastro-intestinal (GI) barrier, which protects the lining from toxins, undigested food particles, ingested pathogens and the gut microbiome. SCFAs are produced by bacteria acting on fibre. Stress adversely affects the balance of the gut microbiome. Eating foods rich in prebiotics that help nourish these bacteria is important during times of stress to keep the gut healthy. Examples of prebiotic foods are:
- Unripe bananas
- Root vegetables
- Fermented foods
- Pectin (from apples)
- Whole grains
Foods rich in magnesium
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals, involved in as many as 300 chemical reactions taking place in our bodies every day. Magnesium is also important for relaxation, helping you calm down, relax your muscles, relieve headaches and fall asleep. Foods rich in magnesium include:
- Unsweetened organic yoghurt
- Wild-caught salmon
- Leafy green veggies
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli
To learn more about the role magnesium plays in your health,
please read this article from my website.
Foods high in B vitamins
The importance of the B vitamins generally and in times of stress (more specifically), is well researched. They are a group of vitamins which help balance moods, improve brain function, support digestion, convert food into energy, strengthen immunity and manufacture neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) which aid in the body’s ability to cope with depression, stress and anxiety.
To learn more about the role that B vitamins play in your health, please read this in-depth vitamin B article in my Articles section.
Foods high in protein
Foods high in protein provide the amino acids necessary to build neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. Sustained or chronic stress leads to elevated cortisol which, over time can deplete the body of these important neurotransmitters, resulting in depression and the development of other mental health issues.
Healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, stabilise moods and support overall brain health. Foods that provide us with healthy fats include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Cold-water, wild-caught fish such as sardines and salmon
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Foods to avoid
On the other hand, there are many foods which actually contribute to elevated stress levels, and which should be avoided during times of stress. These include:
- Processed, packaged or sugary foods — processed, refined foods (pies, white flour, chips, bread, pasta) and foods with added sugar can result in blood sugar highs and lows throughout the day. This ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’ results in increased anxiety and causes cravings, energy crashes, overall fatigue and low moods.
- Too much caffeine or alcohol — alcohol and caffeine can weaken your resilience to stress by causing or worsening anxiety, dehydrating you, interfering with your ability to sleep (leaving you tired) and thus making you unable to cope well with stress. When our stress levels are already high, stimulants like caffeine can cause heart palpitations making us feel jittery and leaving us feeling worse. In times of stress it is important to remain hydrated and to drink more calming herbal teas like chamomile or chicory.
- Refined vegetable oils — imbalances in polyunsaturated fatty acids, (getting much more omega-6s than omega-3s from your diet), are tied to inflammation, metabolic damage and even poor gut health, which can then adversely affect mental processes.