What and how you eat can have a profound effect on your mood and the way you experience stress. Diet and nutrition play an important role in staying healthy. A nutritious, balanced diet is essential to keep your blood sugar level on an even keel and be more resilient to stress. Of course wholesome food won’t make your stressors disappear but it can help you cope better.
Conversely, a poor diet will weaken your immune system due to an insufficient supply of nutrients, potentially stress the digestive system and other organs (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Herbert, 1997; Greenberg, 2003). Physical stress is linked to high blood pressure, digestive problem, ulcers and indigestion, palpitation, chest pain, skin disorder, muscle tension, head ache, loss of appetite, restlessness, irregularities in the menstrual cycle, impairment of fertility and depletion of vitamin C, B and D in the body.
Just think about the vicious cycle stressed-out behaviour generates. When you are stressed you often don’t get enough sleep. Because you are sleep deprived you might reach for coffee after coffee to stay awake which causes your blood sugar to first spike and then drop. And then grabbing a candy bar for a quick blood sugar fix. To unwind after work you might consume alcohol for relaxation purposes which affects the quality of your sleep (Aldrich, in press) and so the cycle continues.
What to avoid
In general try to stray away from overly processed or packaged foods that are high in sugar and contain trans fats, preservatives and or additives.
Everything made of white, refined flour such as bread, cake, pasta, soups and gravy is mainly empty calories as the bleaching process strips them of vital fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Too many refined carbohydrates can cause your blood sugar levels to peak, triggering insulin release, as well as reduce the available Vitamin C, and impair white cell function.
So how can food improve our stress coping mechanisms?
You might have noticed how certain foods make you feel energized and relaxed while others leave you irritable and depleted of energy.
It can be as simple as soothing yourself with a warm cup of tea. You can add to its calming effects by using herbs, like lavender and chamomile.
Tryptophan-rich foods such as whole-grain oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, turkey, dairy products, fish, tofu, peanuts and sesame seeds help your body produce a neurotransmitter called serotonin which has mood stabilising qualities. Additionally, it may alleviate stress, encourage restful sleep and support your body repair cells in the brain and nervous system.
Vitamin B-6, found in alfalfa, white chicken meat, carrots, broccoli and bananas, enhances the function of the thymus gland, which produces white blood cells to boost the immune system, improves digestion and is essential for the metabolism of carbohydrates and the production of glucose.
Similarly, vitamin C may help boost the immune system because it also encourages the production of white blood cells. It further has a calming effect on your central nervous system, and helps return blood pressure and cortisol to normal levels after a stressful situation. Foods rich in vitamin C are strawberries, papayas, broccoli, cherries, pomegranates, kiwi, mango, papaya, guava, spinach and pineapples and of course citrus fruits, as well as spices such as green pepper or red pepper.
Studies have linked deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids to anxiety, elevated stress levels and depression (Bradbury, Myers & Oliver, 2004). Omega-3 fatty acids boost serotonin levels and moderate stress hormones like cortisol. Good sources of Omega-3 essential fatty acids are nuts, soybean, canola oil, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, fish, such as salmon, bluefish, herring, tuna, cod, flounder, mackerel and shrimps.
And last but not least is it OK to use chocolate as a stress relief?
As for chocolate, if eaten in moderation and the organic (you don’t want any pesticides) dark raw kind (sweetened with honey, agave or coconut sugar), it is actually good for you. It contains active ingredients such as theobromine which serves as a mood enhancer and tryptophan, needed to produce serotonin, the brain’s “happy chemical” (Benton & Donohoe, 1999). Additionally, cocao beans contain high levels of magnesium (a stress relieving mineral) and antioxidants (anti-inflammatory qualities).
There’s not one approach that fits all when it comes to food as a stress buster. The most important thing is listening to your body. Discovering through trial and error which foods make you feel energizied and resilient and which foods add to your stress.
And of course all this takes practice and maybe working through some life-long conditioning and beliefs.
Benton, D., Donohoe RT. (1999). The effects of nutrients on mood. Public Health Nutr, 2 (3a): 403-409.
Bradbury, J., Myers, S. P., & Oliver, C. (2004). An adaptogenic role for omega-3 fatty acids in stress: A randomized placebo controlled double blind intervention study (pilot). Nutrition Journal, 3, 20.
Greenberg, J. (2003). Comprehensive Stress Management. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hil.
Herbert, J. (1997). Stress, the brain, and mental illness. BMJ. 315(7107), 530-536.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Dell Publishing.