Eating to Reduce Stress: Which Foods to Eat and Which to Avoid
Simply put, fuelling your body with healthy foods sets you up with long-lasting energy and prepares you to handle everyday stressors with more ease.
When our bodies aren’t properly nourished, it creates a state of stress within the body. Our organs, nervous system, and hormones struggle to keep up with daily demands because of a lack of nutrients. When our bodies don’t have the nutrient stores they need to function optimally, it often results in that feeling of burnout. To make matters worse, when our bodies and hormones are out of balance, it may be harder to get a restorative night’s rest.
If you’re starting each day feeling fatigued and foggy-brained, you aren’t setting yourself up for a successful day. And no, the long-term and sustainable answer isn’t in snacking mid-day or having a coffee to boost your energy. Instead, the answer lies in the very foundation of our health, proper nutrition.
Understanding How Stress Affects the Body
Heightened levels of stress over time can lead to all kinds of health issues. When you don’t eat the right foods, combined with consistently high levels of stress, you become at risk of developing disorders such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and digestive issues, to name a few (1). Imagine eating well as building a fort around your immune system. For example, foods containing antioxidants do just that; they protect the cells so that no matter what stress you throw their way, mental or physical, they’re less likely to be compromised by disease.
Adrenaline and cortisol are released by the adrenal gland when the mind and body perceive a threat. The release of these hormones is also known as the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline pumps through your body, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, giving you a surge of energy in preparation to react to the threat.
Meanwhile, cortisol works in conjunction with adrenaline, temporarily suppressing nonessential functions like cellular growth, digestion, and reproduction so that all resources are redirected to dealing with the threat at hand. (2) Cortisol also plays a crucial role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle so, if you’re having trouble sleeping or staying asleep high cortisol could be the culprit.
When the stress response mechanism is working smoothly and the threat has passed, the adrenal gland stops producing adrenaline and cortisol, your liver helps flush any excess out, and you return to your baseline.
However, when stress is continuous, and you don’t ever seem to catch a break, these hormones remain high in the body, wreaking havoc on critical functions essential to your wellbeing.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet helps promote strong immunity, good gut health, and resilience against stress. And while we can’t always take things off our busy plate, we CAN choose what foods go onto our plate.
Read on to find out which foods you should add to your diet to support healthy stress responses, and which are best to avoid.
Foods to eat to reduce stress
1. Red meat: Well-sourced beef and lamb are excellent sources of heme iron (more bioavailable than plant sources of iron) and B vitamins. Both of these key nutrients are vital to ensure a reduction of stress and anxiety, sustained energy, and good overall health.
2. Organ meats are jam-packed with B vitamins which are essential for stress regulation. The nutrients found in organ meat also help produce dopamine and serotonin, which are vital for mood regulation.
3. Fish: Fatty fish like wild salmon, tuna, and sardines are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Avocados: Avocado is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids shown to help reduce stress and boost mood and concentration.
5. Chia seeds and flaxseeds: Another great source of fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.
6. Nuts are high in B vitamins and magnesium, which both help fight off stress. Almonds and pumpkin seeds are some of the best sources of these nutrients.
7. Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits are rich in vitamin C, helping to boost immunity and fight off stress.
8. Sweet potatoes are a healthy carb choice, and they help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
9. Leafy greens such as spinach or Swiss chard. Spinach contains compounds that help produce serotonin and dopamine. Swiss chard is an excellent source of magnesium which helps regulate the stress response. Leafy greens are also excellent sources of fibre that promote good gut health and optimal nutrient absorption.
10. Eggs: The compound choline plays a vital role in brain health.
11. Dark Chocolate: One study found that 40 g of good quality dark chocolate consumed daily reduces cortisol excretion.
12. Blueberries contain powerful antioxidants and polyphenols, which are beneficial for brain function and boosting mood.
13. Chamomile or lavender tea can be sipped in the evening close to bedtime to help promote a restful night’s sleep. One study found that participants had lowered cortisol and anxiety levels after eight weeks of consuming 1.5g of chamomile daily.
14. Matcha or green tea if you thrive on coffee and caffeine, try matcha or green tea instead. They provide an energising boost but with much less caffeine than coffee. Plus, matcha contains L-theanine – a compound containing stress-relieving properties.
Foods to avoid to reduce stress
1. Processed sugars found in foods like ice cream, biscuits, and soft drinks have been linked to spikes in cortisol. The more of these foods you consume, the more cortisol your body produces.
2. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can be found in a number of processed foods. Aspartame has been linked to migraines and mood disorders.
3. Refined carbohydrates. The white flour used to make pasta, white bread, and baked goods has been refined extensively, and most of the nutrients are lost in the process. Consuming simple carbs leads to a spike in blood glucose levels, triggering stress hormones as a response.
4. Excess caffeine: While coffee may give you the boost you need throughout the day, you should consume it sparingly as it can also increase cortisol levels. Avoid consuming it after lunch or late in the day as it can interrupt your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
5. Alcohol: Many turn to a glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day as a way to relax and unwind. However, when alcohol is consumed in excess, it can decrease serotonin, which is essential for mood stabilisation. Too little serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety.
6. Fried foods: These foods are heavy and hard to digest. People who consume these foods regularly are more likely to feel fatigued and sluggish and at risk of high blood glucose levels.
As you can see from these lists of foods to eat and ones to avoid, many foods can directly impact your stress levels. When your body’s basic needs aren’t met, such as getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and movement, things tend to fall out of balance, making it more challenging to take on mental stress. However, when your body is primed with all the nutrients it needs, you’re more likely to be resilient to stress.
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