Feeling Stressed? Eat These
Stress is a common and inevitable part of life. While it’s normal to experience a little stress every so often, chronic or prolonged stress can quickly become problematic. When we experience stress, a pathway between the brain and the adrenal glands, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is activated. This triggers the body’s the sympathetic nervous system or “flight or fight” response. To deal with the threat, hormones including cortisol are quickly released via the adrenal glands. While there are plenty of ways to help reduce the impact of stress, including mindfulness, exercise and getting enough sleep, what we eat can play a huge part in helping us cope; a report published in 2016 found a direct correlation between the amount and quality of the nutrients consumed and the ability to regulate the neural circuits that control emotions, motivation and mood.
Foods to avoid
While food can be a great tool in our anxiety-fighting arsenal, there are some foods which are best avoided during times of high stress, namely because they only add to the stress you’re feeling. Chief among them are carbs, which many people find themselves craving when they feel stressed – possibly due to a decrease in the feel-good hormone serotonin. But while smart or complex carbs like oats, wholegrains and fruit and veg can be beneficial, steer clear of refined or processed carbs which will be digested quickly by the body, spike blood sugar levels and play havoc with your mood. Likewise, sugar is best avoided when you’re feeling stressed; like simple carbs, sugar causes your blood sugar levels to rise quickly, which forces the body to produce more cortisol to help balance it out. As well as adding to elevated cortisol levels, rapidly fluctuating blood sugar can induce feelings of anxiousness that feel similar to stress. For that reason, it’s also wise to stay away from alcohol and caffeine too. Although it might feel a glass or two of wine or a strong coffee will help calm you down; too much of either will actually increase your heart rate and blood pressure, potentially leaving you feeling worse than you did to begin with.
Foods to stock up on
Dark, leafy greens like chard, kale, spinach and broccoli are rich in folate, a B vitamin which helps your body produce serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters which help to balance mood and contribute to feelings of happiness and contentment. Leafy greens are also high in magnesium, which plays a critical role in regulating the stress response. Magnesium is also essential for brain function and acts on certain brain receptors which help with development, learning and memory. It’s also potent when it comes to reducing fatigue, tension, anxiety, mood imbalances and sleep irregularities, and maintaining healthy functioning of the entire nervous system. While it’s incredibly important to include plenty of magnesium in your diet, making sure you consume it regularly is equally important; when we’re stressed, our magnesium levels deplete, meaning we need to keep them regularly topped up to feel the benefits.
You may have heard the benefits of L-tryptophan extolled in the context of sleep but making sure you get enough in your diet is also crucial for warding off stress too. That’s because it’s an amino acid that’s needed to make serotonin, the happy hormone that’s so important when it comes to regulating mood and emotion and improving brain function. Luckily, L-tryptophan is easily found and so is simple to incorporate into your daily diet; most foods that contain protein are a good source; turkey, chicken and eggs are some of the best.
Vitamin B12 is an essential when it comes to reducing stress, thanks to the way it encourages healthy functioning of the nervous system. Unfortunately, stress depletes our B vitamin stores, meaning it’s important to keep your intake up. Do this by snacking on nuts when you can, which are rich sources of B12. Nuts, especially Brazil nuts are also high in selenium, which is thought to help improve mood by reducing inflammation, which some experts believe contributes to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Much is made of the brain-gut connection and how important a healthy and balanced gut is to your brain health, namely because most of the body’s serotonin is housed there. To help balance your gut bacteria and ensure the healthiest microbiome possible, ensure your diet is full of probiotics, found most commonly in fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and miso. To make sure the probiotics are fed and happy and can easily multiply, look for foods that are good sources of prebiotics, such as onions, oats and asparagus. Workshop’s Probiotic + Prebiotic is what’s known as a synbiotic, meaning it contains both.
One of the best things you can eat if you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress, is oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, all rich sources of omega-3. Potent essential fatty acids which promote healthy brain function and help reduce inflammation, omega-3 helps support good cognitive function and contributes to the overall health of nerve endings and neurons. Aim to eat a minimum of two portions a week; if don’t eat fish you can still get a good omega-3 hit from walnuts and rapeseed oil.