Do you have too much to do and too little time to do it in, leaving you stressed most of the time? It’s the typical story these days. Everyone constantly has too much stress in their lives, and our bodies and health are paying the price. Although some stress is necessary, and even constructive for that matter, how you deal with excess stress is very important. Taking time out for ourselves and learning to delegate if there is too much on our plate are important. Today we will take a look at how food can help our stress levels.
A whole cascade of hormones are released when your body is under stress. While optimal amounts of these hormones are necessary for survival, when our stress levels are prolonged, too much of these hormones accumulate in the body, causing health and weight issues. The main culprit is cortisol. High levels of this hormone can lead to muscle breakdown, suppressed immune system, increased blood pressure and blood sugar, decreased libido, cause mood swings, insomnia and acne, and can cause excess fat storage, thereby contributing to obesity.
There are some foods that will make the situation worse. We often turn to coffee in times of stress, but this will actually increase the cortisol levels even further. Similarly alcohol is not a helpful friend, especially if you cannot keep it to 1-2 units per day. Foods high in sugar, such as a fizzy cool drinks, biscuits, cupcakes, sweets etc. will cause blood sugar fluctuations that will impede the body’s reaction to stress. It has been seen in studies that when people eat in a way that keeps their blood sugar levels more stable (i.e. small amounts of higher fibre carbs with lean protein and healthy fat every 3-5 hours) cortisol levels were lower. Foods high in sugar can also cause mood swings and lack of energy, which in itself won’t help stress levels. Foods high in saturated and trans-fats (typically foods such as chips, pies, samosas) put a lot of stress on the body, particularly because they are difficult to digest and utilise and don’t have any useful nutrition within them.
The best is to eat an unprocessed, nutritious diet. Eating a healthy diet with lean proteins, high fibre, low processed carbohydrates and healthy plant fats can help your body deal better with stress and cortisol. The following foods can make a difference:
- Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish such as pilchards, sardines, fresh tuna, salmon etc., nuts and seeds (particularly walnuts and linseeds) as well as your omega 3 fish oil supplements have been found to lower stress levels and decrease cortisol levels. One study found that just 3 weeks of supplementation resulted in a significant decrease in cortisol levels. Try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week and include nuts and seeds regularly in your meals and snacks.
- Vegetables and Fruit. Vegetables and fruit contain many phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help prevent cortisol production. Specifically vitamin C (from citrus fruits and greens), magnesium (from greens), and berries have been shown to effectively decrease cortisol levels. B-complex vitamins are also well known to help deal with stress. Try to eat at least 5-9 servings of vegetables and fruit per day to get a good intake of all the nutrients that can help you manage your stress levels.
- Nuts: Nuts are packed with magnesium, and are a great snack to keep the blood sugars stable, all of which will help with stress management. About a handful of nuts is a good portion.
- Cocoa: Various studies have shown that people who have a cocoa (in various forms) on a daily bases are calmer and more content. The key here is not to add sugar into the mix. Add cocoa powder to porridge or to a hot drink or have 1-2 blocks of dark chocolate.
Start your day right with a good, early breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day. A well-nourished body is better prepared to cope with stress, so start being mindful of what you eat in times of stress.