Eating to reduce your stress

Reviewed by our expert panel
Eating to reduce your stress

Stress is one of life’s most common ills, and will affect us all at some stage. Here are some ways to help reduce it with simple dietary changes.

Our response to stress is largely due to a rush of hormones from the kidneys stimulated by chemical messengers in the brain.

The brain determines how we perceive and respond to stress and hormones cause the physical reactions. Even a stressful thought can cause a physical response.

Adrenaline is our number one survival hormone, taking priority over all other bodily functions. It causes the release of glucose, providing us with an immediate source of fuel needed in fight or flight.

Closely related, noradrenaline is the other ‘immediate response’ hormone, released from the inner part of the glands on each kidney. Cortisol, released from the outer part of the same glands, kicks in after the initial adrenaline rush, engineering the longer-term reactions.

It maintains the level of fuel required, ensuring it is only used by the parts of the body involved with fleeing or fighting, ie brain, heart and muscles. It also suppresses the effect of insulin, which would normally work to store excess glucose. Even protein stores, usually used in the repair of tissues, are being converted to glucose when cortisol is concentrating its efforts on supplying fuel. The body is no longer thinking long-term; it’ll have little need for protein’s repair work if death is imminent.

As well as fuel, more oxygen is needed in times of stress, facilitated by cortisol narrowing our arteries, while adrenaline increases our heart rate.

A drink can seem the perfect antidote to a hard day’s work. In the short term it is a stimulant, causing the release of mood-boosting serotonin.

Just like stress itself though, any benefits gained are related to amount. Increasing amounts of alcohol can have a depressive effect, because, like stress, it stimulates the release of adrenaline, increasing irritability and tension.

If letting go of the day’s hassles can be done over a drink with friends then fine; the support of others is all part of de-stressing. If, however, one drink is becoming several night after night and is replacing time for a meal, you might need to consider just how beneficial drinking has become.

The same can be said for caffeine. This mainly as coffee, is the stimulant of choice for many of us first thing in the morning. It has the same mood-boosting, adrenaline-producing effects as alcohol, plus it inhibits the brain messenger designed to make us feel drowsy.

But coffee too can increase tension, irritability and exacerbate the effects of long-term stress. Limit yourself to three coffees a day, savouring the moment, rather than drinking them in a rush.

The long-term effects of a maintained stress response, and the resulting raised cortisol levels, are far reaching. Outside stressful situations, cortisol levels are normally raised during the day when we are active and needing energy, decreasing at night, giving us time to rest and repair.

In times of chronic stress, however, a constantly raised level of cortisol rids us of our ability to rest, causing disturbed sleep patterns.

Taking blood away from our digestive system in times of stress can also lead to several dietary disorders, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, diarrhoea or constipation; as bowel muscles are being over- or under-stimulated.

Ulcers are another classic symptom associated with stress through sustained irritation of the stomach lining, as well as weight gain, particularly around the stomach.

Finally, our resistance to disease and infection may be diminished. How many times have you picked up a cold or the flu when particularly busy at work or after a big life event, such as a wedding or moving house?

For some reason ‘oral gratification’ is a common theme during stress, whether through eating, smoking, drinking or simply biting fingernails.

For many there is a fine balance between eating more and eating less when stressed. People who eat more are often those normally trying to control what they eat. Being stressed leads them to lose control of their eating, which can in turn lead to more stress and so on.

From a very young age we learn food can nourish more than just the body. Scientists have shown when animals are given stress hormones they also show pleasure-seeking behaviour, bearing out our preference for favourite foods, almost as a ‘calming drug’. If your comfort foods are those which may cause weight gain or subsequent feelings of guilt, you’d be better finding a healthier way to pleasure.

Try going out for a walk in the fresh air or a relaxing bath rather than grabbing for the chocolate. (And there’s always retail therapy!)

Faced with all these consequences of chronic stress, together with an increased heart rate, narrowed arteries and insulin suppression, it is no surprise heart disease, diabetes, bowel disorders and obesity are commonplace today. But can we help ourselves overcome or recover from stress through what we eat?

Our prehistoric response to stress was to make digestion a low priority; running from danger on a full stomach has never been easy. When stress continues over a period of days or weeks though, regular meals become essential.

A steady supply of energy will help stabilise blood glucose levels, which are often upset under stress and themselves capable of affecting mood and coping techniques.

Carbohydrate foods providing a slow release of energy are best; those with a low glycaemic index (GI), such as whole grain bread, muesli and fruit. Higher-fibre varieties will also help normalise erratic bowel movements.

Sugary carbohydrates can give an instant energy boost, but you do run the risk of causing a high then low blood glucose level. This in turn can cause irritability and mood swings, mimicking the symptoms of stress.

Protein foods, such as lean meat, fish or beans, work alongside carbohydrate foods, helping to regulate blood glucose levels, as well as being needed for growth and repair.

Fat intake is also going to be important when there are forces at work narrowing arteries and increasing heart rate. While it’s important to minimise fat in the diet, fat types must also be considered.

The natural stress response increases our blood-clotting ability, an obvious necessity if injury is going to be sustained. In a long-term or psychological stress situation this becomes a disadvantage, so an increased intake of omega-3 fats, found mainly in oily fish, will help to counter those clotting factors.

As well as these major building blocks of a regular eating pattern, the cement holding them together must also be in place. Antioxidant vitamins A, C and E are essential to counter free radical damage, plus B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron. Each is involved in the many processes which are put under extra pressure when the body is stressed. Put this all together and a balanced meal is the answer.

Then there’s how and when to eat. Three meals a day are essential to ensure a steady supply of stress-busting nutrition. If you skip breakfast, your body reacts as if it’s being starved, hence stressed, conserving all the fuel it can.

We can also learn from the Europeans who take time over their meals, allowing our ‘non-stressed’ responses to normalise blood glucose levels. Your mother was right when she told you not to gulp your food. Eat and drink slowly, be merry for longer, then tomorrow you may not die.

We can’t necessarily remove the source of stress through eating, but we can increase our tolerance of it and the chance of overcoming it, and lessen its long-term effects.

As Jeni Pearce, chair of the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation says, “Many people say they do not have time to eat well. I believe we are too busy not to eat well.”

  • Plan ahead, particularly if you are going to be home late.
  • Carry snacks in case you miss meals.
  • Stock up your store cupboard and freezer.
  • Store cupboard foods: canned tomatoes, tomato paste, dried pasta, rice and noodles, tetrapaks of stock, soy sauce, baked beans, dried or canned lentils and chickpeas, canned fish, mixed herbs, stir-fry and
    curry sauces
  • Freezer favourites: beef steak, chicken breast, stir-fry veg, prawns, bread, vacuum-packed stock, leftover fresh herbs

For quick and easy meal ideas, check out the ‘5pm panic’ and the ‘Ready in 20 minutes’ recipes in the recipe section. Some of my favourites are:

  • Baked potatoes: Fill with beans and cheese or cottage cheese and chopped capsicum or chilli mince or canned fish and sweet corn
  • Beef stir-fry: Beef strips, stir-fry veg, noodles, stir-fry sauce, cashew nuts
  • Omelette/tortilla: Eggs, tomatoes, chives, serve with bread or add potatoes
  • Prawn kebabs: Prawns, couscous, lemon, parsley
  • Pita pizza: Pita bread topped with your choice of toppings – eg chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, capsicum, ham, onion
  • Burritos: Or try making a burrito with mince or diced chicken, refried or chilli beans, grated carrot and zucchini, grated cheese (omit the mince for a vegetarian option)
  • Water: dehydration is exhausting, so keep drinking. If you reduce your caffeine intake, remember to replace coffee and tea with other drinks, such as water, fruit juice or fruit smoothies.
  • Porridge: a great way to start the day, low-GI plus soluble fibre which is good for your heart.
  • Bananas: medium-GI, high in fibre and magnesium. A great mid-afternoon snack.
  • Red/orange fruits and vegetables: eg carrots, capsicum, tomatoes, oranges: low-GI, high-fibre and full of the antioxidants ß-carotene and vitamin C.
  • Beans: low-GI, high in fibre, protein and B vitamins.
  • Lean meat and seafood: protein, zinc and omega-3s.
  • Nuts: B vitamins plus omega-3s in walnuts and magnesium in almonds.
First published: Oct 2006

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