One of the best chill pills for stress may be the food you put on your plate. Stephanie Osfield investigates the link between what you eat and how you feel.
How many times a day do you think ‘I’m stressed’? If it’s your daily mantra, you could be jeopardising your health. It seems we’re surrounded by stressors. We’re stuck in traffic jams, trying to meet work deadlines and juggle family and social commitments. Even watching the news can trigger a stress response.
A little stress is okay, but it shouldn’t be a permanent state of mind.
“[Chronic] stress can lead to lowered immunity, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, digestive upset and weight gain via elevated appetite and blood glucose,” according to Deborah Hodgson, director of the Laboratory of Neuroimmunology at the University of Newcastle.
Stress also affects the balance of your gut bacteria, where much of your body’s immune response occurs.
“Emerging evidence suggests that stress is associated with reduced richness and diversity of the gut microbial community,” according to Simone Peter from the Department of Gastroenterology at the Alfred Centre in Melbourne. This potentially leads to an increase in anxiety.
Foods that ramp up stress
Want to turn down the tension? Then keep these foods to a minimum.
Sugar ramps up stress because it increases blood glucose, insulin and stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. This can increase anxiety.
While kicking back with a wine or beer may promise to push your ‘relax’ button, alcohol also triggers the release of adrenalin.
That jittery feeling after too many comes because caffeine makes your body pump out adrenalin and cortisol.
Salt increases blood pressure and your body responds to this by releasing stress hormones.
Processed and fried foods, high in fats and sugars, cause low-grade inflammation and potentially contribute to anxiety and depression.
How stress affects your body
Long-term stress rewires your brain, causing higher stress reactions to smaller triggers. This adversely affects memory, judgement, reasoning and the way you feel.
Stress lowers your immunity and reduces ‘natural killer cells’ (a type of white blood cell), compromising your ability to fight off colds and flus.
Stress-released cortisol encourages storage of hidden visceral belly fat, which drains to organs, such as the liver and heart.
Stress-driven adrenalin and the hormone noradrenaline increase your heart rate and your blood pressure, which both put stress on the heart. More extreme or long-term stress responses can damage the heart muscle and cause irregular heart rhythms.
Stress slows digestion. It may increase muscle spasms in your colon, causing pain, bloating and wind. It can also lead to irritable bowel symptoms, such as constipation and diarrhoea. Stress hormones may also cause acid reflux and heartburn.
Stress affects blood flow and other body responses that may make you sweat more and your face flush. Stress hormones may cause inflammation of the skin.
These tense up in readiness for physical action. If your stress is chronic, it can cause you muscle pain or aggravate muscle conditions.
The excess cortisol that stress releases keeps your body aroused and alert, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Foods that soothe stress
Certain foods can correct stress-triggered body imbalances while helping you stress less, according to Felice Jacka, director of the Food and Mood Research Unit at Deakin University.
“Research shows that people who eat a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein are less depressed and less anxious than those eating a diet high in processed foods.”
Don’t worry, eat happy
Natalie Parletta, senior research fellow in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of South Australia, recommends plating up with these stress-less foods.
The beans in minestrone soup are a good source of fibre which helps stabilise blood sugars and promote healthy gut bacteria. It also contains magnesium and zinc which are needed to help mood and promote brain function.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as fish, nuts, chia seeds and dark leafy greens help to maintain the health of the brain’s cell membranes and encourage the transmission of ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.
Fruit is packed with polyphenols — potent antioxidants that support brain health. Their high fibre content helps keep blood sugar and energy levels stable, which can contribute to reducing our anxiety levels and lowering depression. Plus, blueberries are a delicious snack.
Almonds contain the mineral magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. Lower magnesium levels in the body are linked to higher anxiety levels.
People who eat three to four vege serves every day experience lower levels of stress, according to research published in BMJ Open. As with fruit, vegetables are packed with polyphenols, and the benefits that these antioxidants bring.
Whole grains release energy slowly to your body, which keeps hormones stable. They also boost serotonin — a neuro-transmitter that helps regulate mood.
Kimchi / yoghurt
Women who eat more fermented foods have lower levels of social anxiety, research shows. So, serve up a little sauerkraut, yoghurt, sourdough bread, fermented milk kefir or kimchi (a Korean pickled cabbage).
Your stress-free day
How to eat, drink (and be merry!) from wake-up to lights out.
6.30am Rise and shine
Rehydrate with a big glass of water, then take a 30 to 45-minute brisk walk, or roll out the yoga mat. Studies suggest that yoga can help calm your nerves, while walking boosts ‘feel-good’ endorphins and serotonin.
7.30am Fuel up
Begin your day with a slice of grainy toast with avocado and a poached egg. This balanced combo of slow-carbs, healthy fats and protein supplies your brain with stress-busting B vitamins and magnesium, as well as important amino acids that help build mood-boosting serotonin.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your email inbox or to-do list at work, recalibrate with a long deep breath or three, then step away from the desk and pour a big glass of water to stay hydrated.
10.30am Walk it off
Offer to do the morning coffee run at work. Exercise is a natural stress reliever that lowers cortisol and adrenalin. Caffeine can heighten the body’s stress response, so maybe order a decaf or herbal tea. If you’re peckish, a small handful of nuts and seeds promotes serotonin and has magnesium to help relieve stress levels.
12.30pm Nourishing nosh
Eating a balanced and delicious Mediterranean-style lunch of vege soup will help you replenish your afternoon energy levels. Taking your lunch break amid nature, away from the office, helps improve concentration and lower blood pressure — and can help reduce stress levels and mental fatigue.
2.00pm Time for a refill
Struggling to stay focused after lunch? A foggy mind can signal dehydration, so it’s time to stretch your legs and pour yourself another glass of water. Chew on a piece of sugar-free gum to relieve any jaw tension.
3.30pm Step it up
Recharge your batteries by climbing up and down the stairs. If you’re feeling hungry, choose a wholegrain cracker with nut butter, which is rich in magnesium and anti-stress B vitamins, or a small tub of yoghurt to feed your gut some friendly bacteria.
6.30pm Table talk
The dinner table is the perfect place to connect with your loved ones, and laughter can release feel-good hormones. Feed your brain with omega-3 rich salmon, plus half a plate of steamed leafy greens and quarter of a plate of brown rice to provide B vitamins and magnesium. If you drink alcohol, avoid that second glass, which could disrupt your sleep.
8.30pm A cup of calm
Now’s the time for a digital detox to help your mind wind down. Enjoy a calming cup of chamomile tea to shift gear before heading to bed.
10.00pm Pillow time
Going to bed and rising at regular times each day will promote a restful night’s sleep and help you manage stress. If your mind is racing with your to-do list, or replaying stressful events from the day, it can help you to write down your thoughts in a journal.
Article sources and references
- American Academy of Dermatology. 2014. Reducing stress may help lead to clearer skin. ScienceDaily, 7 August, 2014. Accessed June 2017https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140807103642.htm
- Aronson D. 2009 Cortisol – it’s role in stress, inflammation, and it’s indications for diet therapy. Todays Dietitian 11:38https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml
- Australian Psychological Society. 2015. Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015. Available at www.psychology.org.au Accessed June 2017https://www.psychology.org.au/Search-Results?searchtext=Stress+and+wellbeing+in+Australia+survey+2015&searchmode=anyword
- Bailey M. 2011. Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation? Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 25: 397https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21040780
- BUPA. 2012. Exercise to reduce stress and improve mood. Available at www.bupa.com.au Accessed June 2017https://www.bupa.com.au/health-and-wellness/health-information/healthy-living/exercise/reducing-stress/reduce-stress-and-improve-mood
- Hilimire et al. 2015. Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model. Psychiatry Research. 228(2): 203–8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25998000
- Martens MJI et al. 2010 Effects of single macronutrients on serum cortisol concentrations in normal weight men. Physiology & Behaviour 101:563-7https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20849868
- Jacka et al. 2014. Dietary patterns and depressive symptoms over time: Examining the relationships with socioeconomic position, health behaviours and cardiovascular risk. PLoS One. 9: e87657https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3906192/
- Nguyen et al. 2017. Fruit and vegetable consumption and psychological distress: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses based on a large Australian sample. BMJ Open. 7: e014201https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/3/e014201