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How stress affects your body and mind (and what foods can help)

Pressure gauge

The best chill pill for stress might be the food you put on your plate. Healthy Food Guide investigates the link between what you eat and how you feel.

How many times a day do you feel stressed?

It might be when you’re stuck in a traffic jam or trying to meet work deadlines while juggling family commitments — not to mention the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic. Even watching the news can trigger a stress response. A little stress is okay, but it shouldn’t be a permanent state of mind. If getting stressed has become a daily event, this ‘fight or flight’ response could be jeopardising your health.

“Stress can lead to lowered immunity, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, digestive upset and weight gain via elevated appetite and blood glucose,” explains Dr Deborah Hodgson, Director of the Laboratory of Neuroimmunology at the University of Newcastle.

Stress also affects gut bacteria, where much of the body’s immune response occurs.

“Emerging evidence suggests that stress is associated with reduced richness and diversity of the gut microbial community,” says Dr Simone Peters, Director of the Mind + Gut Clinic in Melbourne. This, in turn, can lead to a significant increase in anxiety.

How stress affects your body

Brain

Chronic stress rewires your brain, causing higher stress reactions to smaller triggers. This adversely affects your memory, judgment, reasoning ability and the way you feel.

Immunity

Stress lowers your immunity and reduces natural killer cells, compromising your ability to fight off colds and flu. Long-term stress may also lead to diseases such as cancer.

Waistline

Excess amounts of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, encourages storage of visceral belly fat, which drains to the liver, heart and other organs.

Heart

Stress-induced adrenaline and the hormone noradrenaline increase heart rate and blood pressure. More extreme or long-term stress responses can damage heart muscles and cause irregular heart rhythms.

Gut and bowel

Stress slows digestion. It can increase muscle spasms in the colon, causing pain, bloating and wind, and can also lead to constipation, diarrhoea, acid reflux and heartburn.

Skin

You might feel flushed or sweat more. Stress hormones can also encourage itchy skin, rashes, pimples and inflammation.

Muscles

These tense up in readiness for physical action as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. If your stress is chronic (ongoing for a long period), it may also cause muscle pain or aggravate existing muscle conditions.

Sleep

Excess cortisol keeps you alert and aroused, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Foods that soothe stress

Certain foods can correct stress-triggered body imbalances while helping you to stress less. “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,” says Professor Felice Jacka, Director of the Food and Mood Research Unit at Deakin University.

Natalie Parletta, nutritionist and former Senior Research Fellow in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of South Australia, recommends eating more of the following foods to help beat stress:

Salmon

Omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish like salmon, as well as 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 like dopamine and serotonin.

Almonds

Almond nuts are a good source of the mineral magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. Low magnesium levels have been linked to higher anxiety levels.

Broccoli

People who eat three to four serves of vegetables, including broccoli, every day experience lower levels of stress, according to research from the University of Sydney. As with fruit, vegies are full of beneficial antioxidants known as polyphenols.

Minestrone

The Mediterranean diet, which includes bean and vegetable-laden minestrone soup, is high in minerals such as magnesium and zinc. These nutrients are vital for important biochemical reactions that boost mood and promote brain function.

Blueberries

These and other fruits are packed with polyphenols — potent antioxidants that support brain health. Fruit is also high in fibre, which keeps blood sugar and energy levels stable, helping to reduce anxiety and depression.

Rye bread

Whole grains such as rye release energy slowly into your body, which helps to keep hormones stable. They also boost serotonin — the ‘happiness hormone’.

Miso

Women who eat more fermented foods, such as tofu and miso, have lower levels of social anxiety. Aim to serve up a little sauerkraut, sourdough bread, kefir (fermented milk) or kimchi (Korean-style fermented cabbage) every day.

Foods that ramp up stress

Want to reduce stress and tension? Then keep your consumption of the following foods to a minimum:

Lollies

The high sugar content of these ramps up stress by increasing blood glucose, insulin and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They can also cause weight gain and increased anxiety.

Alcohol

Kicking back with a wine or beer may push your ‘relax’ button, but alcohol also triggers the release of the stress hormone adrenaline.

Coffee

That jittery feeling you get after drinking too many coffees is because caffeine makes your body pump out adrenaline and cortisol.

Salty chips

High salt intake increases blood pressure, and your body responds to this by releasing stress hormones.

Fast food

Typically made using processed and fried foods, these meals are high in fats and sugars, causing low-grade inflammation. They can also contribute to anxiety and depression.

First published: Mar 2022

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