How is nutrition related to stress?
Stress is an ever present problem in today’s fast-paced and hectic society – so many of us are trying to juggle too many responsibilities, whether it’s balancing work and raising a family, worrying over our finances, or taking care of elderly relatives. With so many possible triggers to consider, what role exactly does our diet play in helping or hindering stress symptoms?
Well, firstly, it’s important to understand what happens to our body when we experience stress. You’ve probably heard of your ‘fight or flight’ reflexes before, but what you might not realise, is that every time you experience stress, these reflexes are triggered. Your body cannot distinguish between a life-or-death scenario and you worrying over paying your next phone bill.
As you can see from the image above, your body will prioritise organs like your lungs and heart whilst other areas, namely your digestive system, will start to slow down. This will naturally affect how you absorb certain nutrients, not to mention nutrients will be leeched away from other areas of your body like your skin and hair, and redirected towards key survival organs.
This depletion can actually exacerbate stress as low levels of magnesium, iron and B vitamins can lead to fatigue and poor concentration.
Which nutrients are depleted by stress?
If you want to learn more about why these nutrients are depleted during times of stress, please check out our Mood Advisor Marianna’s blog, ‘What nutrients are depleted by stress?’.
What can I eat to reduce stress?
When it comes to reducing stress, there are a few nutrients you need to consider that could potentially offer some benefits. Below, I’m going to outline what these are and, more importantly, which foods you can find them in!
1. Amino acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein so it’s hardly surprising that they have a wide range of actions throughout the body. When it comes to stress, however, there are three amino acids, in particular, that really matter: tryptophan, tyrosine and theanine.
You may have heard of tryptophan before – it can be converted into serotonin, a feel good neurotransmitter that can help to relax your nervous system and boost your mood. Tyrosine and theanine, on the other hand, help to support your cognitive functions and your levels of other soothing neurotransmitters like GABA and dopamine respectively.1
Where can you find these amino acids? Oats, green tea, eggs, fatty fish, tofu, pumpkin seeds and lentils.
Best recipe: Healthy Banana Oat Cookies
2. Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are absolutely crucial when it comes to helping our body absorb nutrients, produce hormones and maintain healthy nerve functioning. Unfortunately, our body cannot synthesise fatty acids on its own so, instead, we have to rely on our diet to get our much-needed intake. When it comes to our mood especially, omega-3 is one fatty acid that’s definitely worth shouting about.
Omega-3 is an important building block for your brain, so it’s hardly surprising that it can help to improve your cognitive function. EPA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, has also been linked to reducing cortisol levels, helping to relax your nervous system and promoting healthy sleep patterns.2 So, if you’re looking to support yournervous system and combat stress, loading up on plenty of omega-3 could be the answer!
Where can you find these fatty acids? Mackerel, salmon, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans.
Best recipe: Cinnamon and chia seed energy balls
Magnesium is one of the main nutrients that gets depleted in times of stress, which can definitely exacerbate symptoms. You need magnesium to help support your metabolism, your muscles and joints and your absorption of vitamin D but, as our Mood Advisor Marianna discusses in her blog, ‘Can magnesium help with anxiety?’ you also need magnesium for your mood.
This mineral helps to convert tryptophan (that amino acid I mentioned earlier) into serotonin, plus it helps to maintain healthy GABA levels. What is GABA? GABA refers to gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that helps your mind and body relax thus improving anxiety symptoms. When your levels of GABA are low, it can encourage stress symptoms and sleep problems.
Where can you find magnesium? Leafy green veg, bananas, cashews, dark chocolate, quinoa, avocados and our Balance Mineral Drink.
Best recipe: Coconut, Spinach and Red Lentil Dhal
4. B vitamins
B vitamins are extremely important for supporting your energy levels so, if you’re feeling a bit fatigued, increasing your intake of these could really help. There are eight essential B vitamins and each performs a range of important functions, especially when it comes to your mood! Vitamin B6, for example, helps your body to produce valuable mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Another B vitamin, vitamin B12, is also being linked to mental health. Low levels of B12 are very common in vegans and vegetarians and are often associated with fatigue. However, low levels of vitamin B12 are also linked to low mood, with those having an existing deficiency doubling their risk of experiencing depression.3
Where can you find B vitamins? Brown rice, millet, almonds, broccoli, red meat, spinach, sunflower seeds.
Natural products rich in B6: 680081064
Best recipe: Spinach & Potato Curry
5. Vitamin C
It should go without saying that vitamin C is just one of the most important nutrients for your body overall: it’s pivotal for your immune system, skin, muscles and joints – the list goes on and on! In terms of your mood, though, in times of stress, just like magnesium, your stores of vitamin C can easily become depleted. This is problematic because one of the main symptoms of low vitamin C is low mood.4
It also doesn’t help that you need plenty of vitamin C to help absorb iron, a mineral that is absolutely crucial for your energy levels. Studies have found that taking vitamin C, even if you aren’t deficient, may improve anxiety levels. In one double blind study, 42 high school students were given either a vitamin C supplement or a placebo. Those who had taken the vitamin C demonstrated lower anxiety levels than the placebo control group.5
Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that this was a very small trial group – more research still needs to be done!
Where can you find vitamin C? Spinach, oranges, bell peppers, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes and our Nature-C supplement!
Best recipe: Blueberry & Kiwi Smoothie
Why do I crave junk food when I’m stressed?
So far, I’ve mentioned quite a few tasty foods that you could try when you feel your stress levels are rising. Unfortunately, when we do experience stress or anxiety, we’re rarely drawn towards such healthy options. In fact it’s quite the opposite – most of us start to craving sugary, carb-heavy comfort food.
Why does this happen, though? Well, there are a few factors at play – high levels of cortisol can increase our appetite which is one possible explanation.6 However, there is also a psychological element to it too – most of us associate sweet treats as a reward so there is a temporary boost from eating these types of snacks.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes cravings can be the body’s way of telling us that we are deficient in certain nutrients, as I explore in my blog, ‘What do your food cravings really mean?’.
What tips for eating are helpful during stressful times?
If you’re suffering from stress, then it isn’t just about what you’re eating but how you’re eating it. That’s why I’ve compiled a quick list just to make you aware of the importance of healthy eating habits!
- DON’T: Eat your food on-the-go – If you’re constantly rushing your meals then this can have a negative impact on your digestive system, leading to symptoms such as bloating, indigestion and flatulence. It can also affect how you absorb certain nutrients so don’t be afraid to spend some time with your food
- DO: Chew properly – Chewing not only helps to break your meal down, it also prepares all those lovely digestive enzymes in your stomach for the arrival of food. Try to chew each mouthful at least 20 times!
- DON’T: Slouch while you’re eating: Do you tend to eat slouched over? If so, this could be restricting your stomach’s ability to digest your food. Instead, sit up straight and give your stomach plenty of room to do its job
- DO: Drink plenty of water apart from your meals – Drinking plenty of water every day is crucial for your mood and your digestive system! Try to drink at least 1.5 litres – just make sure you take this apart from any meals
- DON’T: Eat emotionally – If you’re feeling stressed or anxious then don’t immediately start looking for the biscuit tin. Be aware of when you’re eating mindlessly and take steps to tackle it, as our Mood Advisor Marianna discusses here
- DO: Try herbal complexes: If you’re really struggling to stay on top of stress, you could try a gentle stress remedy like our AvenaCalm tincture. Prepared using extracts of the oat herb plant, it works to soothe your nervous system, enabling you to cope better with any emotional turmoil.