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Food and Stress – What Helps and What Hurts?

 
   
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Food and stress can be a bad combination – if you let your stress dictate what you eat. By choosing the right foods, you can actually begin to alleviate the stress you feel from your job and home life. It's important to take control of what you eat and start making conscious decisions when it comes to stress and food, rather than simply indulging your body's cravings. While it helps to know which foods help relieve stress and which can make the problem worse, it helps you even more if you understand the processes inside your body that relate to food and stress. So before we look at foods themselves, let's first look at two stress-related hormones: serotonin and cortisol.

Food and Stress Hormones:
Serotonin and Cortisol

In very broad, black and white terms, serotonin will help reduce stress whereas cortisol (at elevated levels) will make matters worse. Serotonin is the hormone associated with the happy buzz you feel after a workout – it's production in the brain is stimulated in particular foods, especially those rich in certain B vitamins. Cortisol actually helps reduce the symptoms of stress too – in small doses. It's released by the body in response to stressful circumstances – it's built into our bodies as part of the “fight or flight” response that helped keep our ancestors alive when they were being chased by wild animals many thousands of years ago.

The problem is that in highly stressful conditions, this fight or flight response is engaged too much or too often and the result is consistently high levels of cortisol – the body is not able to get back to normal levels. This is when problems happen. When you have a consistently high level of cortisol for an extended period it results in a host of negative effects, messing with the normal balancing of blood sugar levels, raising your blood pressure and weakening your immune system (making it easier for you to get sick when you're stressed). So, eat the right food and stress can be lowered or at least the negative effects of stress can be mitigated.

So, essentially, you want to include foods in your diet that promote the release of serotonin. You also want to eat in a way that allows your cortisol levels to return to normal after a stressful situation. Along with cleaner eating habits (which help keep cortisol low to begin with) it's recommended you engage in a relaxation exercise regularly, such as meditation.

Foods That Help You Reduce Stress

As you'll no doubt expect by now, many of the foods here are ones which help stimulate the creation and release or serotonin. Common examples are salmon and tuna, which provide you with vitamins B6 and B12. Green leafy and fibrous vegetables are also generally good as stress relievers, since these are complex carbohydrates (as opposed to simple carbs like sugar, which spike blood sugar levels). Here is a list of foods to include in your diet if you're experiencing stress:

  • fish such as tuna and salmon

  • unsalted nuts, in particular almonds

  • lettuce, spinach and other leafy green vegetables

  • broccoli

  • milk

  • blueberries

  • whole-grain foods like rice, bread and pasta (complex carbs – avoid foods containing simple carbs, like white bread)

  • dark chocolate (in small amounts, as it stimulates the production of endorphins – but if you overdo the sugar you risk a blood sugar drop which will leave you feeling drained)

Keep in mind none of these are "magic pills" - eating a positive diet will help reduce your stress over time, but no food will immediately make you feel less stressed. And don't go overeating any particular food because you've heard it has stress-relieving properties – an intelligent approach to balancing nutrition is still important for overall health.

Food and Stress: Foods to Avoid

Now that you know a few useful foods to add to your diet for lowering stress levels, it's equally important that you steer clear of foods that can make your situation worse. Here are some of the bigger ones to watch out for:

  • nicotine, alcohol and caffeine (try to replace coffee with unsweetened tea)

  • foods high in saturated fats (virtually all fast food)

  • high sugar foods (ice cream, donuts and so on)

  • high salt foods such as potato chips (and if you're accustomed to drenching food in table salt, cut it out)

If you're able to cut out or severely cut down on these bad foods and start integrating the above de-stressing foods into your diet, combined with a regular relaxation exercise, you should begin to notice a positive effect on your stress levels within a few weeks. Once you understand the relationship between food and stress you can make the food you eat work for you instead of against you. See Why is Nutrition Important in Dealing with Stress.

 
 

Related Articles:

The Surprising Link Between Stress and Nutrition

Return from Food and Stress to Stress Management

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