We are all probably pretty aware of what stress feels like…How it makes our heart beat faster, shortens our breath and creates a whirlwind of thoughts that can be hard to control.
Being in a stressed state is often not a comfortable place to be in, but with our busy lives with the never ending to- do lists and the ongoing concerns about our planet and health, it’s unfortunately a state we can often be in.
This long term exposure to stress can have a variety of negative impacts on the body, one theory is that our adrenals (which help to create the stress hormones like cortisol) can’t continue to function at the rate that we need them to. This can lead to issues that are often termed as ‘adrenal fatigue’ where we see extreme drops in our energy, motivation and mood.
Additionally, long term stress can reap havoc on our digestive system as when we’re in the ‘fight or flight response’, we can’t also be our ‘rest and digest’ mode. This means that digestion isn’t prioritised which not only leads to food hanging around in our digestive system for longer (encouraging pathogenic bacteria to grow), but it can also mean that we might not be optimally absorbing all the amazing nutrients we eat.
Although trying to reduce stress is often the obvious first step when trying to improve our wellbeing, thankfully there are also plenty of things we can add in through our diet that can really help to encourage our bodies into a state of calm.
So take a deep breath and let’s get started.
Ways to tackle stress through a healthy diet:
Balance blood sugar levels
The last thing our bodies needs when we are already in a stressed space is to have the added pressure of trying to control blood sugar levels that are quickly rising and falling. When our blood sugar levels are unbalanced, it can fuel our feelings of stress as low blood sugar levels can trigger a stress response which can leave us feeling anxious.
A really great way to try and balance our blood sugar levels is through adding good quality proteins into meals and snacks. This is because protein doesn’t affect our blood sugar levels and helps to keep it balanced. This can be achieved by doing things like:
- Eating eggs for breakfast
- Snacking on nuts and seeds
- Adding beans/ chickpeas/ lentils to your meals
- Using good quality meats or organic tofu
Feed your gut bacteria
As mentioned previously, stress can have a negative impact on our digestion and our gut bacteria. It is therefore really important that we look to add foods into our diet that encourage the growth of these beneficial bacteria as they will help us to increase our energy levels, mood and immune system.
Beneficial bacteria thrive on fibre rich foods, which is why it is so important to try and eat a range of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and pulses daily.
The challenge here however is to try and mix up your intake of foods to encourage different types of bacteria to grow. This is so important because we know that generally the happiest and healthiest people in the World (like those who live for longer in the Blue Zones) often have more diverse gut bacteria (1).
Keep an eye on caffeine (and water!)
Although we can get some great anti-oxidants from tea and coffee, the caffeine that they contain can further fuel the stress reaction within our body as it can trigger the release of cortisol (2). We all have different tolerances to caffeine (often due to our exposure and genetics) but when we are looking to tackle stress, being mindful of our caffeine intake and reducing it can be really helpful.
On the flip side, drinking plenty of water is really important to tackle stress as being dehydrated can again lead to cortisol being released. Dehydration can also reduce our mental clarity which is often needed to move away from stressful situations. Therefore, increasing water intake or even swapping some of your caffeinated drinks for herbal teas can be an easy win to help tackle stress.
Include lots of magnesium rich food
Finally, it would be wrong to talk about tackling stress with a healthy diet without mentioning this miracle mineral, magnesium. Magnesium is often termed as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ as it can have a lovely calming effect on the body and help us to relax and sleep better (3).
As it’s needed to help us calm down, we use magnesium up quickly when we are stressed which often means we can become deficient in it. Its therefore a great idea to include some magnesium rich foods into your diet daily like:
Dark greens leafy veg, avocados, dark chocolate, seeds and legumes.
So in summary, if you are looking to tackle stress through a healthy diet, make sure you really try and get the basics right; Lots of water, colourful fruit and vegetables, fibre rich foods along with some good quality proteins with every meal. Hopefully these steps, along with trying to reduce the source of the ongoing stress, will help you to feel physically and mentally equipped to overcome any challenge that comes your way.
- Wang et al., (2019). Enriched taxa were found among the gut microbiota of centenarians in East China. PloS one, 14(10), e0222763. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222763
- Lovallo et al., (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic medicine, 67(5), 734–739. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000181270.20036.06
- Cuciureanu, MD & Vink. R (2011) Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press; 2011. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/