Eating for Stress
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”
- Virginia Woolf.
When we are feeling overwhelmed and in a stressed state, it is often the wine, coffee, biscuits and highly processed foods that we reach for. We get a dopamine hit from eating foods high in sugar, caffeine gives us a mental boost and alcohol can make us feel relaxed. So why are these foods not actually a good idea to support our mental wellbeing in the long run?
When your body isn’t getting the right nutrition, you can begin to have increased feelings of anxiety, and be less able to concentrate and focus. In addition, you may experience digestive issues such as reduced or increased appetite, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and nausea, leading to increased stress.
Drinking caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks is common when we need to stay alert, yet studies show that caffeine intake is associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety. Caffeine disrupts sleep and relaxation, meaning less restorative time for our brain and body.
Research shows that alcohol affects the same areas of the brain as are affected by stress and anxiety. A long-term effect of consuming alcohol therefore is the worsening of mental health symptoms. Additionally, alcohol has a negative effect on sleep, making us less resilient. It also affects the gut microbiome, which plays an important role in supporting mental wellbeing.
Foods that have a high glycaemic index, such as cakes, chocolate bars, white bread, white pasta and crisps, cause a rapid increase and then decrease in blood glucose levels. This then triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, leaving us feeling jittery, anxious or angry.
So what should we eat?
Research has shown that a healthy gut microbiome is essential for maintaining a healthy gut-brain axis. By having a healthy gut microbiome, we are less susceptible to the effects of stressful situations as our brain chemistry is more balanced. Unfortunately, a typical Western-style diet is harmful to our gut health, leading to an imbalance in gut bacteria, and is pro-inflammatory with an inadequate amount of the nutrients our bodies need to protect cellular health and produce neurotransmitters.
Studies show that a Mediterranean diet, full of healthy fats, legumes (beans and lentils), fruit and vegetables, with some oily fish and eggs is supportive of mental health. You should aim to eat 2-3 portions of fruit and 5-7 portions of vegetables every day. A portion is 80g/ a handful. Meat and dairy should be in limited, with little or no processed foods. A diet like this ensures good quantities of essential nutrients for mental wellbeing; Omega-3, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin c and amino acids.
While it may not always be possible to eat a Mediterranean diet, there are some foods that contain higher quantities of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants known to support the body at times of stress, which are worth including in your diet on a regular basis:
Avocado– rich in healthy fats and contain high levels of vitamin E, folate, beta-carotene and glutathione, giving stress-busting properties.
Blueberries – contain high levels of antioxidants, especially anthocyanin, linked to a wide range of health benefits including reduced inflammation which can help you to manage stress. Other berries and cherries are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Green Leafy Vegetables - for example spinach and chard, are rich in folate, which helps your body to produce more mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
Seeds – flaxseed, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are all great sources of magnesium (as are leafy greens and nuts). Magnesium has been shown to help alleviate depression, irritability and fatigue. Having a magnesium salts bath before bed may also help you to relax and sleep better.
Oats – oats contain high levels of tryptophan, used by the brain to produce the feel-good chemical serotonin, inducing calm and reducing stress.
Cashew nuts – a healthy snacking option which will help you to stay better in control of your stress levels. 25g contains 11% of your daily recommended intake of zinc, shown to decrease anxiety by up to 31% in scientific trials.
Fermented foods and probiotics – eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, and kefir can help to keep your gut healthy, which in turn will help to improve your mental health and reduce stress levels. A good quality probiotic can remove pathogens, reduce inflammation, and reinforce gut cell integrity. Well-researched species to look out for include Lactobacillus helveticus, Bifidobacterium longum and a yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii.
Dark chocolate - contains flavanols and polyphenols, antioxidants which can help combat stress. Research also shows dark chocolate can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Go for varieties with at least 70% cocoa and limit it to a square or two!
Green Tea- studies show that green tea reduces anxiety and increases cognition and working memory. Try swapping your afternoon tea or coffee for a green tea. Chamomile Tea –Chamomile tea is traditionally used at bedtime and in clinical trials it has been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
This stress-busting breakfast smoothie, with added cinnamon will help balance your energy levels:
100g frozen blueberries
1 Tbsp ground flaxseed
1 Tbsp cashew nuts (soaked overnight)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
200ml plant milk of choice
Put all the ingredients in a blender and whizz until smooth. Add extra milk of you prefer it thinner.
This post was written by Melanie Jopling (BSc (Hons), PGDip, mBANT, rCNHC), a qualified and registered Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. If you would like more health-boosting recipes, to know more about what to eat or how Melanie can support your mental wellbeing and other health conditions, visit be-perfectly-nourished.co.uk