Stress has been found to encourage inflammation throughout the body, and long-term linked to many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, frequent colds, obesity, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid disorders and more. The chronic production of cortisol can result in a very damaging state for the body.1
What we eat can counter or encourage inflammation, so making good food choices is a pretty great idea! Yet stress and our emotional state can alter our food choices as well as how our body metabolises what we eat.
In a recent small trial of 58 women, a healthy meal and an unhealthy meal were supplied on two separate occasions. The participants completed a questionnaire on stressors over the past 24 hours and symptoms of depression over the previous week. Blood samples were also taken, and assessed for inflammatory markers.2
The results correlated increased inflammation following an unhealthy meal regardless of whether the individual was stressed or not. And whilst the low stress-healthy eaters had low markers for inflammation, interestingly those with higher stress scores that ate the healthy meal also showed increased levels of inflammation.
How these meals were deemed healthy or unhealthy may be up for contention as they comprised of eggs, sausage, biscuits, and gravy, with the differing point being the inclusion of ‘healthy’ sunflower oil and ‘unhealthy’ palm oil. But this aside, it seems stress can impact the inflammatory state of the body regardless of what we eat.
We should also note the participants with a history of major depressive disorder had higher post-meal blood pressure. When it comes to health, stress matters.
Foods for and against stress
This certainly doesn’t mean if you’re stressed, then throw the good, nourishing food away! Every choice you make to have real, whole food over the heavily refined processed stuff will help your body build resilience and recover.
Eating poorly will only make the situation worse!
We can support our bodies when in stressed states by eating mostly real, whole foods, and limit added and refined sugars, caffeine, alcohol and heavily processed and packaged food.
We want to nourish, not punish, our body that is working hard to allow us keep on keeping on.
We have discussed foods for combating stress previously. Also consider foods that are:
- Anti-inflammatory, such as turmeric, ginger, berries, leafy greens, chia and flax seeds and oily fish, to support brain function and help counter some effects of stress-induced inflammation, and;
- Rich in probiotics, such as fermented foods like good quality sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and yoghurt to foster good health of the intestinal microbiome and connection between the gut and the brain.
Remember to breathe
Ultimately, the fast-paced action-packed life many of us lead can contribute to a state of chronic stress.
While every person has different levels of resilience and ways to handle pressure, it is likely we could all benefit from including activities in our lives that can help support our nervous system.
So, when you are feeling a little overwhelmed, or when your mind just won’t quiet down, focus on the breathe and take a slow inhale followed by long exhale, and repeat several times. This action is one of the best and quickest ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and may help slow the constant production of stress hormones.
Finally, if it all feels too much, please reach out to your healthcare practitioner or to one of the many mental health support organisations in your area. They can offer advice, techniques or treatment relevant to you and your unique situation.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Cohen, S, Janicki-Deverts, D, Doyle, W, Miller, G, Frank, E, Rabin, B, & Turner, R 2012, ‘Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk’, Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States, 16, p. 5995.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J K Fagundes, C P Andridge, R Peng, J Malarkey, W B Habash, D & Belury, M A 2016, ‘Depression, daily stressors and inflammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices’, Mol Psychiatry, [Epub ahead of print].