The body can perceive stress from any number of things. These can include high intake of unhelpful foods like stimulants and refined or simple sugars, intensive exercise, negative interpersonal interactions, guilt or overthinking, lack of restful sleep, and ultra-busy lives.
Long-term stress has been linked to many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, frequent colds, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid disorders and more. It is thought this is due to too much cortisol being pumped out for too long, resulting in decreased sensitivity and higher systemic inflammation. Needless to say a very damaging state to be in.1
It can also manifest as anxiety or depression, and an altered mental state can be consuming. Fortunately, there are foods out there that can support you through the times of tension.
So what yummies in our tummies can lend a helping hand? Let’s have a quick look at some of the processes and organs involved in stress, and nutrients required to support us and minimise those moments of feeling wired or blue.
Stress and blood glucose
Stress hormones stimulate glucose to be released from stores and made readily available for use. It is a safety mechanism from yonder year that in the short term enables to think quick and move quicker!
This may be why we crave stimulants or sugar when work is maxing you out.
Short-term the abundance of readily available glucose in the blood stream is a normal physiological and biological reaction. Long-term high blood glucose (a.k.a. hyperglycaemia) is detrimental, and can result in depression, liver and kidney damage, chronic inflammation and type 2 diabetes.4
Diets high in refined added sugars and ultra-processed foods that are simultaneously low in fibre result in a tsunami of glucose into the blood. The blood glucose highs are always followed by lows. And the bigger the high the more dramatic the low. This pattern can be mirrored in mood fluctuations.
Persistent high consumption of refined simple and complex carbohydrates, especially in a stressed state, encourages fat storage for use at a later time. This would be great if we found ourselves starving! But most of us rarely are, so the fat sets up shop for the long haul.
You can begin to manage blood glucose fluctuations through the consistent consumption of real whole foods, ensuring at each meal a source of fibre, healthy fat and protein is included. Just keep chowing down on highly processed and refined foods to a minimum!
Stress and the adrenal glands
Your adrenal glands have a major role to play in production of a variety of hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin in times of stress, or when the body needs additional glucose from stored glycogen in the liver.3
You want to look after these dudes! Nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, and various amino acids are besties to your adrenals, and critical in times of stress.
Stress and the liver
Your liver processes all manner of things – including toxins and stress hormones. Try and give the old mate a break and let it process the cortisol and adrenalin without the added burden of toxins.
Limit caffeine, sugar, alcohol, artificial colouring and flavouring intake, as well as high consumption of refined and packaged foods. Instead, chow down on foods that contain nutrients to support liver function, such as whole food protein, B vitamins and antioxidant rich plant foods.
Support yourself in times of stress
Whilst diet isn’t the only factor at play in contending with stress, anxiety or depression, it is a mighty big one!
Meditation, surrounding yourself with good people, gut health, and exercise are incredibly important when addressing happiness and the impact of one’s stress reaction. Whilst everyone has his or her own methods of dealing with stress, anxiety or depression, it may help to seek professional assistance for additional support.
When considering dietary factors, these foods may help to boost your mood, modulate blood glucose, and increase coping mechanisms, all helping to curb extremes of the stress response.
Amino acids collectively comprise a protein. Specific amino acids are important for mood and stress, including tryptophan, glutamine and tyrosine.
Include a healthy whole food source at each meal to provide amino acids, as well as assist in modulating blood glucose fluctuations. Foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes, non-GMO tofu or tempeh, Greek yoghurt, sustainably caught fish, free-range (and if possible organic) eggs, poultry and meat, and vegetables such as avocado and fruit such as banana.
Calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc each have roles to play in supporting adrenal, liver, energy and mood production.
Get an array of minerals from vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, Greek yoghurt, cheese, free-range (and if possible organic) eggs, poultry and meat.
B vitamins are critical in mood and stress. B2 and B3 are involved in energy synthesis; B5 is involved in pathways supporting adrenal function; and B6, folate (B9) and B12 are cofactors for important neurotransmitter production or action, such as serotonin and GABA.
Whilst sources of B vitamins are varied, they include leafy greens, legumes, unrefined whole grains, seeds, avocado, banana, pumpkin and organ meats.
Antioxidants and phytochemicals
Protect and support the liver, brain and ALL cells by consuming an abundance of foods high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, especially non-starchy, colourful vegetables, and fruits such as berries and apples.2
Eating real, whole foods will be the best place to start! This provides kick-ass nutrients and phytochemicals to support and nourish, whilst replacing some highly refined and processed foods that are of little help to our bodily function and mood.
It is important to look at what you suspect the cause of stress to be. Then consider how you can nourish your body and mind to best cope, for a happier, healthier you 🙂
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.
- Gropper, S & Smith, J 2013, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th edn, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA.
- Hechtman, L 2012, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood, N.S.W
- University of Maryland Medical Centre 2012, Diabetes – Type 2, viewed 16 June 2016, <http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/diabetes-type-2>