The best chill pill for stress may be the food you put on your plate. Stephanie Osfield investigates the link between what you eat and how you feel.
How many times a day do you think “I’m stressed”? If it’s your daily mantra, your fight or flight response could be jeopardising your health. It seems we’re surrounded by stress. We’re stuck in traffic jams, trying to meet work deadlines and juggle family and social commitments. Even watching the news can trigger a stress response. A little stress is okay, but it shouldn’t be a permanent state of mind.
“Stress can lead to lowered immunity, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, digestive upset and weight gain via elevated appetite and blood glucose,” says Dr Deborah Hodgson, Director of the Laboratory of Neuroimmunology at the University of Newcastle.
Stress also affects the balance of your gut bacteria, where much of your body’s immune response occurs. “Emerging evidence suggests that stress is associated with reduced richness and diversity of the gut microbial community,” says Dr Simone Peter from the Department of Gastroenterology at the Alfred Centre in Melbourne. This in turn may lead to a significant increase in anxiety.
Foods that ramp up stress
Want to turn down the tension? Then keep these foods to a minimum.
Lollies: Sugar ramps up stress because it increases blood glucose, insulin and hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. This can increase weight and anxiety.
Alcohol: Though kicking back with a wine or beer may promise to push your ‘relax’ button, alcohol also triggers the release of adrenalin.
Lattes and long blacks: That jittery feeling after too many short blacks comes because caffeine makes your body pump out adrenalin and cortisol.
Salty crisps: Salt increases blood pressure and your body responds to this by releasing stress hormones.
Takeaways: Processed and fried foods, high in fats and sugars, cause low-grade inflammation and contribute to anxiety and depression.
How stress affects your body
Chronic stress rewires your brain, causing higher stress reactions to smaller triggers. This adversely affects memory, judgment, reasoning and the way you feel.
Stress lowers your immunity and reduces natural killer cells, compromising your ability to fight off colds and flus. Long-term stress may promote diseases like cancer.
Stress-released cortisol encourages storage of hidden visceral belly fat, which drains to organs, such as the liver and heart.
Stress-driven adrenalin and the hormone noradrenaline increase your heart rate and your blood pressure, which both put stress on the heart. More extreme or long-term stress responses can damage the heart muscle and cause irregular heart rhythms.
Gut, digestion, bowel
Stress slows digestion. It may increase muscle spasms in your colon, causing pain, bloating and wind. It can also lead to irritable bowel symptoms, such as constipation and diarrhoea. Stress hormones may also cause acid reflux and heartburn.
Stress can make you sweat more and your face flush. Stress hormones and inflammatory histamines may increase skin itching, rashes, pimple outbreaks and inflammation.
These tense up in readiness for physical action. If your stress is chronic, it may cause you muscle pain or aggravate muscle conditions.
The excess cortisol that stress releases keeps your body aroused and alert, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Foods that soothe stress
Could the right foods correct stress-triggered body imbalances while helping you stress less? “Yes,” says Felice Jacka, Director of the Food and Mood Research Unit at Deakin University.
“Research shows that people who eat a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein are less depressed and less anxious than those eating a diet high in processed foods.”
Don’t worry, eat happy
Plate up with these stress-less foods, says Natalie Parletta, Senior Research Fellow in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of South Australia.
Minestrone: The Mediterrranean diet, including minestrone soup, is high in minerals such as magnesium and zinc, which are necessary for important biochemical reactions that help mood and promote brain function.
Salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like fish, nuts, chia seeds and dark leafy greens help to maintain the health of the brain’s cell membranes and encourage the transmission of ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.
Blueberries: Fruit is packed with polyphenols — potent antioxidants that support brain health. Their high fibre content helps keep blood sugar and energy levels stable, which can play an important role in helping to reduce our anxiety levels and lowering depression. Plus… blueberries are a delicious snack.
Almonds: Almond nuts contain the mineral magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. Lower magnesium levels are linked to higher anxiety levels.
Broccoli: People who eat three to four vegie serves every day experience lower levels of stress, research from the University of Sydney has established. As with fruit, vegetables are packed with polyphenols, and the benefits that these antioxidants bring.
Rye bread: Whole grains release energy slowly to your body, which keeps hormones stable. They also boost serotonin — the happiness hormone.
Miso: Women who eat more fermented foods have lower levels of social anxiety, research shows. So serve up a little sauerkraut, sourdough bread, fermented milk kefir, or kimchi (a Korean vegie dish).
Your stress-free day
How to eat, drink (and be merry!) from wake-up to lights out.
6.30am Rise and shine
Rehydrate with a big glass of water, then take a 30–45 minute brisk walk, or roll out the yoga mat. Studies suggest that yoga can help calm your nerves, while walking boosts ‘feel-good’ endorphins and serotonin.
7.30am Fuel up
Begin your day with a slice of grainy toast with avocado and a poached egg. This balanced combo of slow-carbs, healthy fats and protein supplies your brain with stress-busting B-vitamins and magnesium, as well as important amino acids which help build mood-boosting serotonin.
If you are feeling overwhelmed at work by your email inbox or ‘to-do’ list, recalibrate with a long deep breath or three, then step away from the desk and pour a big glass of water to stay hydrated.
10.45am Walk it off
Offer to do the morning coffee run at work. Exercise is a natural stress reliever which lowers cortisol and adrenalin. Caffeine can heighten the body’s stress response, so maybe order a decaf or herbal tea. If you’re peckish, a small handful of nuts and seeds promotes serotonin and has magnesium to help relieve stress levels.
12.30pm Nourishing nosh
Eating a balanced and delicious Mediterranean-style lunch of vegie soup will help you replenish your afternoon energy levels. Taking your lunch break amid nature, away from the office, helps improve concentration and lower blood pressure — and can help reduce stress levels and mental fatigue.
2.00pm Time for a refill
Struggling to stay focused after lunch? A foggy mind can signal dehydration, so it’s time to stretch your legs and pour yourself another glass of water. Chew on a piece of sugar-free gum, or crunch into a crisp apple, to relieve any jaw tension.
3.30pm Step it up
Recharge your batteries by climbing up and down the stairs. Eat a slice of dark rye toast with nut butter, which is rich in magnesium and anti-stress B-vitamins, or a small tub of yoghurt to feed your gut-friendly bacteria.
6.30pm Table talk
The dinner table is the perfect time to connect with your loved ones, and laughter can release feel-good hormones. Feed your brain with omega-3 rich salmon, plus half a plate of steamed leafy greens and a quarter of a plate of brown rice, which provides B-vitamins and magnesium. If you drink alcohol, avoid that second glass, which could disrupt your sleep.
8.30pm A cup of calm
Now’s the time for a digital detox to help your mind wind down. Enjoy a calming cup of chamomile tea, or a warming mug of golden milk (made with turmeric, an anti-inflammatory spice) to nurture your body before heading to bed.
10.00pm Pillow time
Going to bed and rising at regular times each day will promote a restful night’s sleep and help you manage stress. If your mind is racing with your ‘to-do’ list, or replaying stressful events from the day, it can help you to write down your thoughts in a journal.
NOTE: If stress is affecting your life, ask your GP about support services or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.