Stress. A simple word, yet it holds a deep and strong connotation for when a person experiences a problem in life, be it in the workplace, at home or with family. People who experience stress will start noticing changes in their body and report feelings of muscle tension, headaches, irritability, loss of focus and exhaustion to name a few. Believe it or not, equipping yourself with a healthy diet, regular exercise and relaxation techniques can actually serve as core weapons against stress.
Many of us may turn to unhealthy comfort foods when feeling stressed, anxious or down, causing us to take up eating habits that may promote serious consequences such as blood sugar imbalances, weight gain and a weakened immune system. Such unhealthy eating habits include consuming fast food and foods high in sugar and fat frequently, skipping meals and consuming large quantities of caffeine. To combat stress with diet, my general suggestions are to:
- Adopt a well balanced diet that includes all major food groups
- Ditch the fads
- Correct any vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Include nutrients that boost your immunity (e.g. vitamin C, zinc, polyphenols)
What we may not realise when we are stressed is that healthy eating and a balanced diet become less of a priority when we are extremely busy. Quick, ‘grab & go’ meals and even skipping meals become regular habits, which can ultimately lead to your body being drained of important nutrients. So take a minute, and think about what your body may be missing out on.
Areas of research have looked into a number of specific nutrients and their effect on mental health, stress and overall well being and they include the following:
Carbohydrates in their digested form (glucose) are our body’s primary supply of energy especially to our brain. Ensuring that you have an adequate supply of carbohydrates in your diet ensures that you will have enough glucose in your blood. This will definitely impact our ability to focus and concentrate. When there is not enough glucose in the blood, we start to feel weak, tired and out of focus. Hence, our bodies are low on fuel for our brain, which subsequently affects our mood. We become irritable, cranky and short tempered. This is known to happen with restrictive diets and with erratic eating habits.
Another theory that links carbohydrates with mood is carbohydrate craving and comfort eating. Some researchers have suggested that carbohydrates raise levels of the “happiness hormone”, serotonin in the brain, which is a “calming chemical”. Serotonin is essential for mood regulation, cognitive function, muscle contraction and regulating sleep and appetite. Could this possible theory explain the consumption of sweet comfort foods such as cakes and chocolate when people are feeling down? In practice, there has not been sufficient scientific evidence to support this on a physiological basis.
Tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein foods, is also believed to affect serotonin levels. Insufficient or restricted amounts of protein in the diet can negatively affect serotonin levels causing feelings or irritability, moodiness and depression. Foods such as almonds, walnuts and pecans are sources of tryptophan and could be included as part of a well balanced diet.
Magnesium is a vital mineral our body needs as it is involved in hundreds of chemical reactions in our body. Suffering from magnesium deficiency increases your risk of developing increased muscle tension, irregular heartbeats, chronic fatigue and irregular sleep, all of which can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress and depression. Green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains are all excellent sources of magnesium you can include daily.
Iron deficiency results in low levels of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in anemia. Symptoms include extreme fatigue and tiredness all the time, which can ultimately cause moodiness and irritability. Foods high in iron include legumes (beans, lentils…), beef, eggs, shellfish, nuts, spinach and kale, increasing your iron supplies.
B vitamins such as B12, thiamin and niacin play a major role in neurological function. Deficiency in some B vitamins are known to cause feelings of fatigue, irritability and depression so do include foods such as shellfish, beef, dairy products and fermented foods such as miso, tofu or tempeh to boost your B vitamin intake.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fats (“good fats”) that need to be obtained from the diet. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the type of omega-3 fatty acids which are believed to be the most valuable forms of omega-3 for our body. Omega 3s are found in both plant and marine foods, but it is the omega-3 fats from marine sources that have the strongest evidence for health benefits. Multiple studies have been performed to investigate their effect on mental health especially depression especially EPA where some studies have called it the natural antidepressant. Omega 3 fats are believed to help in building your brain’s cell connections. Also, the more omega-3s in your blood, the more serotonin you are likely to make, increasing your happy hormones and making you more responsive the calming chemical’s effect. Sources of Omega 3 include: Oily fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, soybean oil.
Remember, acknowledging that you are stressed and seeking help is the first step towards progress. You can then build on ways to address suspected triggers and be well on your way to a healthier you, both physically and mentally!
*Singh K. Nutrient and Stress Management. J Nutr Food Sci. (2016) 6:528
*Hector M, Burton JR: What are the psychiatric manifestations of vitamin B12 deficiency? J Am Geriatr Soc 36(12):1105-12
*Sterner RT, Price WR: Restricted riboflavin: within-subject behavioral effects in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 26(2):150-60
*Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, Wisner KL, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;67(12):1954-1967