At best, stress can interfere with your happiness and productivity.
At worst, stress can be a slow killer: It can adversely affect your immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and central nervous systems, especially when it is experienced chronically.
Avoiding stress entirely is impossible. Many of the ups and downs of everyday life are simply out of our control.
For many, reaching for comfort foods that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates during times of stress is instinctual. It is an attempt to self-soothe.
Unfortunately, this approach usually makes the problem worse. You feel guilty for eating “junk food”, which causes more stress. The next thing you know, you are trapped in a vicious cycle of stress and overeating.
But there is a bright side – how we respond to stressful situations IS within our control.
There are many ways you can reduce or manage the stress in your life. Good nutrition is one of them. Believe it or not, there are foods you can eat that have shown to have stress-reducing properties.
Cortisol – your body’s stress hormone
Stressful events (even relatively minor ones) can cause cortisol levels to rise to problematic levels.
Cortisol (a steroid hormone) helps fuel the fight-or-flight response – the psychological loop that fires you up to fight or run for your life when facing danger.
Think of it as your body’s built-in alarm system. When you are faced with immediate danger, increases in cortisol help you respond. The hormone works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.
Cortisol also handles other important bodily tasks, explains WebMD:
Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
Keeps inflammation down
Regulates your blood pressure
Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
Controls your sleep/wake cycle
Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both located in your brain) can sense if your blood contains the right level of cortisol. If the level is too low, your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it makes. Your adrenal glands read those signals, and then fine-tune the amount of cortisol they release. Cortisol’s primary function is to increase blood sugar levels so your brain, muscles, and organs have enough fuel to get you through a stressful situation.
If you are under constant stress and your cortisol levels remain high, health problems including anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration issues, digestive troubles, and sleep struggles can all result.
High cortisol levels can increase the amount of fat you hold in your belly. This is called visceral fat, and it is particularly nasty. It is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which may increase Type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk. Excess visceral fat is also linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, stroke, dementia, depression, arthritis, obesity, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disorders.
You don’t have to be visibly overweight to be at risk. Even relatively thin people can have too much visceral fat, which is why it is often referred to as “hidden” belly fat.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase blood sugar levels, which in turn elevate insulin levels. Some studies (including this one) have found this can interfere with fat loss – no matter what exercise or weight loss program you follow.
Cortisol causes food cravings, and those cravings tend to be strongest for carbs, especially sweet foods.
Nurturing your “second brain”
There is an extensive network of neurons (nerve cells that transmit information throughout your body) lining your guts. It is filled with neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), and it does a heck of a lot more than dealing with digestion and giving you “butterflies” when you are nervous. It plays a crucial role in diseases throughout your body – and in your mental state.
This network in your gut is called the enteric nervous system. It is often referred to as a “second brain” because it contains around 100 million neurons (that’s more than in your spinal cord or peripheral nervous system!)
A growing body of research shows there is an intricate link between the mental health and our gut microbiome.
One study found that both high-fat and high-sugar diets cause changes in gut bacteria that appear to be related to a significant loss of “cognitive flexibility,” or the power to adapt and adjust to changing situations. The effect was the most serious on the high-sugar diet, which also showed an impairment of early learning for both long-term and short-term memory.
Those findings are consistent with other studies about the impact of fat and sugar on cognitive function and behavior and suggest that some of these problems may be linked to changes in the microbiome – the approximate 100 trillion microorganisms in the digestive system.
Studies have shown that glyphosate – the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup – can damage the human microbiome. Because of the role gut health plays in mental well-being, avoiding food that has been exposed to the chemical is probably a good idea.
As you can see, eating an unhealthful diet and being chronically stressed can be a dangerous duo, in large part because of the impacts on cortisol levels and your gut health.
Thankfully, there are many specific foods and nutrients that have been shown to help reduce stress and balance overall mood.
The role of nutrition in stress management
Fill your diet with protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and a moderate amount of dietary fat. Avoid trans fat, keep your added sugar intake as low as possible, avoid soda (yes, even diet soda), and consider reducing (or eliminating) gluten and grain consumption.
A simple way to remember to eat a balanced diet is this: focus on nutrient density. This means trying to pack as many nutrients from whole foods as possible into every meal.
19 vitamins, minerals, and foods to explore the ways they can help you manage stress
Folate (also known as Vitamin B9): Helps your body produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Folate is crucial for proper brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health. Studies show that folate paired with B12 can help treat depression. Dietary sources: dark leafy greens, asparagus, turnips, beets, Brussels sprouts, beans, avocado, milk
Vitamin B1 (thiamine): Sometimes called an “anti-stress” vitamin, B1 can help strengthen the immune system and improve the body’s ability to withstand stressful conditions. Dietary sources: pork, beef, poultry, legumes, black beans, seeds, nuts
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Studies have shown B2 can help support adrenal function, help calm and maintain a healthy nervous system, and prevent or alleviate depression. Dietary sources: dairy products (like milk, cheese, and yogurt), eggs, enriched or fortified cereals and grains, meats, liver, dark greens (including asparagus, broccoli, spinach, and turnip greens), fish, poultry, and buckwheat
Vitamin B3 (niacin): Mild deficiency has been associated with depression. Dietary sources: beets, brewer’s yeast, salmon, swordfish, tuna, sunflower seeds, peanuts
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): helps the body make several neurotransmitters – chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another. It is needed for normal brain development and function, and helps the body make the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, which influence mood, and melatonin, which helps regulate the body’s internal “clock.” Dietary sources: fortified cereal, chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, shrimp, milk, cheese, lentils, beans, hummus (chickpeas), spinach, carrots, brown rice, sunflower seeds, bananas.