First let’s just define what we mean by stress. Stress is quite an all-encompassing term which could mean physical or mental stress, which is seen as positive or negative.
In this instance, we are referring to mental stress, which is having a negative impact on your life.
It is also important to note that, if you feel that your stress is more than a symptom of not being as caring with yourself as you should be, treatment should include a multi-faceted approach. This may include medication, psychotherapy, exercise, and improving your diet.
So what role does diet play in alleviating stress?
We’ve all done it. Had a super rough day, and all we feel like is binge watching our favourite show on Netflix whilst we eat fast food, or icecream. Why is this?
Scientifically speaking what is happening is that our body is releasing a chemical called serotonin when we munch away on our favourite comfort foods. Serotonin acts on our brain to boost our mood, and also calm our mind.
The problem is, we are often trained from a very young age to seek out high calorie, high fat, high sugar, low nutrient foods as comfort foods. Think about happy, safe memories. Birthday parties, Christmas, doing well in an exam, having a bad day as a kid and being comforted by someone you loved. What typically happens on those occasions? The person celebrating with you, or making you feel better, will often show their support with chocolate, icecream, cake, fast food, etc.
We do feel better at first, not because of the food, but because we are receiving love from someone else. Then as we become adults and need to self soothe, we revert back to using that connection our brain has made, with comfort food.
Now of course this is over simplified, however it gives you a bit of an idea of what is going on with your brain chemistry when you’re stressed or overwhelmed.
The question is, what can you do instead of reaching for these less healthy options?
The first thing you can do is recreate healthier options of your comfort foods to elicit that same serotonin hit.
Carbohydrates are typically our go to for comfort foods. This is not altogether bad, as carbohydrates prompt the brain to make serotonin. The problem is we opt for sugary low fibre carbs, which give us a quick hit, and then a big low.
Instead, try having complex carbohydrates. These are high in fibre and give us the same serotonin hit, but keep it sustained over the day.
Typically these foods tend to be hot, although not always. Options for comforting warm foods which are healthy include;
– Toast with nut butter or chia seed jam
– Hot low sugar cocoa, or a chocolate mint flavoured herbal tea
– Oven chips
– Homemade burger or pizza
– Blackbean brownies
– Oat pancakes with honey and fruit
The key is to turn your comfort foods, into a healthy high fibre alternative.
But there are other chemicals, aside from serotonin, which affect stress. How can we impact those with food?
You may have heard of them before. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These are activated when we perceive a threat. The problem is, in today’s modern world, there are a lot of things which our brain can perceive as being a threat! Our brain is being bombarded with an overwhelming amount of stimuli, leading to a continuous spiking of our stress hormones, readying our body for fight or flight.
There are foods though, which can help reduce stress hormones in our body, and induce relaxation.
Vitamin C may decrease levels of stress hormones. In a recent study undertaken on high school students, where one group was given a placebo and the other Vitamin C, it was found that the students receiving Vitamin C showed reduced anxiety and heart rate after 14 days.
There are older studies showing similar results, however this most recent randomized control trial adds weight to the conversation.
Vitamin C is found in citrus fruit, kiwifruit, guava, capsicum, broccoli, and strawberries.
Magnesium may reduce fatigue which compounds stress, and also acts as a muscle relaxant. However in studies it shows to be most effective when combined with Vitamin B6 – which we will look at shortly.
It seems most effective in managing stress when it is related to premenstrual hormones. Possibly due to its muscle relaxant properties.
Food high in magnesium include; Green leafy veg, legumes, avocado, banana, peas, green beans, asparagus, broccoli, nuts, seeds, salmon, tuna, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and mackerel.
Omega 3s help to prevent surges in stress hormones, plus form healthy neural connections. These are found in fatty fish such as salmon, nuts, seeds, and soybeans.
Another nutrient is Potassium which helps to regulates blood pressure, possibly alleviating the symptoms and harmful consequences of long term stress. Foods high in potassium include; banana, melons, grapefruit, dried fruits, oranges, potato, and cooked spinach and broccoli.
Finally we come to B-group vitamins. A 2019 Australian meta-analysis found that a large majority of research supported the notion that B-group vitamins are effective in reducing stress in healthy populations. Possibly this is due to the b-group vitamins impact on serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, – stress hormones – as well as they’re ability to decrease neural inflammation.
B-group vitamins are found in; Salmon, green leafy veg, egg, milk, shellfish, legumes, yoghurt, nutritional and brewers yeast, and sunflower seeds.
Is there a stress-busting diet?
So to pull that all together. A stress-busting diet should meet the following criteria;
- Have healthy versions of your comfort food to help with a serotonin hit when you need it
- Be high in complex grains, to keep your level of serotonin even over the day
- Include fruit such as citrus, kiwifruit, melons, guava, strawberries, avocado, banana, grapefruit, and dried fruits.
- Have plenty of vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, asparagus, cabbage, brussels sprouts, potato, cooked spinach, leafy greens, and capsicum.
- Include healthy protein sources such as fatty fish, shellfish, milk, yoghurt, egg, nuts, seeds, legumes, soy, as well as nutritional and brewer’s yeast.
- For particularly stressful times, or if you struggle to get this diversity into your diet, supplementing with Vitamin C, B-group vitamins, magnesium, and an omega-3 fatty acid capsule would be advised.