Eating for Stress Resilience
Stress can come in many shapes and forms, and last for varying periods of time, some stress may even be positive however we tend to have accepted being stressed as a resting state and that’s one thing it certainly isn’t. When we’re stressed we often reach for the things that aren’t going to help us, think sugary foods, alcohol and nicotine and while that can be comforting in the very short term it’s not likely to improve our situation. Stress can be extremely damaging to our bodies and can disrupt digestion, blood pressure, hormonal health, libido and immune function. It is impossible to avoid all stress in daily life, the best thing we can do is improve our resilience to stress by practising a few diet and lifestyle changes that ensure our body is in the best state possible.
What happens when we’re stressed?
When our body responds to a stressor, whether that is psychological or physical, it goes into fight or flight mode. Remember the sabre-toothed tiger scenario? Back when we were facing a serious threat to our life on a regular basis, the body evolved to respond in the most efficient way possible, that included:
- An increase in heart rate, increasing our oxygen uptake and pumping blood to the muscle groups we may need
- A shut-down of our non-essential functions, where energy is directed away from our digestion and towards our limbs.
This was very useful back then, however our modern day stressors are likely to be financial or relationship based rather than physical, and it turns out that we actually need our digestion to function!
Nutrition for Stress Resilience
Our diet plays a major role in our ability to manage stress, many of the nutrients we eat are used in our stress response to make hormones and neurotransmitters as well as protecting us against the oxidative damage that stress may cause the body.
Often nicknamed anti-stress nutrients as these vitamins, including B12, B9, B6, etc., help to balance the stress response. If you struggle with your B vitamin intake and opt for supplements be sure to choose a methylated supplement which is body-ready for easy absorption.
Crucial for brain function and mood as it has a calming effect on the body, by supporting nerve, muscles, energy and digestive functions. Magnesium is present in plenty of foods but can also be absorbed well through the skin. This method of absorption is particularly popular with athletes who experience a lot of physical stress, as it encourages the muscles to relax while also increasing circulating magnesium to support mental health.
Zinc is beneficial during periods of stress as it helps to stabilise stress hormone production and maintains healthy nervous system function. Zinc can be depleted rapidly through periods of high stress and should be a priority in your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with improved mood and cognition. These fatty acids offer an anti-inflammatory effect which can be protective in times of stress, as well as providing healthy fats to maintain brain health.
Vitamin C - Kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges.
Vitamin C is rapidly depleted during times of stress as it protects the body against the physical damage psychological stress causes. Do you ever notice you are more susceptible to a common cold when you’re stressed? That’s partly a result of depleted vitamin C! This is a water soluble vitamin that we dispose of regularly in urine, therefore it’s important that we consume enough vitamin C in our diet or through supplementation.
A healthy gut is essential for good mental health, during periods of stress our gut bacteria change composition, and our beneficial bacteria may need additional support. Keeping our gut bacteria well balanced through probiotic foods and supplements ensure we are able to break down and absorb all of these beneficial nutrients and produce the neurotransmitters needed to balance our mood.
Stress Triggers in the Diet
Caffeine is a stimulant and can worsen the stress response by triggering cortisol release (stress hormone). Switch to decaf coffee and tea if you find yourself reaching for caffeine!
Similar to caffeine it is a stimulant and can cause worsened stress levels, particularly the following day (a.k.a. ‘Beer Fear’) as it depletes some essential nutrients such as vitamin C and B complex. Opt for non-alcoholic beverages when you can, some even contain adaptogenic mushrooms that can support the stress response.
Eating sugary foods causes us to take part in the blood sugar rollercoaster, where we have a burst of energy and then a crash which leads to irritable moods and causes stress on the body. Try choosing lower sugar snacks and balancing it with a combination of fibre, protein and fat to slow the release of sugar into the body.
Lifestyle Habits for Less Stress
It is common knowledge that exercise releases feel-good endorphins, however regular exercise can also support stress resilience. This is particularly true of aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, swimming and cycling, rather than weight lifting exercises. Performing these exercises in nature has even greater benefits on stress reduction!
Breathwork and meditation
Deep breathing helps to activate and tone the vagus nerve, which is responsible for triggering a relaxation response in the body. Deep and slow breathing is best for this, aim to have a longer exhale than inhale, for example inhale into your belly for 4 counts and exhale for 7, repeating as many times as needed.
Sleep is vital for a healthy and happy mind, and sleep hygiene refers to the practices that encourage a good night's sleep. This can include keeping a routine and going to bed at the same time every night, maintaining a cool room temperature, having night-time tea with chamomile, lavender or oat flower, avoiding use of electronic devices in bed and using sleep sprays or calming essential oils.