Food as Medicine: Eating for Stress Management

 Photo by Kelley Melvin

Photo by Kelley Melvin

Let’s face it – most of us feel like we’re experiencing some level of stress in our lives at the moment. Whether it’s family, work, financial or physical stress, our bodies are under some form of stress on a daily basis. While a bit of stress is a good thing  - it’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and motivates you be a productive person – many of us are feeling too much stress too often or for too long which puts us at risk for various health conditions. 

Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which tells the body to unleash its “fight or flight” response. This prompts the release of stress hormones, including cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline, to prepare the body for a physical feat. There are various physiological changes that are activated during the fight or flight response in order to give the body increased strength and speed in anticipation of fighting or running. Some of these include increased blood flow to the muscles, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and increased muscle tension. While this response worked well for our hunter-gather ancestors who needed it for escaping a hungry saber-tooth tiger, it doesn’t work as well for modern-day emotional or physiological stress. The body can’t distinguish between rush hour traffic stress and saber-tooth tiger stress. Repeatedly triggering the stress response due to stressful relationships, finances, traffic, a demanding boss, etc. really takes a toll on the body. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity and other conditions such as chronic pain.

When it comes to stress, the problem is not necessarily your busy schedule itself, rather it is what happens to your body when you skip self-nourishment in the midst of that busy schedule. It is unrealistic to try to eliminate all stress in your life, but the goal here is to help your body adapt to it.

Several strategies for alleviating stress have been well studied and documented. They include making a concerted effort to minimize stressors (i.e. go the back way to avoid traffic and road rage!), engaging in meditation and deep-belly breathing exercises, getting a massage, doing yoga and nurturing strong social relationships. Unfortunately, too many people turn to a detrimental coping method – eating – which can leave them feeling lazy, sluggish and depressed about their bodies. While under stress, the body essentially shuts down the digestive system as it’s diverting blood to your heart, lungs and muscles to help you run or fight. Eating while stressed can lead to digestive issues, weight gain and increased risk of obesity.  While it’s generally a bad idea to eat while under acute stress, there are ways to use healthy, wholesome food to manage and adapt to stress, as well as help reduce the negative health effects associated with chronic stress.

Chronic stress can reduce levels of serotonin, the body’s “feel good” hormone. Serotonin is a key moderator of mood, appetite, sleep and memory. Some foods that may increase serotonin contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce this “happiness hormone.”  Incorporating tryptophan-rich foods into your daily diet can be a great way of raising serotonin levels and mitigating stress and depression. Additionally, B Complex vitamins, Vitamin C and D and healthy fats are all super important for improving adrenal performance and healthfully managing stress levels. The list below gives you an idea of how to use food as medicine to assist your body in adapting to stress and enhancing overall health.

Stress-Fighting and Adrenal-Healing Foods

  • Turkey, chicken, shrimp, eggs, and pumpkin seeds contain high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to the “happiness hormone,” serotonin, which helps the body regulate sleep and mood and lessens depression and anxiety.
  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens and beans are loaded with folate, which works synergistically with B12 for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain.
  • Sunlight, salmon, sardines, liver and egg yolk are all good sources of Vitamin D which is necessary for melanin production, a hormone made from serotonin. Deficiency in Vitamin D can lead to poor sleep quality, depression and can also impact immune function.
  • Oranges, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes, plus many other fresh fruits and vegetables, are rich in Vitamin C. This vitamin can aid in lowering blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and ease the feeling of being stressed.
  • Whole grains, dark green leafy veggies, snap peas and lentils are high in B vitamins which are needed in above average doses to support mechanisms for dealing with stress.
  • Flax seeds, walnuts and salmon are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for proper brain function, healthy nervous system and helping to reduce anxiety.
  • Sea vegetables (such as nori, wakame, arame and dulse) and celtic sea salt are rich in minerals and micronutrients. As the adrenal glands help to regulate the body’s mineral balance, they can become depleted by a diet deficient in trace minerals.

Of course, like anything else, it’s balance that counts. Eating a plant-based diet packed full of good quality protein, complex carbs, lots of fruits and veggies and healthy fats will balance serotonin levels and provide you with the vitamins and minerals you need to help your body adapt to everyday stressors.

Hope you learned a little something and feel inspired to incorporate more stress-fighting foods into your diet!

Steph x