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We all deal with stress differently. Some people overindulge in comfort foods as a way to cope, while worry and anxiety cause others to go for periods without eating.
Stress hormones are to blame. They can either ramp up or shut down your appetite, not to mention increase the desire for foods high in sugar, fat or both.
When stress erodes a healthy eating pattern it makes it more difficult for your body to properly tackle stress.
That’s because the body’s stress response relies on many nutrients to function optimally. During stressful times, it’s critical to eat a nutritionally-dense diet in order to meet high nutrient demands.
What is the stress response?
Stress, physical or psychological, kicks your body’s stress response into high gear. The process, known as the fight or flight response, triggers a surge of stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol that produces physiological changes.
Heart rate speeds ups, blood pressure increases, breathing quickens and senses become sharper. There’s also a rapid turnover of carbohydrates, fats and proteins to supply energy (glucose) to all parts of the body.
The stress response also results in an increased need for vitamins and minerals, which are used to produce energy. These nutrients also serve as building blocks for certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that affect stress levels, mood and the ability to concentrate.
Nutrient-rich foods to help soothe stress
Eating a variety of foods each day will help you consume a wide range of stress-supportive nutrients. A daily multivitamin and mineral supplement can also help meet nutrient needs, especially if stress has diminished your appetite.
The following nutrients play a key role maintaining the body’s stress response:
Carbohydrates. A carbohydrate-rich diet increases brain levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s needed to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin promotes a feeling of calmness, lessens food cravings and helps regulate sleep.
Emphasize higher-fibre carbohydrates at meals and snacks to help improve mood and stabilize blood sugar. Whole grains (e.g., oatmeal, brown rice, farro, freekeh, whole wheat pasta), beans and lentils, sweet potato, butternut squash, turnip, carrots and whole fruit are good choices.
B vitamins. These nutrients release energy from carbohydrates and fats and help transport this fuel around the body. Vitamin B6 and folate, in particular, are needed to make serotonin.
You’ll find B vitamins in a wide range of foods, including enriched breakfast cereals, whole grains, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and dark green vegetables. Milk, salmon, tuna, chickpeas, bananas and potatoes are good sources of B6.
Folate-rich foods include cooked spinach, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green peas, avocado, lentils, black beans and wheat germ.
Vitamin C. Research conducted in people and animals suggest that higher intakes of vitamin C may help reduce the physical and psychological effects of stress. Vitamin C is thought to help the adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones, function better.
Outstanding sources of the vitamin include citrus fruit, kiwifruit, strawberries, mango, cantaloupe, pineapple, red and green bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and tomato juice.
Magnesium. When reacting to stress, the body uses magnesium to dampen cortisol, a stress hormone that, if chronically elevated, can have harmful effects on body weight, immune health and chronic disease risk. A magnesium deficiency has also been linked to increased symptoms of stress, including anxiety.
Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa, almonds, cashews, peanuts, cooked spinach, Swiss chard, black beans, lentils, soymilk and edamame are excellent sources of magnesium.
Omega-3 fats. One omega-3 fatty acid found in oily fish, called docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, is essential for the integrity of brain cell membranes. Too little DHA may alter how brain cells respond to neurotransmitters.
Evidence also suggests that low levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats may predispose some people to anxiety and depression and that higher intakes of them may benefit mood.
Include fatty fish such as salmon, trout, Arctic char and sardines in your diet at least twice a week. If you don’t eat fish, consider taking a fish oil supplement or a DHA supplement made from algae.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD