I feel burned out. Can certain foods or supplements help me cope with stress?
Ongoing stress can take a toll on your body – it can cause weight gain, digestive problems, fatigue, poor memory, moodiness, headaches and muscle pain. Too much stress can also increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The good news: Consuming certain foods and nutrients, at the right times, can help you deal with stress and feel better.
The body responds to stress by prompting your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline, two stress hormones that increase heart rate, elevate blood pressure and mobilize glucose (energy) for your brain and muscles. When stress is always present, this fight-or-flight response stays turned on. Prolonged stress accelerates your body's use of carbohydrate, protein, fat and many vitamins and minerals. So the better nourished you are, the better your body is able to cope with daily stress.
Research findings from Britain, called the Food and Mood Project, support the link between a healthy diet and stress reduction. Among 200 people surveyed, 88 per cent of people reported that changing their diet improved their mental health. Sugar, sweets, caffeine and alcohol were among a list of foods found to exacerbate stress while fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and water helped calm stress. So did eating regularly and not skipping breakfast.
The following diet tips are important strategies to help your body manage stress.
Don't skip breakfast
The morning meal replenishes your body with glucose after a night of fasting. A balanced breakfast should include grains (oatmeal, whole-grain toast, high-fibre cereal), protein (egg whites, Greek yogurt, milk, cottage cheese) and a source of healthy fat (nut butter, avocado, flaxseeds, chia seeds).
Eat five times a day
Eat at regular intervals during the day to keep your blood sugar (glucose) steady, ready to fuel your brain and muscles. Eating too little – and not often enough – can cause imbalances in blood sugar that lead to mood swings, low energy, poor concentration and hunger.
Good options include fruit and nuts, yogurt and berries, cheese and whole-grain crackers, a whole-food energy bar (e.g. Larabar, Elevate Me Bar, KIND Bar, Vega One Bar) or a protein shake than includes fruit. If necessary, set a timer to remind you to eat.
Focus on carbohydrates
Ongoing stress lowers serotonin, a brain chemical that's important for sleep, memory and feeling calm and relaxed. Studies show that people under stress have higher serotonin and lower stress hormone levels when they eat a high-carbohydrate – versus high-protein – diet. And they report feeling more mentally sharp and less depressed. Base your meals and snacks on carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains, sweet potato, legumes and fruit rather than protein-rich foods like meat, poultry and eggs.
Boost B vitamins
The body uses B vitamins to mobilize its stored energy for immediate fuel. And vitamin B6 is also needed to make serotonin.
Good sources of B vitamins include enriched breakfast cereals, wheat germ (add it to a smoothie), legumes (add lentils or black beans to salads), nuts and seeds, leafy green vegetables, meat, poultry, milk and yogurt. You'll find plenty of B6 in chickpeas, tuna, salmon, potatoes, bananas, avocados and turkey. To ensure you're covered for B's, consider taking a multivitamin mineral or a B complex supplement.
Get extra C
Vitamin C is thought to help blunt the rise in cortisol during stress and, in so doing, mitigate some of the harmful effects of high cortisol. People who have high blood levels of vitamin C have been shown to fare better mentally and physically when exposed to stressful situations compared to those with low levels of the nutrient.
Vitamin-C-rich foods include citrus fruit, cantaloupe, kiwifruit, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage. To supplement, take 500 milligrams of vitamin C once or twice daily.
Limit caffeine and alcohol
Too much caffeine and alcohol can reduce mental focus, disrupt sleep and boost cortisol. Switch to decaf or tea. Black and green teas are considerably lower in caffeine than coffee (one cup of regular brewed coffee has about 90 to 200 milligrams of caffeine; one cup of tea has 15 to 60 milligrams). If you can't give up caffeinated coffee completely, cut it out after 12 noon. Limit yourself to no more than one drink per day.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct lesliebeck.com.