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Battle holiday stress by eating the right foods

Laura Leyshon/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

It's hard not to feel a little stressed out in December. Between balancing work deadlines, family obligations, holiday parties and Christmas shopping, the festive season is hardly relaxing.

For many people, the source of holiday stress is doing too much - too much eating, too much drinking, too much spending, even too much family togetherness. All of this can leave us feeling frazzled rather than fulfilled.

It's a well-known fact that the foods we eat influence our health, even our brainpower. But according to scientists, eating the right foods and nutrients can also help your body combat daily stress.

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Research from Britain, called the Food and Mood Project, has identified "food stressors" that exacerbate stress and "food supporters" that help people under stress. Among 200 people surveyed, 90 per cent reported that their mental health improved significantly by making changes to their diet.

Cutting down on sugar, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate had the most impact on alleviating feelings of stress. So did consuming more water, vegetables, fruit and oily fish.

Stress, whether physical or psychological, kicks your body's "fight or flight response" into gear, prompting your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones that boost heart rate, elevate blood pressure, increase blood sugar, suppress digestion and send nutrients to the brain and muscles. Once the stress is gone, your body returns to


Thanks to our hectic, fast-paced lifestyle, often the body's stress response doesn't have a chance to turn off. Ongoing stress - and being exposed to high levels of cortisol - can increase the risk of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, memory impairment and lowered immunity. In fact, research suggests that 60 to 90 per cent of illness is stress-related.

The body's ability to combat stress relies on certain nutrients to work properly. There's even evidence that comfort foods such as cake and ice cream can blunt the body's response to chronic stress and help the body switch it off.

This month, there are a few things you can try if the holidays get too hectic:

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Take (a little) comfort from sweets: According to researchers from the National Academy of Sciences, when rats exposed to chronic stress are fed sugar, they calm down. It's thought that chronically elevated stress hormones can tell the brain to seek pleasure from comfort food. Once energy stores are replenished, a signal from fat cells tells the brain to relax.

Eating a calorie-rich comfort food can calm your nerves, but if it's your usual way of coping with stress, it can lead to weight gain and more stress. The combination of overeating, stress and high cortisol can increase abdominal fat and boost the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Focus on carbohydrates: Increasing your intake of whole grains, fruits and legumes can improve your tolerance to stress. Stress lowers the level of serotonin, a brain chemical that induces a calming, relaxing effect.

Studies show that when stress-prone individuals are fed either a high-carbohydrate or a high-protein diet and subjected to stress, they fare better on a carbohydrate-rich meal plan. The high-carb diet increased serotonin, reduced stress hormones, improved mental performance and decreased feelings of depression.

If you're feeling stressed, make whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, rice, legumes, fruits, and vegetables the focus of your meals rather than protein-rich foods like meat and poultry.

Boost B vitamins: There's a reason why "anti-stress" vitamin supplements contain plenty of B vitamins. When faced with stress, the body requires these nutrients to mobilize stored energy and send it to the bloodstream for immediate fuel. Vitamin B6 may also ease psychological stress since it's used to make serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain.

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The best sources of B vitamins include enriched breakfast cereals, wheat germ, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry, milk and yogurt. You'll also find B6 in avocados, baked potatoes and bananas.

Consider a multivitamin: Research shows that people who are chronically stressed have lower levels of nutrients in their body and the extent of these deficiencies is related to the severity and duration of stress.

Studies from Canada and Europe have found that taking a multivitamin is linked with significant reductions in perceived stress, anxiety, fatigue and illness. It's hypothesized that B vitamins in once-a-day formulas are probably responsible.

Increase vitamin C: This nutrient is concentrated in the adrenal glands, where it is used to make stress hormones. Studies conducted in adults subjected to stress found that, compared to those given a placebo, adults who took a daily vitamin C supplement experienced lower blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels and less stress.

Vitamin C is also well known for its ability to strengthen the immune system.

Citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi fruit, broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes are all good sources of vitamin C. Multivitamins, B complex supplements, and anti-stress vitamins also supply vitamin C.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website at

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