Stress Support Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
We live in a crazy mixed-up world where stress appears to be almost as common as brushing your teeth. Yet does it have to be that way? Indeed, I suggest that ongoing stress is ‘abnormal’ – the result of how we interpret and react to situations around us.
For example, why do some people get stressed when running late for work, whereas others simply cruise along because they leave home in plenty of time? Could much of our stress be self-created – a product of how we view and live in our world?
By the same token, short term stress is a natural physical and mental response to both good and bad experiences e.g. making love vs getting frightened. Our body is designed to handle these situations by releasing certain hormones, increase our heart rate and our breathing rate so we can deal with, cope with, or enjoy the experience.
During stress, there are different parts of the body that are activated. Starting with the central nervous system (CNS) the adrenal glands are told to produce more adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormones) then the respiratory system kicks in to give us more oxygen.
At the same time, the stress hormones also constrict our blood vessels to raise blood pressure to help get more oxygen to the brain and heart for quick decisions that need to be made in times of danger. Then your liver produces extra blood glucose to give you a boost of energy and your muscles tense up as a protection from injury.
These are the physiological conditions we know of as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which give us the energy to run or protect ourselves.
While these responses are needed in times of danger, long-term stress can have devastating effects on your body.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system, giving you symptoms like heartburn, acid reflux, nausea, vomiting, stomach-ache, diarrhea or constipation. Under constant stress, your muscles don’t get the chance to relax giving rise to headaches, back and shoulder pain and general body aches.
External stress can convert to internal stress – the stresses placed on your body which affects blood sugar levels, inflammation, infections and biochemical imbalances. In turn, the internal stress on the body creates more stress on the mind and so the destructive mind/body cycle continues.
Stress can be exhausting and along with this fatigue, often the last thing you want to think about is love making. On the short term, because stress can increase testosterone, some guys will have an increase in sexual arousal, but ongoing, chronic stress drops testosterone levels.
If women get an increase in testosterone from stress it can play havoc with their menstrual cycle giving heavier, more painful periods and for some, lead to polycystic ovaries (PCOS). Symptoms like hot flushes and poor mood for peri-menopausal or menopausal women can be exacerbated.
With the added release of cortisol (stress hormone) your immune system can be compromised making you more susceptible to infections and diseases and increase inflammation in the body.
There is no part of the body that stress doesn’t affect.
It is important to deal with stress through relaxation techniques or counselling. It is also vital to deal with the internal stress in the body with the help of an experienced health care provider to help you to minimise potential and existing problems that can be extremely harmful for your overall health.
Our approach to life
I will only touch briefly on this subject as there is an enormous amount of material available about techniques and approaches to dealing with stress.
How we deal with stress varies from person to person. The ‘glass is half-full’ person who is more optimistic about life chooses to overcome stress with an attitude of ‘well what’s the worst that can happen, I can deal with that’. The ‘glass is half-empty’ person creates more stress in their body because they make ‘mole hills into mountains’.
We can magnify stress so it becomes much more than it really is. Minor irritations can build up until ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’ gets added to the mix and then ‘whammo!’ – an explosive mixture brings us undone.
For example, sarcasm from a partner, work colleagues, relatives or friends feels awful and the effect can accumulate, adding stress to your mind and body that does not need to be there. A sarcastic comment needs to be immediately nipped in the bud, with a response such as, ‘You know, when you say something sarcastic like that it feels awful and it really doesn’t suit you’.
Putting stuff off, like that conversation you need to have, or procrastinating about various things can add to your stress. The key is to ‘Just Do It’ as the Nike ad says. Sometimes one simple step is all that is needed to get the wheels moving and gradually build momentum.
For many people, comparison and fear of judgement creates stress. Pressure can build by feeling a need to look or behave a certain way or have the right car, job, home or whatever. Worries about money, or what the future might hold can be debilitating.
Perhaps it’s preferable to focus on what is in front of you right now, because the reality is that the future never arrives (and it’s impossible to be in two places at once). And if some people don’t like what you do, or what you have or don’t have, does it really matter? They may be on a different trip to you. Surely what you feel about yourself is what truly matters. After all, who needs the stress?
And rather than worry about what you do in life, isn’t it more about how you live your life and what you bring to what you do?
I know from personal experience that giving yourself the time and space to sit quietly and contemplate on your stressful situations can help. Relax and consider if you are making too big a deal out of situations and if you are contributing to that stress.
See it for what it is in the overall context of your life and focus on what there is to appreciate and be grateful for. Look at those irritations and sort them out rather than let them simmer under the surface. Rather than react to what life dishes up, choose the stress-free option by simply responding.
As the Honourable Dalai Lama says, “If you can change it, there is nothing to worry about. If you can’t change it, there is nothing to worry about because it can’t be changed”.
Stress makes our body racy and if we pause, we can feel that tension. Yet our body craves stillness and harmony.
To help settle the stress in your mind and body, try sitting with eyes closed and simply focus on breathing gently through your nose, and then gently expiring. Follow your breath. A few minutes (even while sitting on the toilet) can bring you back to a lovely feeling of stillness.
Another technique is to sit or lie down, close your eyes, and simply focus on various parts of the body in turn…the arms, legs, fingers, the jaw, eyes, throat, shoulders and so on. As you focus on those areas, without having to do anything, the tension feels like it evaporates away.
Rather than be pre-occupied with a head full of mental stuff, simply being aware of your body and moving in a harmonious way can also help to dissipate stress. For example, bring your awareness to your body and how it feels when typing, walking, brushing teeth, eating and so on.
Exercise is a fantastic way to dissipate stress, particularly aerobic activities. Exercise releases the feel-good hormones such as serotonin and endorphins. Yet we don’t have to train to be an Olympic athlete to receive the benefits of exercise. For example, walking for half an hour will increase the serotonin in our body by 50%.
The key to exercise is to do it regularly and at your pace – not someone else’s. And don’t get caught in a comparison trap where you feel you need to keep up with the fit ones in a spin class or to lift weights that are too heavy or stretch more than you are ready for in a yoga class. An injury can set your stress reduction exercise program back for some time.
Make exercise joyful. Walking and connecting to nature is invigorating. Swimming can be fun. Exercising can be enjoyed with a group, whether working out at a gym, playing badminton or dancing. There are plenty of choices. Make exercise consistent and enjoyable and feel the stress evaporate.
By the way, if you don’t like exercise, call it movement!
Diet and Nutrients
The benefit of a nutritious diet has been immensely underrated to help people to cope with stress.
Typically, when someone is stressed, they eat too much or don’t eat enough or eat comfort foods. Not a good idea.
Amazing foundational benefits to help overcome stress can be achieved from the support of wholesome nutritious food. What are you feeding yourself? Glug and sweet stuff to stimulate internal stress – or nutritious food to help clear the stress?
When I first studied naturopathy we were told about a study done on goats. Goats, like many animals, can produce their own ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which is very handy. Vitamin C can be depleted a lot during times of stress, be that from poor food options, fights in the paddock, or disease and illness. Goats can increase their vitamin C levels by up to thirteen times their normal amount, to give their bodies what is needed at that time.
Most of us don’t really think about replenishing vitamins unless we get sick. Does that mean that goats are smarter than us? We’ll take vitamin C if we feel we are coming down with a cold or flu, but we don’t realise that our body has a greater need for vitamin C during stressful times.
According to scientific literature our daily need for vitamin C is a mere 90mg, but this is inadequate for the level of stress that most people have in their day to day lives.
The vitamin C we get from food has a far greater bioavailability (is more absorbable and available to our cells) than that from supplements. This means that normally you should get an adequate amount of vitamin C from regularly eating fresh vitamin C rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Having said that, during highly stressful times, vitamin C supplements can be a great support.
Other nutrients sucked out of the body during stressful times are the B group vitamins, especially B5 and B6. Foods rich in these nutrients can help to re-build the body after a bout of stress. However, it’s preferably to consume these foods all the time to make stress more manageable.
I often prescribed my stressed clients with a powdered blend of magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C. Many then found that things that previously stressed them would then bounce off them. After their levels were initially boosted, a diet rich in these nutrients helped them to easily cope with stress in their daily life.
Long-term stress causes adrenal fatigue; addressing it with adrenal support and recommended foods in the Adrenal Fatigue Diet can help over time. Short term acute stress, such as anxiety, may need more concentrated help. If anxiety affects you, consider the Anxiety Diet.
Foods rich in magnesium are greens (which also contain the calming ingredient folate), almonds, cacao nibs, soybeans, eggs, apples and salmon.
B5 can be found in pasture raised or organic meats e.g. chicken livers, egg yolks and whole grains. B6 is found in all meats, especially liver and is also found in leafy green vegetables, bananas, legumes, and nuts – especially pistachios.
Vitamin C is rich in fruits, tomatoes, capsicum, and any coloured vegetable (but not white vegies such as potatoes).
Other ways to support stress is by munching on raw vegetables, apples, nuts and seeds. The chewing of crunchy foods helps to lower cortisol, a stress hormone.
Sipping a cup of tea, especially chamomile or lemon balm tea, or decaffeinated green tea, Rooibos tea, or even plain hot water can help. Heat from water has a very soothing effect on your nervous system and dilates blood vessels, while sitting quietly having a ‘cuppa’ is very calming provided you give yourself the space and time to relax with it.
Comfort food eating and stress
Have you noticed how we often gravitate towards processed foods, simple carbs, gluten foods, sugary foods, dairy products, and chocolate when we are stressed? This is because we can get a slight temporary mood enhancing elevation in serotonin and dopamine when we eat these foods.
But apart from external stress in our lives, our bodies can suffer stress from the food choices we make. Sure we might get a quick fix from comfort foods, but then we get the sugar or chemical drop and we ‘need’ more to feel good again.
During digestion, some comfort foods elevate our blood sugar and then the pancreas releases insulin to decrease the elevated blood sugar. This creates a dip, not just in our blood sugar levels, but it also affects our mood and ability to cope with stress.
In particular, dairy products can produce a casomorphine release – a morphine like chemical released by the digestion of casein in milk. It is certainly minor compared to morphine but still very similar in its action, and like the other comfort foods, the enhanced mood later drops which makes us crave more.
Peaks and drops from any chemicals in substances like sugar, simple carbs, caffeine, alcohol (sugar), nicotine (and other drugs) and ‘comfort foods’ create tremendous stress on our body (the last thing we need if already stressed).
Eating a nourishing diet that contains a good balance of proteins, complex carbohydrates and good quality fats minimises the peaks and dips in our blood sugar and mood. This is a far better way to help our bodies and minds cope with stress so we become more vital and appreciate life (rather than struggle).
Foods to avoid
As mentioned, sugar and simple carbs can trigger peaks and dips in blood sugar levels that can have a negative effect on how we deal with stress. But sugar does more than that.
The sugar digested from grains can contribute to leptin and insulin resistance and impair signalling of neurotransmitters and other hormones which play a significant role in your mental health. For more information see my article about the Weight Loss Diet.
Sugar consumption also triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that promote inflammation. Inflammation disrupts the normal functioning of your immune system, which is linked to a greater risk of depression and poor ability to cope with stress
Studies indicate that wheat and other grains that contain gluten such as rye, barley and spelt can have detrimental effects on mood and our ability to cope with stress by inhibiting the production of serotonin. Neurotransmitters including serotonin can be found in your gut as well as your brain, showing the importance of a healthy digestive system. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin is found in your intestines, not your brain.
Many people know that processed foods are not good for us, but the list of potentially mood-busting ingredients in processed foods is long. Processed foods are not only more likely to contain sugar and gluten, but also many contain trans-fats, artificial colours, flavours, artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and other synthetic ingredients linked to irritability and poor mood, which then also affects how we handle stress.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and chard are rich in folate, which helps your body produce mood calming neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.
Turkey Breast (preferably organic)
Turkey is a good source of tryptophan, which is an amino acid from protein that your body converts into serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. Other sources of tryptophan are pumpkin seeds, nuts, and free-range organic eggs.
Fermented Foods and probiotics
A healthy gut means a healthy nervous system and healthy brain neurotransmitters that help to keep us calm. Beneficial bacteria from probiotic rich fermented foods and probiotic supplements have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood, and behaviour regulating signals to your brain.
The friendly bacteria, lactobacillus rhamnosus, was shown to increase GABA (calming neurotransmitter) levels in the brain and had a lowering effect on cortisone, the stress-induced hormone, to reduce anxiety and depression. Eating fermented foods like coconut yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut etc can help you to cope with stress better, via the gut brain pathways.
The ‘good oils’ found in wild caught salmon and other cold-water fish like sardines and anchovies can play a role in your mental and emotional wellbeing and reduce inflammation, an internal stress in the body. Apart from helping with stress, the good fats in these fish are also beneficial for depression and anxiety.
Blueberries and other purple foods
Anthocyanins are the pigments that purple fruits and vegetables, such as purple carrots, get their deep colour from. These antioxidants help your brain to produce dopamine for a healthy mood, and help control or reduce stress.
Sunshine for stress support
Now while sunshine is not a food, it’s essential for growing food. And it’s also vital for relaxing times at the beach, or a walk in the park to help you feel good. But it’s not just about relaxation, there’s also chemical interactions involved with vitamin D and serotonin.
Serotonin rises with exposure to sunlight and decreases with less sun exposure. Low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of anxiety and panic disorders which can lead to what is termed ‘seasonally affected disorder’ (SAD), where insufficient light creates poor mood which creates stress. While you can get some vitamin D in foods like salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms, the best way to optimize vitamin D is through sensible sun exposure.
Seeds and greens for stress (magnesium)
Magnesium, a serotonin precursor, is well-known for its role in helping to regulate emotions, enhance well-being, and reduce the effects of stress. It’s found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and chard. Seaweeds are an excellent source of magnesium, as are some beans, pumpkin (pepitas), sunflower and sesame seeds, and some nuts. Avocados also contain magnesium.
Avocados for stress
Avocados provide about 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, B vitamins, and folate. Avocados are known to help regulate blood sugar levels, which helps to keep mood steady during stressful times.
Overall, the best diet to support stress is one that has a good balance of proteins, complex carbs, and good quality fats, while avoiding stimulants, uppers and downers.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
Max was someone whose life always had to run to the ‘Max’ as in maximum. Always rushing around and creating dramas along the way, his body appeared to cope for many years until inevitably, Max had a nervous breakdown from taking on far too much stress and a poor lifestyle.
He was a stockbroker who invested for his clients and dabbled into the market himself. When the global financial crisis hit, Max ‘maxed out’ his investments and suddenly found himself broke, in the middle of a marital separation, and out of a job.
Medically, a nervous breakdown is the loss of valuable nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium.
This was true for Max, as during the previous few months before seeing me he had been running on caffeine, sugar, milk (in coffee), followed at night with bourbon and coke in premix cans. Occasionally he ate a pie or toasted sandwich, but his high adrenaline quelled his appetite.
Then he crashed, big time. When Max visited me, he was a shadow of his former self. He had lost 10kgs and was weak and depressed. He showed me photos of what he normally looked like (pumped at the gym) and he really looked different and had aged 10 years.
What he really needed was a nutrient re-building program.
A diet for stress support does just that. Max was given choices of foods to help re-build his nutrients lost due to stress, particularly minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, plus B vitamins and vitamin C.
I also took him off all grains, gluten foods, dairy products, and refined sugar so his adrenals and digestive system could rest and allow his body to recover. His prescription also included lots of relaxation time, which he could do as he had no job.
However, Max still had some stress to deal with regarding his losses, but when we discussed the ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ scenario, he realised it just meant starting over again with the wisdom of knowing what not to do next time. He also knew he needed to take time out to relax and value those things that were important to him.
I also shared a gentle breath meditation technique which was easy for him to bring some stillness and gentleness to his body. We also discussed how to be more aware of his body and the messages it was sharing.
Even though he was an absolute mess when he first came in, Max put ‘maximum’ effort into making things better for his health, wellbeing, and family. Within a couple of months, he was back beaming and told me that he was back with his wife and happier than ever.
He was very grateful for getting his life back together and felt he had been saved, as he feared he was on track for a heart attack prior to coming to see me.