Stress and diet are often linked together. There’s a lot your diet can do to protect you from the impact of the stress response biologically speaking, as well as to cope with the habits that stressful lives force upon us.
Looking at the bigger picture of stress in relation to our diets and what we eat is key.
If I told you coffee drinkers live longer, would you pour yourself another cup?
It’s true – large observational studies find an association between longevity and coffee. The reason for this link isn’t proven. It could be the polyphenolic compounds in the coffee bean that protect our cells from damage and ward off disease or it could be that coffee drinkers are more social, which is also associated with longer lives.
Not surprisingly then, the focus of this month’s Stress Awareness Month is community, with loneliness an underrated cause of mental health problems in the UK.
We may well feel lonely surrounded by people. It is easy for emotional and physical needs not to be met, with competing priorities on our time, challenging relationships and new ways of working, that see us isolated more than ever.
In my work as a dietitian, it’s really important to consider all the factors that impact a person’s ability to manage their stress and mental health. It goes way beyond talking about the food we put in our mouths and instead focuses on the drivers of our habits, whether that be our environment or the thoughts in our heads.
So, with an appreciation of the holistic needs of our bodies and souls to manage stress, here are my top ten tips for beating stress with some foodie ideas thrown in too.
1) Stress is a normal biological response there to protect us; the problem is we don’t engage in activities that help to neutralise the responses quickly. We’re constantly prepared for attacks by tigers, even if we’re stood on the platform suffering the consequences of a delayed train.
The first step is to reflect on how much of your day you feel in ‘ready to run’ mode?
2) With this insight, now consider the following.
Stress buckets are different sizes for different people. Some associate the biological response with positive things, and for others it can leave them feeling anxious, shaky and drained.
How you talk to yourself in stressful situations makes a big difference to the severity of the hormonal cascade that occurs.
Judgey, negative thoughts will make it worse. Pause, breathe and ask yourself if you can see this situation with more nuance and compassion?
3) High cortisol levels will turn on our cravings for high fat and sugary foods. That’s not a lack of will power, that’s biology, working for you in its most primal form.
Try to stop judging yourself for it, and plan healthier choices out of the eye of the storm.
4) We have also been shown to have a stronger desire to take part in pleasurable activities when we’ve survived a stressful event. Pass the doughnuts please.
Food can always form part of your repertoire to de-stress but if you have other things in there too, food becomes less of a crux.
How else can you ‘celebrate’ still being alive and restore the calm?
How diet can help us reduce stress
5) The amino acid tryptophan helps raise levels of serotonin in the brain, which is the mood-boosting hormone that helps to neutralise the effects of cortisol.
Dairy is a good source, as is lean meat and soya so include these foods in your diet regularly.
6) Potassium helps to control blood pressure, which tends to rise when we’re stressed. Bananas, avocados and tomatoes are good sources of potassium.
7) Magnesium is central to a good night’s sleep. It’s involved in muscle relaxation and nervous system functioning.
Stress makes it likely we’ll burn through our magnesium resources quicker.
Boost intakes through dark green leafy veg, wholegrains, beans, nuts, seeds and seafood.
8) Vitamin C bolsters our immunity which is weakened by stress. It also seems to show some benefits in reducing blood levels of cortisol.
Make sure you’re getting enough through citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, red pepper and green leafy veg.
Whilst we’re thinking of our vitamins, lets throw some B vitamins in there too. So vital for our nervous system function, they also help to balance moods and energy levels.
Those with lower levels of vitamin B12 and folate tend to have a higher risk of mood disorders. Vitamin B deficiency is associated with depression.
Stock up on your vitamin Bs through wholegrains and those dark green leafy veg again.
9) Omega-3 fats found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring lower noradrenaline levels and facilitate good communication between our brain cells.
They may also protect against depression. Time to stink out the kitchen or take a vegetarian friendly supplement if you don’t eat fish.
10) L-theanine is an amino acid found in green and black tea. Whilst more research is needed to prove its status in truly relieving stress, it does seem to play a part in relaxation and a good night’s sleep.
Teas will have different levels of this amino acid in, but even the process of making a cuppa and giving yourself permission to pause whilst you drink it, will all play a part in reconnecting with your body and dampening that stress response.
Stress is a given but giving ourselves the opportunity to tune in to how our own body responds to it, gives us the best possible chance to manage it.
We underrate breathing and over rate productivity. We favour Netflix over nature and need to appreciate our physiological need to do seemingly nothing is paramount to managing stress and living longer.