Managing Stress with Food

We all experience stress at some point in our lives. Whether it’s physical or mental it’s important to take care of yourself by eating well. Your stomach and your brain work together, and when you are stressed, it can really throw off this important cycle. 

How your gut is working can change the neurotransmitters that guide important processes within your body. In turn, your brain can influence gut motility (how well things move through your intestines), secretion of important chemicals within your GI tract, nutrient delivery, and microbial balance. Stress can change the makeup of your intestinal bacteria, and that bacteria can then impact the way your body handles stress. It’s thought that nearly 90% of your body’s serotonin is produced in the gut!

Stress can have many negative effects on your body including headaches, sleepiness, anger, irritability, and digestive issues. When you become chronically stressed, you may even begin to see issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

Many of those issues are a result of the hormonal responses to stress. There are quite a few hormones that are involved in the stress process. Adrenaline gives you an energy boost, but leaves you fatigued when it wears off. It causes your arteries to contract and your heart to speed up. Adenosine keeps you alert but can consequently cause difficulty sleeping. Dopamine makes you feel good initially, but then you often feel a “low” when it wears off. One very significant hormone is cortisol, which is often called the stress hormone. When you experience stress, cortisol levels rise. Elevated cortisol can cause a number of problems including elevated blood sugar, weight gain, indigestion, inflammation of the stomach lining, and digestion and absorption issues. It can also make you more likely to get sick, as well as increase cravings for high fat, high sugar foods. 

Your body doesn’t know the difference between the stress of being chased by a tiger vs having to give a presentation. Our bodies are programmed to protect us from brief instances of physical danger, so it makes sense that we’ll crave high fat, high sugar foods during times of stress because these foods give quick energy that would allow you to run away from a predator. But this tactic isn’t helpful in most stressful situations we face today. 

While we can’t eliminate life’s stressors, we can optimize our nutrition to help our bodies deal with stress in the most efficient ways possible. 

Some nutrients to focus on eating when feeling stressed are vitamin B12, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Deficiency in vitamin B12 is related to fatigue and memory loss. You get B12 from animal products, or things like nutritional yeast or fortified cereals. Magnesium may help you feel calmer because it helps your body produce its own serotonin and melatonin. Here’s a link to our favorite magnesium supplement; this one in particular can help with sleep. You can also find magnesium in green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains. Zinc is also thought to reduce anxiety. It can be found in meat (including seafood), legumes, whole grains, and nuts. Omega-3s may improve depression and reduce anxiety. Salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are all excellent sources of omega-3s. 

Overall, the best way to manage stress through your diet is to try and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, fatty fish), whole grains, and to try and limit caffeine and alcohol intake. 

There are also many whole-body ways to manage stress in addition to changing what you eat. Physical activity releases endorphins which can boost your mood. Journaling or meditating can be ways to center yourself and find some peace. Seeing a therapist is always a good idea! Psychology Today is a great resource for finding a therapist near you who treats your specific issue and takes your insurance. If you’re experiencing something that feels bigger than normal stress, be sure to talk about this with your doctor too. 

It’s important to be aware of the serious impacts stress can have on your health. Eating in a balanced way, getting enough sleep, and being physically active can help lower your stress levels and preventing the negative impacts of long-term stress. 

-Alex Harris, MA, RD, LD, CPT

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