Feeling stressed lately? What if I told you that your diet may be the main contributor to your heightened cortisol levels. High cortisol levels can disrupt your body’s processes and put you at increased risk for health issues such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Not to worry - by eating stress reducing foods, you can start to naturally lower your stress today.
How Does Nutrition Affect Stress?
Remember, love food that loves you back! These are the wise words of Dr. Daniel Amen. Consuming nutrient-dense, balanced meals will help strengthen your immune system, prevent chronic illness, will help you feel good, look good, and help you better manage stress. While on the other hand, consuming processed, sugary, fatty foods and alcohol will feed to disease, contribute to poor mood, and elevate cortisol levels.
Consistent consumption of a poor overall diet can activate your fight or flight response creating a prolonged period of heightened stress. Chronic stress has been shown to lead to damage to the microbiome, obesity, high blood sugar levels, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and so much more.
Foods to Avoid When You’re Stressed
If you are someone who reaches for a cookie or pint of ice cream when you’re feeling stressed, you are not alone. It is common for people to turn to sugary comfort foods as a way to cope with anxious feelings. This is partly because sugar suppresses the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) in your brain, which controls your stress response. However, this is a temporary fix because sugar quickly spikes your blood sugar which your body must work to regulate. In order to do this, you produce the hormone insulin to bring the sugar in your blood to your cells for energy. A quick spike in blood sugar is followed by a crash, causing your hormones to fluctuate up and down. This process of blood sugar regulation can lead to an increase in cortisol.
Ultra-processed food like fast food contains high amounts of trans fats. Trans fats lead to inflammation since they are difficult for your body to break down and use for energy, therefore forcing them to be stored in the body. Your body is being overworked during this process which causes stress. This includes deep fried. Opt for a more stress reducing food.
Many of us rely on caffeine to give us energy and make us feel awake. Caffeine is a stimulant and can increase the production of cortisol. Caffeine blocks the chemical, adenosine, from the brain which makes us feel tired and relaxed while stimulating the production of adrenalin which further increases energy. Stronger caffeinated beverages, or consuming caffeine in high amounts, can have a more powerful effect and lead to anxiety. Have you ever felt jittery or your heart raced after your third cup of joe? Caffeine triggers a stress response in the body that makes it hard to wind down. Too much caffeine can also negatively affect your sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep. Poor sleep has shown to also contribute to higher stress levels. Avoid caffeine consumption after 2 pm or try switching to decaf to avoid increased stress and difficulty sleeping at night.
This one may be a no-brainer. Alcohol is a main contributor to creating inflammation and stress in the body. While a glass of wine after a long day may help you feel more relaxed, several glasses can have the opposite effect. Alcohol increases blood flow and causes a rapid heart rate which mimics the body’s stress response and feelings of anxiety. Furthermore, studies show ethanol to damage DNA methylation and induce inflammation and oxidative stress which leads to further DNA damage.
Stress Reducing Foods
Vitamin D can directly impact your stress levels. It's also essential in bone formation, reducing cancer cell growth, infections and lowering inflammation which helps with decreasing stress. The sunshine vitamin helps produce serotonin in your gut which is your feel-good hormone and improves mood. The best way to get Vitamin D is from the sun but you can also get it from your diet from food such as fatty fish, milk, beef liver, egg yolk, and fortified milk and cereals. Pair these foods with a daily 30-minute + walk to ensure you are getting your daily dose of Vitamin D.
Magnesium is a key nutrient and cofactor for over 300 enzymatic reactions in your body. One of those metabolic processes includes regulating sleep. Sufficient magnesium levels help us feel calm and promote overall good quality sleep. Rich food sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts, and seeds. It may be difficult to increase your magnesium levels through diet alone, so supplementation may be beneficial. Magnesium glycinate, specifically, is an absorbable form of magnesium that has been shown to promote relaxation and healthy stress levels in the body.
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Salmon or other fatty fish like sardines and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. These specific fatty acids are important for optimizing brain health and regulating neurotransmitters to produce dopamine and serotonin, which can help to have calming effects on the body. Studies also show that EPA and DHA help to reduce inflammation and also improve the brain’s ability to adapt to stressors. Research also shown that a diet rich in omega-3’s can help regulate cortisol levels. Other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, flaxseeds, vegetable oils, walnuts and other nuts and seeds.
Fermented foods can help support healthy stress levels by supporting optimal digestion and a healthy gut. Healthy gut bacteria helps to improve mental health and brain function by communicating with the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain connection, as your brain and gut are extremely in tune with one another. When your brain senses a stressor, it sends a signal to the stomach that can interrupt digestion. Your gut also produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin that improve mood. To boost good bacteria in your gut include foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, miso, cottage cheese and yogurt.
Time To De-Stress
Now that we have a handle on what stress reducing foods are, consuming a nutrient-dense diet rich in whole foods, be sure to practice mindful eating, eat regularly, and get enough nightly sleep in order to regulate healthy stress levels in the body. Properly taking care of your body through diet and lifestyle practices will help you become more resilient to daily stressors and help you be more equipped to manage stress.
Sara Chille See all the author’s articles