I am constantly reminded in my job how much stress affects our health. This year alone I have seen numerous clients with serious stress situations in their life. Although I’m a nutritionist, and not a councillor, its important for me to listen to the problems my clients are having as this helps me support them with diet.
It is vital in times of severe stress to try and eat well. With high levels of adrenaline and cortisol charging round the body, we crave foods that will either wake us up or calm us down. These will include caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants, as well as cravings for carbohydrates, chocolate and cheese. Often these foods will have a direct affect on our brain chemistry helping to raise serotonin and give us energy. This may sound good but the effects are short lived and long term can lead to more anxiety and stress.
So whats happening in the brain?
Your feelings are generated by tiny brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These include dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. Neurotransmitters are responsible for dictating your mood and are greatly affected by what you eat. Serotonin is associated with a reduction in stress and tension and feelings of happiness, whereas dopamine and adrenaline have different mood effects by boosting concentration and alertness. The influence of food is extremely relevant when neurotransmitter production is considered. Amino acids found in proteins provide the raw materials needed to make neurotransmitters and a low protein diet is often at the route of neurotransmitter imbalance.
Some foods directly stimulate a neurotransmitter response for instance carbohydrates influence serotonin production and caffeine stimulates adrenaline synthesis. There are many other specific vitamins and minerals that have a powerful effect on your mood. Without proper neurotransmitter balance brain function and mood can be seriously affected. Feelings of anxiety and stress are commonplace in today’s society. The body’s stress response has not yet evolved to deal efficiently with modern life, meaning the slightest emotional stress still causes a powerful release of chemicals. Two minerals, calcium and magnesium play an important role in regulating your nervous system. By making sure you have adequate dietary intake of these two nutrients you can help yourself combat feelings associated with stress and induce calmness and relaxation. GABA restores calm after a stressful event, helping you to relax. Another called dopamine enables your body to deal with stress more efficiently, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety.
If you are going through a particularly stressful time at the moment, try my top 10 tips to combat stress.
1. Do eat little and often – this is vitally important to keep your blood sugar level stable throughout the day – a decent protein breakfast like scrambled eggs on toast, a mid morning snack like an apple and a handful of nuts, lunch, of protein and carbohydrate like rice salad with chicken, mid afternoon snack, a yoghurt and some fruit or oatcakes and hummous, and dinner, grilled salmon, saute potatoes and steamed vegetables.
2. Remember to stay well hydrated on 1.5 litres of water daily, this can include green tea, or redbush and fruit juice. Try and avoid caffeine and colas as this may only make you more anxious and nervy. Cammomile tea is good for anxiety, and peppermint and fennel tea are good for indigestion and nausea.
3. Avoid all refined foods, particularly white sugar, and white bread etc. Choose wholegrains, brown rice and brown pasta. Eat plenty of dark green leafy vegetables as these are high in magnesium, as are nuts, brown rice, and baked beans.
4. Choose foods high in vitamin B which is the anti stress vitamin (particularly vitamin B5): these include brown rice, lentils, nuts, and whole grain foods and avocadoes. If you are not eating enough of these you can take a Vitamin B-50 complex daily for a month then every day until you feel better.
5. Its important to concentrate on your protein levels and make sure you have some protein at every meal. Protein contains the raw materials needed for neurotransmitters. Protein sources include: chicken, fish, tofu, nuts, pulses, eggs, cheese and meat.
6. Inflammatory conditions like asthma, eczema or skin disorders can flare up. Its important to keep your levels of omega 3 up – either by eating salmon, mackeral, herring or sardines three times a week or take flaxseed oil if you are vegetarian.
7. A glass of red wine every night is not going to do you any harm but try not to depend on alcohol to relax you and find another way like yoga or meditation.
8. If you are craving chocolate, avoid all refined products and go for organic or 70% dark chocolate and have a few squares after a meal instead of a pudding.
9. Foods that will calm you down include: dark leafy vegetables like watercress, kale, broccoli, spinach along with brown rice, almonds and walnuts, wheatgerm and sardines to top up on calcium and magnesium. To boost GABA formation include cheddar cheese, cow’s milk, chicken, turkey and eggs in your diet. For dopamine add in a few soya products like tofu, miso and soya yoghurt with peanuts, almonds and tuna.
10. Eat every three hours throughout the day. So if you have breakfast at 7am, snack at 10am, lunch at 1pm, snack at 4pm, supper at 7pm and if needed another snack at 10pm. Foods high in trytophan might help you fall asleep – these include turkey and lettuce, oats, bananas, milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese.