Tackle stress by eating better

The stress connection

I think we can safely say 2020 has raised our stress levels! But did you know that chronic stress can adversely affect many of our body’s normal functions, including:

Now more than ever it is key to take care of ourselves, our bodies and our minds.

And sure, everyone will have their own way to cope and relax, from running in nature to watching Netflix, to taking a bath, calling family and friends or cooking and much more.  You should do whatever works for you. We are all different, aren’t we? There is no right or wrong.

Though, there is one thing that we all have to do at some point during these days – eat!

So how about starting to put on our table some foods that can help us support our stress response?

Eating for stress management

If you are wondering how making healthier choices when preparing your meals could help you deal with stress, just remember that 70% of your immune system is in your gut and that your gut is connected to your brain via the vagus nerve (sort of a bi-directional highway).

The gut barrier also ensures (amongst other functions) that toxins, undigested food particles and harmful bacteria may trespass into the bloodstream.

So you can see why starting from what you put in your gut may be a pretty sensible place to start. So what should we eat?

Well, I could start talking about expensive superfoods with weird exotic names but actually there is no need for that at all. Simple, affordable foods that you can find in your supermarket are what we will focus on.

The key concept when eating to support your gut function is that we want as many diverse foods and colours as possible, as these will provide us with different vitamins, minerals and fibre; nutrients that can help us increase the type and amount of bacteria within our gut microbiome.

Different bacteria will have different functions from vitamin production to binding and excreting toxins and more…The main thing is to have a higher number of beneficial bacteria in our gut than harmful ones.

Simple, affordable foods will help you manage stress

Six tips for eating to beat stress

  1. Dial-up your fruit and veg intake
    Aim for 10 fruit and vegetables per day (8 vegetables and 2 fruits), but should you find that too overwhelming start with 5-7 fruit and vegetables per day (2 fruits and 5 veggies).

    If you find that’s also too much for you don’t worry, just start where you can. And make sure to start low and go slow, especially as we want your body to adjust to the increasing amount of fibre which otherwise may cause bloating in some individuals.

  2. The more colourful your plate the better!
    Do not always eat the same veggies and fruits, experiment!

  3. Make half of your plate non-starchy veggies
    Eat foods such as peppers, cucumbers, salad leaves, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes…

  4. Try some prebiotic foods
    These are foods that when broken down in your body, will feed beneficial bacteria. Think bananas, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, chicory. Please, once again, if you have never eaten much of these START LOW AND GO SLOW, let your body adjust slowly.

  5. Increase your fibre intake
    Fibre is not absorbed but can help motility and also provides short-chain fatty acids, compounds which provide energy fuel for your gut wall. Good sources of fibre include brown rice, lentils, chickpea, beans, oats, barley, rye, nuts, seeds, potatoes with the skin on, vegetables, fruits.

  6. Hydrate!
    Ensuring you drink a good amount of water daily can support bowel movements, softening your stools. Good motility is key, as it helps our body excrete toxins and unwanted waste. Everyone needs a different amount of water daily based on age, activity levels etc.

    Your best bet is to keep checking the colour of your urine and making sure it is always pale yellow. If you see it starts getting darker, make sure to drink up! Keep a bottle on your desk or set reminders on your phone to drink every hour. And remember that herbal teas count too!

Certain nutrients get used up quickly by your body when you’re stressed
Replenish lost nutrients

In addition to your gut, please remember that your hormone cortisol (your stress hormone) is produced by the adrenal glands and when you are under chronic stress, nutrients that support adrenal function can become depleted, so it can be a good idea to ensure the food you eat is rich in them. Which nutrients am I talking about?

Stress-supporting minerals:
  • Magnesium: swiss chard, spinach, kelp, beetroot, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, halibut, nuts and seeds.
  • Zinc: Venison, pork, beef, lamb, poultry, crab, seeds, sea vegetables, whole grains
  • Selenium: brazil nuts, meat, poultry, fish and whole grains
Adrenal supporting vitamins:
  • Vitamin C: bell peppers, broccoli, salad greens, fresh fruits especially strawberries and citrus fruits.
  • B Vitamins: beef, poultry, lamb, fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains      
Essential fatty acids:

Increase your intake of these because they are not produced by your body and need to be taken in from the diet. They are a critical part of cells membranes in your body and in these membranes sit the receptors for adrenal hormones amongst others.

Foods rich in these nutrients: SMASH

Oily fish, think of the acronym SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring) just as a rough guide. Nuts, seeds and their oils can also be used.

Keep an eye on your blood sugar level

Lastly, think about endogenous stress (stress created within your body).

Upset blood sugar levels can promote cortisol production from the adrenals so you want to make sure that your meals and snack support blood sugar balance instead of making it peak and the crash and burn.

The easiest tip is to make sure that all meals and snacks include a source of protein such as meat, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes. You see, protein is broken down slower in the body, which will help blood sugar levels last longer supporting energy, mood, cognition and stress response.

And adding cinnamon to your meals is also a great idea, as this spice can also support your blood sugar balance.

Examples of blood sugar supporting meals:
  • Morning: omelette with spinach spring onions and parsley, or porridge with cinnamon and nut butter
  • Snack: veggies sticks with hummus or babaganush
  • Lunch: salmon with steamed spring greens and roasted asparagus
  • Snack: a handful of nuts
  • Dinner: lentils, aubergine and butternut squash stew
Food for thought

Hopefully, this blog will inspire a few ideas for your next shopping trip.

And please do remember that nutrition is a key part of optimising your health and supporting your stress response but exercise, sleep and spending time talking with your loved ones are just as important. Everything works in synergy, there is no magic pill.

You just need to find the right combination that works for you.

For a deep, deep dive, an expert’s reference for cooking to beat stress (and other ailments) is The Functional Nutrition Cookbook, by Lorraine Nicolle and Christine Bailey, 2013

If you are suffering from chronic stress and want help with dealing with it through diet, contact a qualified nutritional therapist.

This self-care health hack is from Superfied nutritional therapy expert, Valentina Cartago

Search the Superfied food database for a full list of different nutrients in everyday food here

Find out more about the Superfied Way