What is stress?
“Stress is a perceptual phenomenon arising from a comparison between the demand on the person and his or her ability to cope. An imbalance in this mechanism gives rise to the experience of stress, and to the stress response. T. Cox (1978).”
Stress is a physical and emotional response that tends to occur when we think we can’t cope with the demands that are placed on us. It is normal to experience periods of stress. Stress can even be helpful sometimes, as it can increase our motivation, focus and ability to problem solve. However, it can also be a very uncomfortable and distressing experience that can interfere with our every-day functioning.
Food and Stress
When we are feeling stressed, we tend to crave sugary, high fat foods (such as milk chocolate), as these types of food are often convenient and provide us with a short burst of energy. However, we then experience a dramatic drop in energy and subsequent psychological changes that can be very demotivating and that make our stress worse. Thus, prompting a vicious cycle than can be difficult to break out of.
It is common to drink caffeine (coffee, red bull etc.) to give us energy and help us to cope with stress. A coffee or two can enhance energy and help us to focus. However, excessive use of caffeine can cause physical symptoms (heart palpitations, butterflies, shakiness and headaches) that mimic physical symptoms of stress, which can trick us into feeling more emotionally stressed. This in turn, can make it seem even more difficult to cope.
How to manage stress with food and drink
Bananas – Bananas are sometimes called the natural beta-blocker (a pharmaceutical drug used to treat anxiety and stress). When we are stressed our metabolic rate increases and causes a drop in potassium levels. Bananas are high in potassium, which helps us to manage our blood pressure. Bananas also contain a high amount of B vitamins and tryptophan that can be converted into serotonin, which boosts our mood and helps us to relax. Eating bananas in the evening may help to raise the sleep hormone melatonin.
Blueberries – Blueberries are superfruit heros that have soooo many benefits, so its not really surprising that they are on this list! They have a high flavonoid and anthocyanin content, which have been linked to improvements in mood, cognitive functioning, memory and learning; totally helpful with managing stress. Furthermore, all berries (strawberries, blackberries etc.) are rich in vitamin C, which has also been shown to be helpful with managing stress.
Oranges and Kiwis – These fruits are vitamin C powerhouses, which can help with improving our mood, managing psychological and physiological stress and supporting our immune system! Stress can weaken our immune system and vitamin C rich foods have been shown to be beneficial for supporting our immunity. If we are feeling physically well we are more likely to feel that we can cope. Also, oranges are great as they are easily portable and thus a good convenience food.
Green vegetables – Leafy vegetables like kale and spinach contain folate, which stimulates the production of dopamine, and thus boosts our mood and helps us to relax. Spinach also contains magnesium, which can help to improve fatigue. Asparagus is nutritionally rich, containing folate, vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, and chromium, that is often low in the modern diet and which can help reduce sugar cravings and stress eating. It is also high in glutathione, a super antioxidant that is important for the immune system. B Vitamins are great for enhancing our energy levels, which can make us feel more able to cope with stress.
Avocado – An avocado a day keeps the doctor away! They have been shown to help with both psychological and physical difficulties. Avocados are nutrient dense and rich in glutathione, lutein, beta-carotene, vitamin E, b vitamins and folate. The good fat from avocados give us energy and the antioxidant phytochemicals protect us from oxidative damage (also called free radicals). Avocados also contain magnesium, sometimes known as the original chill pill, which may help to manage anxiety and improve sleep difficulties.
Onions and Garlic – Garlic is packed with powerful antioxidants and compounds such as allicin, which has been linked to giving us protection from illness. As stress can weaken our immune system, garlic can be great for improving our immunity. If we are feeling physically well, we may feel more able to manage and perceive stress as a positive challenge. Onions are nutrient powerhouses that function as prebiotics for good anti-inflammatory gut bacteria to feast on! They also seem to have the power of making any savory dish taste more wonderful!
Nuts – Cashews are a particularly good source of zinc. Low levels of zinc have been linked to anxiety, stress and depression and thus restoring our zinc levels may help to manage these difficulties. Our bodies don’t store zinc so it is important to find a daily source. Almonds are high in phytonutrients, vitamin D, protein, fiber and beneficial fats, which provide us with energy. Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, and other polyphenols that have been shown to improve cognitive functioning and prevent memory loss. Walnuts are petty fantastic as they are eaten raw with the skin on and have a superior fat profile. Studies suggest that people who eat nuts regularly tend to be generally healthier and live longer. (We know it’s boring, but its best if nuts are natural, and not honey-roasted or covered in salt!).
Dark chocolate – Again, another incredible food that seems to help with everything!! Dark chocolate has been found to improve mood by increasing serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. Studies suggest that consuming a small amount of dark chocolate daily helps to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, in the long-term, eating dark chocolate has been found to reduce the risk of a number of stress-related diseases, including lowering the risk of heart disease. When talking about dark chocolate, we mean anything with a cocoa content of 70 percent or above. High cocoa content means that the chocolate is packed with loads of nutritious antioxidants and flavonoids.
Cold water fish – Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies provide us with those valuable omega 3 fish oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), that can help with managing stress. Eating cold water fish and supplementing the diet with fish oil has been found to reduce cortisol levels.
Complex carbohydrates – Complex carbs such as sweet potatoes and oatmeal, cause our brains to produce serotonin, which tends to boost out mood. They provide us with slow release energy that can be beneficial with managing stress. Sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidants, fiber and vitamins. If eaten in the evening complex carbs can help to make us feel sleepy. They are also a great comfort food!
Chamomile Tea – Chamomile is an ancient medicinal flower that contains various bioactive phytochemicals, terpenoids and flavonoids, which provide therapeutic effects. Research has shown that chamomile helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression and insomnia. Actually, just having a hot drink in its self can be relaxing, especially at work, as it can be a good opportunity to take a step back and away from your desk.
Green Tea – Green tea is another thing that seems to be good for everything! The health-promoting effects of green tea are mainly attributed to the polyphenol content, particularly flavanols and also catechin, which have antioxidant properties. One study suggested that drinking five cups of green tea daily may reduce psychological distress by 20 percent! It is definitely an acquired taste (so don’t be tempted to add sugar!) there are so many flavors to try, our favorite flavored green tea is mango and lychee.
Water – We know it sounds obvious but remember to stay hydrated! Dehydration can lead to an unhelpful ratio between cortisol and other metabolic hormones. It can impact on our cognitive functioning, give us headaches and lower our mood, which can all impact on our perception of our ability to cope and manage stressors. We can get water from tea but its great to have a few glasses of pure water as well.
Tart Cherry Juice – Tart cherries have an abundance of antioxidants and they have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation increases when we are feeling stressed or anxious and tart cherries may help to reduce the buildup of inflammatory factors, making them great stress fighting tools. Studies have found that tart cherry juice enhances sleep quality by stimulating the production of the hormone melatonin. Tart cherries are different to black cherries and as the name suggests, they have a slightly sour flavor. To make the juice easier to drink, it can be diluted in water, mixed with tea or added to a smoothie.
Fermented food and drink – Things like kombucha (a fermented drink made from green or black tea, often brewed with fruits like pomegranate, ginger, or blueberry) and sauerkraut provide us with pre and pro biotics that increase the number of good bacteria in our guts. There is a very strong link between our guts and our brains, and so improving our gut health can help to improve our mood and enable us to manage stress better. With regards to kombucha, the combination of anti-stress compounds from the tea leaves, the phytoplant-rich fruits, and the fact that it contains probiotics makes it great for promoting wellness.
Tumeric – In India turmeric is revered as a holy powder. It is very ‘in’ at the moment due to recent research revealing its abundant health benefits. Have you tried an almond-milk turmeric latte yet?! So good! Curcumin (a compound found in turmeric) has been shown to have a positive impact on our mood, by enhancing noradrenalin and serotonin and increasing the production of dopamine. Studies have found that curcumin may help to protect us from symptoms of anxiety and sleep deprivation. It is suggested that curcumin may contribute to reversing elevated cortisol levels in chronically stressed individuals and protecting hippocampal neurons from damage related to chronic stress.
Cinnamon – Cinnamon has been used medicinally around the world for thousands of years. It helps to manage blood sugar levels, while reducing oxidative stress triggered by inflammatory foods that are high in fat in carbohydrates. It has been found to boost cognitive functioning due to enhanced glucose use. The smell of cinnamon can be relaxing, try adding some to chamomile tea in the evening after work and take a moment to breathe in the aroma. Its naturally sweet taste means adding cinnamon to meals can help cut down on the amount of sugar used, thus lowering the glycemic load of the meal.
Other things to note…
Mindfulness: Try eating and drinking mindfully to help with managing stress further! Take a break from the stress of your day and focus on what you are eating and the present moment, rather than thinking about the past or future. Eating an orange – what is the texture like on your fingers as you peel it, what can you smell? Look closely at the details you often overlook, how would you describe what you see to someone who is blind? What does it taste like; sweet, tart? How does it make you feel?
Exercise: Besides changing your diet, one of the best stress-busting strategies is to start exercising. Exercise boosts oxygen circulation and spurs your body to make feel-good chemicals. Exercise burns stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, which really helps to manage both psychological and physical symptoms of stress. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Exercise does not necessarily mean going to the gym, you could go for a walk, cycle, dance, do yoga, or even some vigorous housework with music!
Supplements: There are many herbal supplements that help to fight stress. One of the best studied is St. John’s Wort, which has shown benefits for people with mild to moderate depression. Although more research is needed, the herb also appears to reduce symptoms of anxiety and PMS. There is also evidence for the use of valerian root, another herb said to have a calming effect. As mentioned above, supplementing with magnesium can also be helpful. And if you can’t sleep, try taking Zonk!
Example of a stress busting meal plan…
Breakfast: Green tea, almond milk oatmeal with a chopped banana and blueberries.
Snack: Kombucha, an orange, a hand full of cashews.
Lunch: Green tea, turmeric baked salmon fillet, an avocado and leafy green salad with asparagus.
Afternoon snack: Chamomile tea, a kiwi, and a handful of walnuts.
Dinner: Chamomile tea, sweet potato, tuna steak, green vegetables sautéed with garlic. A chopped banana with some dark chocolate for desert.
Supplement: St Johns Wort (and if you are struggling to sleep, try Zonk!)
Anyway we are going to end here, as this article has become loooong enough! Sifting through endless journals is starting to get stressful 😉 so we will resist the urge to gorge on cupcakes (current comfort food craving!) and instead we will have a banana and chamomile tea! Ooohhh actually… wonder whether we could make a healthy cupcake out of some stress busting ingredients?! Hummm… we will look into that and report back!
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