Stress and Nutrition
Stress is a something we all experience; mostly when we are feeling challenged or overwhelmed, and given the world is in a state of limbo at the moment it’s safe to say we’re all feeling a little out-of-sorts and anxious. But, stress is more than just a feeling, it is a hard-wired physical response within the body, and if we remain in a state of stress for long periods of time it can be detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing.
Understanding how your body responds to stress is key in reducing the negative impact it can have on your heath. In this blog, we will explore the effects of stress in more detail, highlighting the crucial link between stress and diet - and how important nutrition can be in dealing with stress.
What happens to our body in stressful situations?
The Fight or Flight Mode
When we’re feeling stressed, our body starts firing signals to help prepare us to respond: Our heart races, our breath quickens and our muscles become ready for action. This is our fight or flight response kicking in, our bodies way of preparing us a physical threat.
However, in our modern lives we don’t tend to need to flee from stressful situations (like being chased by a lion), and the stress we feel in our daily lives is usually coming from our relationships, money worries, feeling over-worked. Our bodies can unfortunately not distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat, so we still produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are released from our adrenal glands.
Cortisol & Blood Glucose Levels
When we feel under stress, our liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose), to give our bodies a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge which can lead to weight gain. Cortisol can also act to increase your appetite and causes us to crave comfort foods, which can lead to weight gain over a longer period of time (1).
Stress, Immunity and Digestion
Our immune system can become stimulated by stress, which can be a benefit for immediate situations. But over time, stress hormones act to weaken the immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders (2). This can also cause digestive issues, as stress can negatively affect the composition of our gut bacteria,and the way food moves through the body leading to potential issues with constipation or diarrhoea.
So, what can we do to help?
Keep Caffeine intake to a minimum
Stress and increase caffeine intake can lead to raised stress hormones; adrenaline and cortisol. Caffeine gives you a temporary boost, however is known for inducing fatigue, also known as a crash (3). To avoid the negative effects of caffeine it is best to keep consumption to moderation, and try to avoid having it past lunchtime, as it is known to negatively affect sleep. Getting a good nights sleep is an incredibly important factor in reducing stress levels.
Caffeine is also hidden is fizzy drinks, chocolate, certain teas. Switching from caffeinated fizzy drinks to sparkling water with a squeeze of lime/lemon, is a great way to reduce caffeine intake, and increase your vitamin C!
Avoid high fat and sugary foods
Cravings for these types of foods definitely heighten when we are experiencing a particularly stressful time period in our lives. However, succumbing to these cravings will end up making you feel worse in the long run, causing blood sugar levels to fluctuate, leading to irritability which can make stress even worse (4).
Reduce alcohol intake
Reducing alcohol intake has been equated with supporting anxiety levels. Alcohol also depletes certain important vitamins such a the B vitamins, which are needed for proper functioning of our neurotransmitters and energy production.
By reducing our alcohol intake we are giving our bodies the chance to cope with and recover from stressful situations. Frequently drinking alcohol can also lead to sleep issues and nervousness, as alcohol leads to the body releasing more adrenaline, and affects blood sugar levels (5).
Try GP’s some of our delicious Mock-tail recipes on our Instagram.
Consume More Magnesium
Getting sufficient Magnesium is incredibly important in helping muscles to relax and has been studied for its role in calming the nervous system (6). It is also needed for over 300 different enzyme reactions in the body, so it is pretty important!
Magnesium can be found in a variety of foods, including dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard), nuts and seeds (hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, peanuts), whole-grains, oats, brown rice and beans.
Taking a relaxing warm bath, with magnesium epsom salts is a great way to have some me-time, and the Magnesium in the salts can also be absorbed through your skin!
Complex Carbohydrates & Tryptophan
Tryptophan is a precursor to Serotonin, our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter which can support how we are feeling in stressful situations. Low levels of serotonin in studies have been linked to anxiety and depression, so keeping our serotonin levels in the optimal range is really important in helping our bodies deal with stress (7).
Tryptophan converts to Serotonin, which then converts to Melatonin, known as our sleep hormone, which is another factor why getting enough Tryptophan is important for our stress levels, and sleep.
Eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, pasta and cereals, as well as oats and brown rice can help to support levels of Tryptophan. They can also support blood sugar balance, as they are digested into the body at a slower rate.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids are incredibly important in helping our brain to function properly. They can also help to support the effects of stress on our bodies, as they slow the release of cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenals (8).
To make sure you are getting enough make sure to consume omega 3 rich foods, such as oily fish (mackerel, herring, sardines, trout), flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, or by taking an algae supplement which is perfect for vegetarians and vegans.
B vitamins perform a variety of roles throughout your body, from supporting your nervous system to helping your body absorb the energy from your food properly. They also support feel good neurotransmitters like serotonin, helping to enhance your mood and enabling your body to cope better in times of stress (9).
Food sources of B vitamins include grains, meats, legumes, eggs, dairy products, and leafy greens. Interestingly, high doses of B vitamins have been suggested to improve symptoms of stress, such as mood and energy levels, by lowering blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine (10).
As we've mentioned certain vitamins and minerals can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. We've combined them as well as some more traditional ingredients like Rhodiola and Lemon Flower to help you find some inner calm.
1. Kamba, A. Daimon, M. Murakami, H. et al. 2016. Association between Higher Serum Cortisol Levels and Decreased Insulin Secretion in a General Population. PLOS ONE, 11(11), p.e0166077.
2. Yaribeygi, H. Panahi, Y. Sahraei, H. et al. 2017. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J, 16, pp.1057–1072.
3. Lovallo, W. Whitsett, T. al’Absi, M. et al. 2005. Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(5), pp.734-739.
4. Marcovecchio, M. and Chiarelli, F. 2012. The Effects of Acute and Chronic Stress on Diabetes Control. Science Signaling, 5(247), pp.pt10-pt10.
5. Haynes, J. Farrell, M. Singleton, N. et al. 2005. Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for anxiety and depression. British Journal of Psychiatry, 187(6), pp.544-551.
6. Sartori, S. Whittle, N. Hetzenauer, A. et al. 2012. Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment. Neuropharmacology, 62(1), pp.304-312.
7. Jenkins, T. Nguyen, J. Polglaze, K. et al. 2016. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients, 8(1), p.56.
8. Larrieu, T. and Layé, S. 2018. Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety. Frontiers in Physiology, 9.
9. Kennedy, D. 2016. B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), p.68.
10. Schwammenthal, Y. and Tanne, D. 2004. Homocysteine, B-vitamin supplementation, and stroke prevention: from observational to interventional trials. The Lancet Neurology, 3(8), pp.493-495.