A guide to controlling stress with nutrition

October 9, 2015

In our busy lives, stress can feel inevitable and treatment can be incredibly difficult. Here's a guide to help you reduce and control your stress with healthy eating.

A guide to controlling stress with nutrition

Defining stress

When people talk about stress, they are usually referring to tension or emotional distress. Medically, however, stress is defined as any condition or situation that places undue strain on the body.

  • The sources can be a physical illness or injury, as well as numerous psychological factors, including fear, anger or frustration.
  • What constitutes almost unbearable stress to one person may be the spice of life to someone else.
  • A stressor can trigger the body's automatic stress-response system. This sets the stage for decreased immunity and increased vulnerability to illnesses, ranging from the common cold to heart attacks and cancer.

Fight or flight

While physical stress is often episodic, emotional stress is part of daily life.

  • This is not a modern phenomenon. Our early ancestors experienced much more stress than we do, from the constant quest for food to dangers from hostile neighbours and wild animals. While we don't usually encounter such situations, our bodies still respond to  stress as they would have in prehistoric times.
  • This coping mechanism, called the fight-or-flight response, floods the body with adrenaline and other hormones that raise blood pressure, speed up the heartbeat, tense muscles and put other systems on alert.
  • Metabolism quickens to provide extra energy; digestion stops as blood is diverted from the intestines to the muscles.

Nutritional needs

Good nutrition is especially important during periods of stress.

  • Prolonged stress, whether psychological or physical, plays havoc with digestion and nutritional needs. Food provides energy for dealing with stress and helps to counter the negative effects on the body's immune system.
  • Citrus fruits, bell peppers and baked potatoes are rich in vitamin C, which helps the body maintain resistance to infection under stress.
  • Foods high in zinc such as seafood, meat, poultry, milk, eggs, whole grains and nuts also help to keep the immune system healthy.
  • When under stress, some people binge on food; others have to force themselves to eat. Because stress interferes with digestion, it's better to eat four to six small meals spaced throughout the day instead of the traditional three large ones.
  • Carbohydrate-rich meals can increase levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that is known to induce a feeling of calm. Studies have shown that stress-prone individuals who eat a diet higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein had less stress-induced depression.

5 tips for eating during stressful periods

No diet will make stress disappear. However, there are steps you can take to help your eating during stressful times:

  1. Eat breakfast. If you are running on empty, stress can be more difficult to handle.
  2. Eat slowly. Eating quickly is often associated with digestive upset and this can make food difficult to digest.
  3. Don't diet. Changing eating habits is stressful at the best of times.
  4. Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol; they can affect mood and sleep patterns. Alcohol can also heighten feelings of depression.
  5. Listen to your body and avoid foods that cause discomfort or digestive upset.

Better off without

Because stress can play havoc with normal digestion, foods that normally are well tolerated may trigger indigestion and heartburn when you are in a stressful period.

  • Fatty foods, which are difficult to digest at any time, should be avoided as much as possible. Many people also find that hot or spicy foods cause them problems during times of stress.
  • Avoid caffeine drinks. These substances are known stimulants that can certainly contribute to jittery feelings. Instead, try herbal tea such as chamomile or peppermint, which have a calming effect. Other good choices are milk, fruit juice or water.

Sooner or later, stress is something we all have to deal with. Make it easier on yourself by following these healthy eating tips.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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