Believe it or not, the foods we eat play an important role in helping our bodies manage our stress levels. During periods of time in which we feel overwhelmed with stress, it is easy to turn to “comfort foods” like ice cream, sugary sweets, chocolate, deep-fried foods, pizza, and others that make us feel good.
Why do we crave these things, you might ask?
Well interestingly enough, the foods we consume have a direct impact on the neurotransmitters our bodies eat. For example, eating dietary sugars and starches raise serotonin levels, giving you the temporary sensation of feeling calm and relaxed. Furthermore, the pleasure in doing so promotes dopamine release, which stimulates our reward system, and explains why the more sugar you have, the more your body will continue to crave it.
However, the problem with “comfort foods” is while they initially bring a brief moment of relief, they do not last.
Instead of reducing stress, these foods can make us feel tired and lethargic by spiking our insulin and cortisol levels, which ultimately directly impact the levels of stress we are experiencing. Furthermore, consuming large quantities of “comfort foods” during high levels of stress can cause a drastic increase in “bad” cholesterol levels, increase our blood pressure, and create long-term risks associated with heart disease and heart attacks.
So when you are feeling overly stressed, rather than consuming your favourite “comfort foods”, it's best to turn your attention to stress-reducing foods that are good for the body. Choosing the right foods can help increase the levels of serotonin, without spiking cortisol. You should also include foods that boost your immune system response, as increased stress for prolonged periods weakens immune responses, resulting in more frequent periods of illness.
The Dos and Don’ts
You should avoid simple carbohydrates, like sugar because it is quickly digested by the body and only provides a short-term calming effect. Stay away from sugary sodas, candy bars, and other foods that are packed full of sugar, corn syrup or other such sugar-based sweeteners.
Instead, choose complex carbohydrates because these foods provide the same calming effects as sugar, but last longer because they take longer to digest. Some of the foods considered complex carbohydrates include:
Starchy Vegetables: sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, squash
Beans & Legumes
For sweet treats, consider citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruits, that are high in Vitamin C. Vitamin C not only helps the adrenal glands to reduce stress levels but also has added benefits for the immune system.
If you feel lethargic or are experiencing an increase in the frequency and duration of headaches, along with elevated stress levels, this often indicates you are not getting a sufficient amount of magnesium in your diet. Magnesium is found in green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach. You will also find magnesium in salmon and soybeans, so you have several options.
Additionally, salmon (and other darker meat fish) are considered a good source of Omega-3s, which are great for controlling spikes in the hormones that cause stress and at the same time, help reduces risks of heart attack, heart disease, pain syndromes, depression and PMS. Remember to always source wild fish or use supplements.
Bonus tip: Sugar cravings can sometimes mean you’re not getting enough fat in the meal prior. Up your fat intake to offset these cravings.
Increasing the number of vegetables in your daily diet can help combat energy crashes throughout the day. To get the most benefits from veggies, try to sauté them lightly or steam them vs boiling or frying them.
Lastly, stay away from high-sugar fruits, like bananas and tropical fruits. While the sugar is natural, it still spikes insulin (and ultimately cortisol) the same way refined sugar will. Always aim to eat fruits with a high fibre food like oat bran or flax, as it helps to offset this effect.