Modern life can be hectic, and we often cram so many tasks in our days, that we no longer have any open spaces left for quiet contemplation and reflection. Not only can this leave us feeling anxious, the stress hormone cortisol is also released during busy times. This can lead to all sorts of health problems, from insomnia and headaches to digestive problems and muscle pain. Of course, the most important thing we can do is eliminate the causes of stress in our life. Those might be real events, such as highly stressful jobs, or just the pressure we put on ourselves due to social media or cultural influences. Nonetheless, as food has a strong influence on the body, following the right diet during stressful times can help to manage and even reduce the symptoms we are experiencing due to stress.
When to eat
Eating small portions frequently is crucial during stressful times, as it keeps the body from experiencing peaks in energy levels that are followed by crashes. It also reduces the amount of energy the body has to direct towards your digestion (digesting heavy meals is hard work!), which means your brain will have more energy left to handle all that is going on. Never skip meals or breakfast when you are feeling stressed. Although (intermittent) fasting can have a range of health benefits, it is slightly stressful to the body and should thus only be undertaken during stress-free times. Moreover, calorie restrictions increase cortisol levels, so make sure you eat several small and healthy meals a day.
What not to eat
If there is one thing in your diet that you should pay attention to during stressful times, it is avoiding caffeine and sugar. Sugary foods are known to rapidly raise the body’s blood sugar. When blood sugar rises too quickly, the body releases cortisol to stabilise the blood sugar again. Caffeine is known to stimulates the production of cortisol in much the same way. With this hormone already rampaging through your body during stressful times, you will want to avoid drinking coffee and eating sugary foods, as much as possible.
What to eat
Eating a whole foods diet is always a healthier choice but is particularly important during stress. Eating plenty of whole grains, legumes and vegetables will help keep your blood sugar stabilised and will ensure that you receive all the essential nutrients that your body needs. In general, a low-glycemic diet will be beneficial to keep your stress hormones leveled and will also have a positive effect on blood sugar and inflammation. During stressful periods you should pay particular attention to the following nutrients:
- Magnesium is a powerful relaxant that reduces stress hormones from being released. It is also quickly depleted during stressful times, so making sure you get enough of this nutrient is important. Magnesium can be found in high doses pumpkin seeds and cacao (choose dark chocolate or cacao nibs to avoid sugar) or can be supplemented on a daily basis.
- Several studies have found that vitamin C lowers cortisol levels in the body, as well as reducing stress-induced blood pressure and boosting your immune system. Eating low-sugar fruits with vitamin C, such as lemon and limes, can thus help decrease the effects of stress on your body. Bell peppers and cabbage are other great options to boost your vitamin C levels.
- Vitamin B, particularly B5, can help support adrenal function and thereby stabilise cortisol levels. Liver (not vegan, but nutritionally the best source of vitamin b5) is extremely high in vitamin B5, which is helpful for regulating your stress hormones. Vitamin B5 can also be found in sunflower seeds, but for non-vegans (with strong stomachs), liver or liver cod oil can greatly reduce the effects of stress. Besides vitamin B5, liver is also high in vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, and iron, all of which can help regulate energy levels.
A new food pyramid
As important as the right foods are for general health and to keep stress levels manageable, the most important aspect of a healthy body and mind are your awareness practices. This notion is in line with Traditional Chinese Medicine, which says that a strong qi (life force) is mainly attained through keeping a healthy state of mind. Therefore, keeping your stress levels low through meditation, yoga, time spent with friends, long walks in nature and other nurturing practices will always be the most important aspect of your ‘diet’. With this in mind, we can reinterpret the food pyramid, as shown below.
This pyramid is taken from the book ‘Healing with Whole Food’ by Paul Pitchford.
Reducing the stressors in your life and increasing your awareness practices will always be the most important thing you can do reduce the negative health effects of stress. But along the way you can help your body by following the simple food guidelines above to reduce the production of cortisol and to keep your body grounded and well-nourished. Stress can be overwhelming, particularly when in the midst of it, but I can testify that feeding your body well during these times makes all the difference*.
*Please keep in mind that I am not a Doctor or nutritionist, so please consult an appropriate professional before making any changes to your diet.