Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
When you are feeling really stressed, what is one of the first things you do?
Do you reach for a cookie or a different carb-heavy snack to self soothe? If so, don’t feel ashamed as it is natural and normal to reach for sweet snacks when under stress, and you are in good company. That said, this tendency is higher among people who feel less prepared to handle the stress in their lives. The truth is that sugar does make us feel better temporarily since it leads to a temporary reduction in stress-induced elevated cortisol levels. However, when we engage in this habit over time, it trains the neural pathways in the brain to be more sensitive and reactive to food cues involving energy-dense comfort foods and it deactivates parts of the brain associated with executive function, decision making, and emotional control. Thus, the more you medicate yourself with sugar and other comfort snacks, the more your brain seeks to reinforce this pathway and the less control you have to stop yourself. Left unchecked, it can ultimately cause us to suffer long-term consequences, including weight gain, metabolic changes, and other associated health risks.
So what is the solution? It turns out that we can feed and nourish our brains to better tolerate and bounce back after stressful situations so that we don’t need to medicate ourselves with food when we are feeling stressed out and uncomfortable. Optimal nourishment can protect you from the discomfort of feeling stress, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, strengthen you to take action, and protect us from the long term health consequences of chronic stress.
Here are some nourishment strategies that can include in your life today to reduce your stress levels:
1) Stabilize your blood sugar with regular, whole-foods meals - Sometimes when we are feeling stressed, our bodies are simply experiencing a drop in blood sugar. Low blood sugar causes a host of problems, including compromised willpower, poor attention, inability to control emotions, and impulsivity. Of course, at these times, not only are we emotionally uncomfortable, we are also much more likely to reach for a quick fix in the form of a burst of sugar. Dr. Jeffrey Rossman, author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution, recommends three wholesome meals and two snacks per day. Balancing blood sugar levels by eating regular meals and avoiding eating high-carbohydrate foods that contain refined flour and sugar can improve energy, focus, and mood. Eating protein at every meal slows the absorption of carbohydrates and helps stabilize blood sugar levels, ultimately enabling us to respond more effectively to stressful triggers throughout our day. Relying on sugar is not a sustainable solution. While sugar causes a blood sugar spike that can feel good because it is energizing, the blood sugar low that follows creates exhaustion and depression.
2) Eat the rainbow to enjoy a broad spectrum of stress-busting nutrients - Eating a wide variety of flavors and colors of fresh produce is a certain way to ensure you are getting the nutrients needed to support brain health and stress resilience. For example:
Oranges - Vitamin C, found in oranges, strawberries, peppers and other produce, helps protect the body from the cumulative effects of stress. It lowers cortisol and blood pressure, increases folic acid levels (which combats stress), and increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Spinach - Magnesium, found in high levels in spinach, induces calm and lowers blood pressure.
Blueberries - Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, blueberries are great stress busters.
Broccoli - This cruciferous powerhouse contains B vitamins, including folic acid and B6 to fight stress and prevent depression.
Bananas - Vitamins B6, A and C, fiber, tryptophan, potassium, phosphorus, iron and protein all make this a mood-boosting superfruit. The carbohydrates in bananas also help ensure that the tryptophan gets absorbed in the brain and can be converted into the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin.
3) Make sure your brain has the building blocks it needs to create feel good neurotransmitters - The neurotransmitters in our brains that help regulate our mood and emotions and stress resilience are all comprised of amino acids, which are found in high protein foods. Our diets must include sufficient protein in order to ensure healthy production of neurotransmitters. Here are two that are especially important for mood:
Tryptophan is an amino acid needed to make serotonin, our primary antianxiety and antidepressant neurotransmitter. The top sources of tryptophan include: seeds, soy, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, oats, beans, and eggs. As an “essential” amino acid, we cannot make tryptophan; it must be found from our diets. The trick is that we must eat tryptophan with carbohydrates for the amino acids to be able to travel into the brain. In contrast, too much protein lessens the absorption of tryptophan. When deficient, we may not produce enough serotonin, leading to poor memory and depressed mood.
Tyrosine is another amino acid that is required to create neurotransmitters involved in the stress response: dopamine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, all of which help us feel alert and energized and able to meet the demands of stress. The top sources of tyrosine include beef, pork, fish, chicken, tofu, milk, cheese, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains.
4) Address any other nutritional deficiencies - In addition to the amino acid building blocks needed to manufacture neurotransmitters, our brains require a host of other nutrients to sustain sound mental health and a resilient stress response. It may be helpful to have your levels tested for these essential nutrients:
Omega-3 fatty acids - There is now considerable evidence that our brains require omega-3 essential fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) from foods in order to form healthy brain cells and sustain healthy brain function. It is hypothesized that omega-3 fatty acids inhibit adrenal activation triggered by stressful situations. One study found that supplementation with 4 mg of fish oil daily from cold water fish helped study participants reduce cortisol levels as well as body fat. Vegetarians and vegans who prefer to avoid fish oil can obtain omega-3 fatty acids from flax, chia, walnuts, avocados, tofu and canola, but more is needed since only a small portion of the plant-sources omega 3 fatty acids (in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acids (ALAs)) is converted to DHA, which is an essential component of the membrane of brain cells and is involved in serotonin production.
Vitamin D - In the winter, especially if you live in a colder, northern climate, it is highly likely that you are deficient in vitamin D. This deficiency creates a host of health challenges, including a higher rate of depression. Blood serum levels can be tested to determine whether supplementation is required. Taking a multivitamin that includes vitamin D is wise for anyone with reduced sun exposure.
B Vitamins - These vitamins are essential to the smooth function of our nervous system, and deficiencies can increase the risk of stress-related symptoms including irritability and depression.
5) Build an herbal pharmacy of adaptogenic herbs - The plant kingdom includes a variety of herbs that can build our capacity to face stress and reduce anxiety. Adaptogens simultaneously promote calm and support healthy energy levels without being overstimulating. Popular adaptogens include Ashwagandha, Tulsi/Holy Basil, Lemon Balm, Rhodiola, and Reishi Mushrooms. Curcumin, another popular adaptogen, is the active compound in turmeric, which is heralded for its anti-inflammatory properties and for supporting brain and joint health. One study found that curcumin was equally effective as the antidepressant fluoxetine for reducing symptoms of depression. The Ayurvedic tonic Golden Milk tea includes turmeric, and is often enjoyed as a stress-reducing evening ritual to promote better sleep.
6) Nourish yourself with something soothing - Sometimes we are in the middle of a demanding situation and we need to boost ourselves to up our resilience and our performance. Research backs up the following treats:
Sipping Tea - Enjoying a warm cup of tea is not just a nurturing and relaxing ritual; it also can provide you with the stress-reducing benefits of the compound L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green and black tea. Research has found that L-Theanine, consumed at realistic dietary levels, increases alpha wave activity in the brain, which is associated with states of relaxed and calm alertness. If you’re not a fan of tea, L-theanine can be taken in supplement form.
Savor Dark Chocolate - A bit of high quality dark chocolate is true stress management medicine. A recent study demonstrated that dark chocolate, rich in polyphenols, significantly lowered salivary cortisol levels among study participants. Make sure your selection is high in cacao and low in sugar, and give yourself the gift of truly savoring your treat. Chocolate also contains amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to calm the mind and reduce anxiety.
7) Slow down and enjoy your food - In The Mind-Body Mood Solution, Dr. Rossman encourages the practice of mindful eating so we can truly experience our food. “Mindful eating helps us slow down and enjoy our food and increases our awareness that we are nurturing ourselves with the building blocks of life. When we make the right food choices and eat mindfully, our bodies can build the biochemicals that relieve stress and provide us with a sense of peace, joy, and relaxation” (Rossman, 2010, p. 34.). Slowing down also helps us to recognize if we are “eating our feelings.” When we give ourselves an opportunity to truly notice and feel our emotions as they arise, we are less likely to medicate ourselves with food, and we can empower ourselves to address the underlying challenges head-on.
While there are many nutrition strategies we can employ to address chronic stress, remember that there are plenty of other ways to nourish yourself that do not involve food or drink. The act of nourishing ourselves is not just about feeding our bodies, but also involves “feeding” deeper needs for meaning, joy, purpose, fulfillment, and connection. Perhaps it’s time to put aside goals and ambitions to make room for hobbies, sports, or celebrating the arts. You may find that “consuming” more music, theater, literature or natural beauty fills and satiates you in ways that you never would have experienced with even the most delicious meal. Ultimately, we must make room in our lives for all of these forms of nourishment. Attention to the various dimensions of this important Pillar of Wellness is a certain way to create balance, reduce stress, add joy, and improve overall health and wellbeing.