Eat to beat: Fight stress with the right fuel

Surprisingly not all the stress we experience is bad. After all, it’s what drives us to get out of bed in the morning and encourages us to prioritise our daily tasks.

The trouble is that stress is somewhat inevitable in today’s high-pressure environment, and unfortunately none of us are strangers to feeling stressed out.

Left unchecked, stress can play havoc with your health and wellbeing. But fear not — because while you can’t control what goes on outside, you can control what goes on inside.

One of the ways to fight the stress and anxiety a fast-paced life attracts is via your daily diet. Recent research from Edith Cowan University, found that eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is linked with less stress.

Lead researcher, Simone Radavelli-Bagatini from ECU’s Institute for Nutritional Research, said the study strengthens the link between diets rich in fruit and vegetables and mental wellbeing.

Food can help relieve stress and anxiety in several ways by:

Cutting levels of stress hormones
Boosting levels of serotonin
Supporting the immune system
Lowering blood pressure

Depending on what you choose to eat, food can work as your ally or enemy, so it’s important to be mindful of the food you consume, particularly when you’re feeling frazzled. Here’s how you can bring more calm to the table.

Cutting cortisol
Chronic stress causes your adrenal glands to continuously fire cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) and can disrupt almost all your body’s processes, putting you at increased risk of many health problems, extending to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease and high blood pressure.

High cortisol levels can also contribute to sleep disturbances by blocking your sleep hormone, melatonin, as well as contribute to weight gain and make you feel irritable. Some foods that keep cortisol levels stable include:

Fish: Oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce the effects of stress. Fish also contains phosphatidylserine, which can help lower high cortisol — particularly useful if high levels are keeping you awake at night.

Dark chocolate: Not only does it taste great, but it’s an antioxidant-rich treat shown to reduce stress hormones like cortisol, while also reducing inflammation and improving your mood.

Green tea: It’s not food, but the L-theanine found in green tea is an amino acid that can help promote relaxation and boost concentration, and can also help reduce feelings of anxiety.

Boosting serotonin
Stress disrupts your neurotransmitters (chemicals that affect how you think and feel), including serotonin and GABA (which helps you to keep calm), making you more prone to low mood and depression. Improve your mood by eating foods that boost serotonin levels:

Pineapple: It contains plenty of tryptophan to boost serotonin in the brain.

Tofu: Made of soy, it’s also full of tryptophan and a great way for vegans and vegetarians to get this serotonin booster without eating meat.

Warm milk: It has lots of B vitamins that reduce anxiety and improve mood, including vitamin B6 which raises serotonin levels.

Supporting the nervous system
Excess stress causes the adrenals to increase cortisol, putting your nervous system in fight-or-flight mode. This revs up your heartbeat, and increases feelings of anxiety. Foods that support the nervous system include:

Magnesium: Known for its ability to relax the body, it’s found in leafy green vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, beans, peanuts and almonds.

Vitamin B: The B vitamins, particularly B5, are crucial for the production of stress-related hormones and keep the body energised. If you’re feeling rundown, incorporate foods rich in B5 into your diet, such as sunflower seeds, avocado, salmon and mushrooms.

Citrus foods: Flavonoids found in citrus fruits have anti-inflammatory capabilities that help protect against the chain of events that causes the nervous system to deteriorate. Your adrenal glands are the biggest store of vitamin C, so if levels are low your body will find it harder to cope under stress.

Yogurt: Your gut and brain are connected physically through the vagus nerve and chemically via your gut bacteria. Eating probiotics such as yogurt has been shown to reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Lowering blood pressure
Because your body releases adrenaline during its fight-or-flight mode, this makes your heart beat faster and raises your blood pressure as a way of helping your body cope with the situation. It’s important to lower your blood pressure, and there are certain foods that can help:

Eggs: Tackle cravings by upping your intake of protein. Including protein-rich foods in each meal will help stabilise your blood sugar and keep you feeling energised, without needing to resort to sugary snacks or caffeine to perk yourself up.

Legumes and lentils: They’re high in fibreer, which supports a healthy gut while also managing blood sugar levels.

Pistachios: One study reported that including pistachio nuts in a moderate-fat diet may reduce blood pressure during times of stress. This may be because a compound in the nuts reduces the tightness of your blood vessels.

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