You feel what you eat

Stress can contribute to a long list of health problems, says Suzannah Olivier, but there are ways to boost your resistance, including eating the right sort of food.

The link between stress and illness

Chronic stress is a contributory factor to many illnesses. It can lead to low energy, skin complaints such as eczema and spots, poor wound healing, increased susceptibility to colds and flu, tension headaches, fuzzy thinking, loss of libido, raised blood pressure, and much more.

But with a sensible approach to diet there are ways of reducing the effects of stress and helping your body to remain healthy.

How stress contributes to health problems

The stress response triggers off high levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are produced regardless of the type of stress experienced, from emergencies (an impending car accident, for example) to slower-acting stresses (such as pressure at work, traffic jams or drinking coffee).

These stress hormones use up significant amounts of vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc. And because your body thinks it’s an emergency, these hormones take priority over the body’s normal use for these nutrients.

This means that, for example, vitamin C and zinc are not sufficiently available for collagen production to keep skin clear and to make white blood cells to fend off infections. B-vitamins are not fully available for energy production and mental function. Depleted magnesium, meanwhile, will increase the likelihood of headaches and raised blood pressure.

Increased stress levels also raise the amount of oxidation damage, which affects various body tissues, and constantly raised cortisol levels keep the body in a “catabolic” state which interferes with tissue repair.

Increase your resistance to the effects of stress

We can’t always avoid stress in our lives, but by eating foods that ensure we provide the nutrients needed both for the stress reaction and for healthy tissue building, we can reduce the negative effects of stress on the body. You can think of it as building a nutritional shield to protect you against the slings and arrows that stress throws at you.

Foods rich in stressbusting nutrients

A balanced diet – one that supplies stress hormones, provides antioxidants to fend off oxidation damage, and keeps brain chemicals, such as serotonin, steady for improved moods – should feature:

  • At least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, preferably 7-8 portions. A portion is 80g/3oz, so for instance: one apple, 2 plums, 3 dried apricots, 1/2 cup chopped vegetables, 1/2 cup beans or pulses, one wine-glassful of fruit or vegetable juice.
  • Lean meats such as fish, skinless chicken or turkey meat, game or red meat with all the fat cut off, or vegetarian protein sources such as low-fat dairy produce, pulses, soya-based foods, Quorn, nuts and seeds.
  • Whole grains such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, rye, porridge oats and jacket potatoes, or grains such as quinoa, buckwheat or wholewheat couscous.
  • Healthy fats from virgin olive oil, cold pressed walnut, sesame, sunflower or safflower oils, unsalted nuts and seeds, avocado.

The stressbusting nutrients themselves can be found in the following foods:

  • Zinc: Lean meat, seafood (especially oysters), whole wheat, popcorn, muesli, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, nuts, seeds
  • Vitamin C: All fruit and vegetables, especially citrus fruit, strawberries, blackberries, kiwi, cabbage and broccoli
  • B-vitamins: All wholegrains, yeast extract, yoghurt, liver, dates, molasses, pumpkin, beans, avocado
  • Magnesium: Dark green leafy vegetables, grapefruit, figs, sweetcorn, seeds and nuts, aubergines, raisins, carrots, tomatoes

Foods to avoid when feeling stressed

In addition to psychological and physical stresses, there are also nutritional stresses. Each time you drink alcohol or a cup of coffee, for instance, it impacts on your body’s ability to handle stress. This does not mean that you need to abstain all the time, just be aware of the effects they can have and minimise your consumption of them at stressful times in your life.

Sugar is devoid of vitamins and minerals and also uses up nutrients such as B-vitamins. Replace it with a little raw honey, puréed sweet fruit or dates.

Caffeine raises stress hormones and can lead to insomnia. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, colas, the herb guarana and pain medication. Replace it with caffeine-free coffee or tea, sparkling water with juice, fruit and herb teas or barley coffee.

Alcohol is a depressant and is dehydrating. Stick to a maximum of 7 units weekly if a woman and 14 units weekly if a man. Match each alcoholic drink with a large glass of water.

Cigarettes use up antioxidants. Give up smoking or at least eat extra fruit and vegetables.

Nature’s little helpers

Ideally, you should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a well-balanced diet. However, you may want to add an antioxidant formula supplement to your regime at times of stress. There are also some herbal supplements that can help to counteract stress:

  • Liquorice root balances stress hormones. Some formulas include ginseng, another ‘adaptogen’ which helps the body to adapt to stress (do not use liquorice root if you have high blood pressure)
  • Kava kava has an anxiety reducing, calming effect and is good for migraines
  • Nicknamed the herbal valium, St John’s wort has been shown to be superior to placebo in trials for moderate depression. It works by improving serotonin levels in the brain

Please note

If you are pregnant, breast-feeding or taking prescribed medication for any condition then herbal and nutritional supplements must only be taken with professional advice. If these restrictions do not apply, then take the dose suggested on the bottle.

About Suzannah Olivier

Suzannah Olivier, MSc., Dip ION, is a writer, lecturer, and nutritionist. She is the author of more than 15 best-selling books on health and nutrition, including 'The Breast Cancer Prevention and Recovery Diet', 'Natural Hormone Balance', '500 of the Most Stress Busting Techniques You'll Ever Need', 'Food Medicine', 'Healthy Food for Happy Kids', and 'What Should I Feed My Baby?'. She is a member of both the Guild of Health Writers and the Guild of Food Writers and has a masters degree in Nutrition Information. She also writes regularly for The Times.

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