Five ways your diet can help reduce stress
Stress is something that a lot of people struggle with, and it can have a huge impact on both physical and mental health.
For example, stress can lead to common and frequent health issues (that many of us ignore), such as fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping. It can also contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
I always say stress is usually the root cause of nearly all health issues.
While there are many ways to reduce stress - exercise, mindfulness, and therapy to name a few, did you know that your diet can play a role as well?
Speaking as a qualified nutritionist and gut health specialist (this is where the Get Your Sh*t Together - Literally comes into play), I know a thing or two about how our diets can improve our stress levels or even mitigate the impact of stress on the body. So, in this blog post, we are going to explore five ways that your diet can help reduce stress and improve overall physical and mental well-being.
1. EATING A BALANCED DIET
Here’s the thing, most of us know what a healthy diet looks like. However, you may not know why it’s so important. So let’s have a look at how a balanced diet (which focuses on whole foods!) can help to regulate the nervous system and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
Foods high in vitamin B, such as lean proteins and whole grains, produce neurotransmitters (think serotonin and dopamine). These are essential for regulating mood and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
Foods rich in magnesium, such as leafy greens and nuts, can also help calm the nervous system and reduce stress levels by regulating cortisol, a stress hormone in the body. Magnesium has also been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
By incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet which provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, not only will you reduce stress but also support your overall health and well-being.
2. REDUCING CAFFEINE AND SUGAR INTAKE
Consuming high levels of caffeine and sugar can increase stress levels by activating the body's fight-or-flight response. Caffeine can cause the heart rate to increase and lead to ‘the jitters’, while sugar can cause mood swings and contribute to feelings of anxiety. Reducing your intake of caffeine and sugar can help reduce stress by lowering the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the body and improving your overall mood and well-being.
It's important to note that reducing caffeine and sugar intake does not mean eliminating these foods from your diet entirely. Instead, it's about finding a healthy balance and reducing your intake to moderate levels. For example, limiting your coffee intake to one or two cups a day and choosing healthier sugar alternatives, such as honey or maple syrup. This can help reduce stress levels without you needing to completely sacrifice these foods.
3. INCORPORATE STRESS-REDUCING FOODS
Inflammation is something that is increasingly being researched when looking at chronic stress. They seem to go hand in hand and increased levels of inflammation in the body can wreak havoc on our overall well being. This can lead to health issues such as auto-immune diseases, general aches and pains, fatigue and depression.
The good news though, is that certain foods have been shown to have a calming effect and even help reduce stress and inflammation. For example, fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines which are high in omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3 fatty acids also play a role in regulating the levels of cortisol in the body, which can help reduce stress levels and improve mood. Turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cooking, has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, while dark chocolate (yes, I know!) contains compounds that can help reduce stress and improve mood. Just some small tweaks to your diet, and maybe incorporating these foods into your cooking once or twice a week could help to reduce your stress.
4. STAYING HYDRATED
Dehydration can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue, which can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Staying hydrated is an important way to reduce stress, as even mild dehydration can de-regulate your cortisol levels causing those stress levels to rise.
Aim to drink at least two litres of water a day, and make sure to drink water regularly throughout the day (rather than all in one go!). A really good tip for this is to set a timer on your phone to go off throughout your day to remind you to drink. Or simply get a large water bottle that you only have to fill up a couple of times in the day.
However, avoid having too much water before bed as this can impact your quality of sleep (which will also impact your stress levels).
5. AVOIDING PROCESSED FOODS
Processed foods are often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, which can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Consuming a diet high in processed foods can also lead to health problems and for many of us, when we don’t feel great, it can cause us even more stress. Instead of relying on processed foods, go back to step 1 - incorporating whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, into your diet can help reduce stress levels by providing the body with the essential nutrients it needs to maintain overall health and well-being, as well as regulating the nervous system and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
A good way to get started is to think about making small changes to your diet, such as incorporating more fruits and vegetables and reducing your intake of processed foods. And depending on where you’re starting from, will depend on how you incorporate the changes that I have talked about here. Maybe just focus on one meal a day and slowly make a few changes. This really isn’t about overhauling your complete diet in one go. Because that in and of itself can be stressful and you’re less likely to stick with the changes. Slow and steady will always win the race.
Even these small tweaks can have a big impact on your stress levels and overall well-being, I promise!
But if you do need some help, and specifically think that an eating plan to suit your specific needs would be of use to you, check out the Get Your Sh*t Together - Literally course. It uses all of the advice that I have just laid down here, alongside how to structure a meal plan, key exercises that will help you increase your digestion, boost your immunity and lower inflammation.
And please remember that everyone's needs are different, and it's important to find a diet that works for you. If you are struggling with stress, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for personalized advice and guidance. With a balanced diet and the right support, you can reduce stress, improve your health, and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
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