Stress is something we all face at various times in our life and it’s especially important to know how to manage long-term stress. Read on to learn how your diet can make a difference.

By Joanna Burchartz BSc(Hons) Nutrition & Food Science

 Arrrghhhh!!!! I’m SO stressed!!!

The average lifestyle these days means that we often find ourselves under pressure – whether it’s making sure the kids get to school on time, worrying about paying the mortgage or even something that should be fun like planning a birthday party. It seems there is always something on our mind and with technology constantly reminding us about what we need to do and where we need to be, it often seems like we can never get away from it all, have some quiet time, relax and recharge. 

The first Wednesday in November is National Stress Awareness Day, so for our blog this month we’re looking at the ways in which diet can affect stress and how what we eat can aggravate feelings of stress and just as importantly, what foods can help alleviate stress.

But first, let’s learn a little bit about what exactly stress is.

What is stress?

Simply put, stress is a physical response to a situation where we feel under pressure. Short-term or acute stress is what you may remember learning about in school biology lessons as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Our bodies are genetically wired to react in situations where we feel under threat, but whereas this might once have been due to something like being chased by a wild animal, these days it’s more likely to be a situation such as preparing to stand up and give a presentation in front of a room full of people. Symptoms of acute stress may be an increased heart rate, faster breathing, muscle tensing and sweating. Once the ‘threat’ or situation is over your body recovers quickly and you soon feel back to normal.

However, more significant in today’s lifestyle is concern about the effect on our health of long-term or chronic stress. While our body can recover quickly after short-term stressful situations when stress is ongoing the effects on the body continue and can cause symptoms such as headaches, stomach cramps, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating and being more susceptible to infections. If not addressed, then this can then go on to lead to more serious health issues such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, skin problems and increased risk of obesity and heart disease. 

What causes these physical effects of stress?

Let’s go just a little bit further into the biology of what happens when we’re stressed. Stressful situations cause our body to release many hormones, but most significant are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts your energy supplies while cortisol increases the level of glucose in your bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. If stress is long-term then your body will continue to produce higher than normal levels of these stress hormones which over time can result in more serious health problems as previously mentioned. 

What kind of situations can cause chronic stress?

Everyone copes with things differently – a situation which can cause one person a lot of stress might be just mildly concerning to you and a walk in the park to someone else. But anything which causes you to worry long-term or feel under pressure to perform or complete a task or taking responsibility for others can cause long-term stress. Examples may be:

  • Workload, long work hours
  • Conflicts with colleagues, family or friends
  • Balancing work and home life
  • Finances
  • Study and exams
  • Changes in home life such as moving, illness (your own or someone close to you), divorce, marriage)

This list is not exclusive and as I said, everyone reacts differently to situations but if something is causing you to feel anxious, nervous, worried or pressured then you are likely experiencing stress.

How can you relieve stress?

To beat stress the best thing you can do is to resolve the cause, but of course, that’s not always possible and likely not something you can do right away. So, stress management is really important to help relieve the symptoms and feel calmer, so make sure to set some time aside for you and try any or all of the following:

  • Physical activity eg. yoga, a walk, a run
  • Eat healthily
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • A regular good night’s sleep
  • A relaxing bath
  • Chat with friends and get support from others
  • A hobby
  • Take a break – get away and have a change of scenery

How can diet help in stress management?

We all know that healthy eating is important to keep our bodies strong, functioning properly and to help prevent certain illnesses and conditions, so it will be no surprise that the usual advice will also stand for helping to manage stress. 

When feeling stressed it’s important that you don’t skip meals, so eat regularly to maintain your energy levels and mood and so avoid tiredness and irritability, include a few healthy snacks to keep you going. 

A well-balanced diet will help your body manage the physiological changes caused by stress, providing the nutrients needed and helping to calm the stress hormones. Some hormones released during stress can cause cravings for unhealthy comfort foods (think sweets, biscuits, cakes), and while this can make you feel better in the short term as you relax and enjoy eating them, they will, in fact, cause a spike in your blood sugar level followed by a crash which zaps your energy and the feeling of stress will likely return quite soon. 

Later I’ll talk more about the healthy food choices but first, let’s talk a little about the link between stress and cholesterol that you may have heard about. 

What is the connection between stress and cholesterol?

There are two types of cholesterol, one termed ‘bad’ (LDL), the other ‘good’ (HDL). Both are found in some foods and are produced by the body, but while a high level of LDL can cause build up in the arteries increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease or heart attack, HDL carries cholesterol back to the liver where it’s broken down and removed. So ideally you need to have higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of bad cholesterol and with the right proportion cholesterol levels can be kept under control. 

It’s saturated fats that will increase your bad cholesterol levels, and these are mostly found in foods from animal sources, so meat and dairy products and all the things made from them like cakes, biscuits, pies, ice cream, so yes, all those comfort foods we love! Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats will help lower blood cholesterol levels so use these where possible in your cooking and baking – so that’s vegetable oil, sunflower oil and especially olive oil. 

A few years ago a headline news report claimed that stress could raise our cholesterol levels. This was based on a study which looked at the relationship between job stress and high-fat levels, and therefore bad cholesterol, in the blood of the study group. However, the study didn’t assess the diet of the participants so while the high levels of LDL could have been due to poor diet, perhaps as a result of stress and unhealthy eating, it didn’t directly prove that stress itself caused an increase in cholesterol. 

As we said earlier, when you’re feeling stressed it can be easy to reach for our favourite comfort foods which as well as being high in sugar, are also often high in fat, which over time could increase your risk of weight problems and cardiovascular issues. 

What foods should you avoid when feeling stressed?

So what have we learnt so far? DON’T reach for comfort food when you’re stressed! That being said, I do believe that ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ so while you shouldn’t sit and munch your way through an entire pack of biscuits, if a couple of ‘treats’ make you feel a little better, even for a short time, then go for it, but ONLY in moderation and you HAVE to limit yourself. 

The following list of foods are those that you will likely be tempted to have more of when you’re feeling stressed but in reality these are the ones you should either avoid or most certainly cut down on as in the long-term they will not help you.

  • Coffee – too much caffeine can add to feelings of anxiety and drinking coffee too late in the day can affect your ability to sleep. So only drink coffee in the morning, it may give you the little boost you need, but no coffee later and limit yourself to just one or two cups.
  • Alcohol – too much can increase stress levels and the risk of depression so if you do like a glass of wine or a beer only drink in moderation and know your limits. 
  • Sweets, biscuits and cakes, anything containing refined sugars – these will cause a sugar high followed by a crash, making you feel as bad or worse than before. 
  • Crisps and crackers – as with biscuits and cakes, these contain refined carbohydrates and too much of these will only add to feelings of stress.
  • Processed meat, dairy products – as we said above, foods from animal sources contain saturated fat and too much of this, while not directly causing stress, can increase cholesterol levels which can lead to further health problems. 

What foods can help relieve stress?

Okay, so we’ve talked about what we shouldn’t eat, so what about foods which will help with stress? As we said before, make sure to eat regularly to keep your energy levels up which will really help with improving your mood – while it may not be the case for you yourself, I’m sure we all know someone who gets a bit grumpy when they’re hungry? 

Start your day with a balanced, healthy breakfast and include whole, natural foods in your diet, making sure to have your ‘5-a-day’. and drink lots of water throughout the day to stay well hydrated. 

Earlier I said that one of the main ‘stress hormones’ was called cortisol and reducing cortisol is one way to relieve the symptoms of stress. Dehydration can increase cortisol levels, so it’s important to stay well hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Also, include good sources of protein such as lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts as this can help slow the release of sugar, counteracting the excess glucose being released by the increased cortisol. Foods which help to reduce or stabilise cortisol levels include yoghurt, bananas, dark chocolate, kiwi fruit, sweet potatoes and green tea. 

There is growing evidence that food really can affect mood and certain nutrients can help improve the way you feel, specifically certain vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, so eat foods which are good sources of these such as fruit, wholegrains, beans, lentils, green leafy veg, nuts and seeds. 

Below is a list of some foods to try that are part of a normal healthy diet, but can also help with reducing feelings of anxiety and stress.

  • Tea (non-caffeine) – especially tea containing chamomile which is known for its calming effects.
  • Dark chocolate (greater than 60% cocoa) – woohoo! Something ‘naughty’ that can be good! Remember we talked about the stress hormone cortisol? Dark chocolate may help to lower this and so relieve some of the symptoms of stress.
  • Bananas – always a healthy choice, bananas contain potassium which can increase the ‘feel good’ hormone, dopamine and magnesium which helps regulate cortisol production. 
  • Avocados – avocados contain lots of good micronutrients including vitamin C and B6, which can help relieve stress and the healthy fat and fibre can help you feel full and so better able to resist cravings for unhealthy foods. 
  • Oranges, grapefruits, strawberries – any fruit is good and those with high levels of vitamin C will help to combat the cortisol levels and so reduce stress. 
  • Leafy greens – these are high in magnesium which regulates cortisol production and also folate, a B vitamin which triggers the feel-good hormone dopamine. 
  • Whole grain carbohydrates (think wholegrain bread, wholemeal pasta and rice) – these help improve mood by increasing the stress-busting hormone serotonin. 
  • Oily fish (eg. Salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel) – these fish contain omega-3 fatty acids which can help ease anxiety, stress and depression. There are lots of other health benefits to eating oily fish so make sure to include some in your weekly diet. 
  • Nuts – these contain healthy fats so snacking on nuts can help ward off cravings for less healthy snacks. They are also a source of B vitamins which can help reduce stress. 
  • Water – don’t forget, always stay well hydrated.

So as we think about National Stress Awareness Day this month, consider all the positive things you can do to help you get through those stressful times. You can help manage your stress with a few lifestyle changes, good eating habits and a healthy diet, but if you do ever feel it’s getting on top of you and your health is being affected, you should always consult your doctor.