Stress is a factor that affects all our lives in one way or another and while we can’t wave a magic wand and make our stress go away, we can choose the right foods to help our body deal with that stress.
The Adrenal Glands are the organs that produce our main stress hormone: Cortisol, but they also regulate many other hormones and body systems. When we experience chronic stress and our cortisol levels remain high, it interferes with many functions in our body, including immune function, digestion, sleep, and even the ability of other organs to produce essential hormones such as thyroid hormones, oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This can lead to fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, imbalanced blood sugar levels and inflammation.
When we are stressed, many of us crave sugar, chocolate and sweets. These foods do give us a quick energy boost that make us feel better short term, however the quick spike in blood sugar is followed by a big spike in insulin which clears glucose from our bloodstream quickly and often result in a blood sugar crash. At this point the body needs to regulate its blood sugar levels and so produces more cortisol to release stores of glycogen from the liver. Another thing that people often reach for when stressed, is a cup of strong coffee. Coffee contains caffeine, which also stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. So, in reality, those sweet foods and coffees are actually likely to make you produce more stress hormones, not less, thereby compounding the problem, not relieving it!
In order for the adrenal glands to function properly and produce our stress hormones, several vitamins and minerals are needed. When we experience stress, rather than reaching for the biscuit tin or coffee cup, it is a good idea to make sure that your diet is rich in foods which contain magnesium, B vitamins, zinc and vitamin C.
Magnesium is not only used to produce stress hormones, but it is also used by the body to convert food into energy. When we are stressed, the body can use much of the available magnesium for stress hormone production and this can leave us feeling tired and lethargic as magnesium is depleted and so energy production is impaired. Foods to include in the diet that are rich in magnesium are; nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, avocadoes, beans and dark chocolate. So, when you are craving chocolate, chose a couple of squares of dark chocolate to satisfy the chocolate hit and replenish some magnesium.
B Vitamins are crucial to adrenal health and again are needed to release energy from carbohydrates. They are also needed to keep the nervous system functioning properly and are used to make serotonin, our ‘happy’ neurotransmitter and melatonin, our ‘sleepy’ neurotransmitter. Vitamin B6 in particular helps the body to cope with stress and anxiety. During stressful times it is very easy for B vitamins to become depleted. It is worth noting that B vitamins are water soluble so they are not stored by the body and need to be replenished on a daily basis. Foods that are rich in B vitamins include wholegrains such as brown rice and oats, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, peas, beans, dairy and vegetables.
Vitamin C has been shown to help reduce both the physical and psychological effects of stress on people. During recent research people with higher levels of vitamin C did not show mental and physical signs of stress when subjected to acute psychological challenges. They also bounced back from stressful situations faster than those with lower vitamin C levels. Vitamin C is also thought to modulate cortisol levels, and prevent blood pressure from spiking during stressful situations. Most people think about citrus fruits when looking to increase their Vitamin C intake, but guava, yellow and red bell peppers, blackcurrants, kale, kiwi fruit, strawberries, tomatoes and even broccoli have equally high or higher levels of Vitamin C.
Zinc is an essential mineral which plays a major role in modulating the brain and body’s response to stress. Zinc is a natural anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory and over 300 of our enzymes rely on zinc to help them function; from energy production to making DNA to protein synthesis to cell division to digestive and immune function as well as being needed by the adrenal glands. Zinc tends to be lacking in typical western processed diets and the body does not store zinc, so it is essential to ensure that there are zinc rich foods in your diet on a daily basis. These foods include lamb, spinach, flax and pumpkin seeds, beef, seafood, wholegrains, chickpeas, cashew nuts, mushrooms and dark chocolate.
It’s very common for people who are stress to have salt cravings because of low levels of a steroid hormone called aldosterone which is also produced by the adrenal glands. When we are chronically stressed and cortisol levels are high for long periods of time, aldosterone production can suffer and so aldosterone levels reduce. This hormone helps the body maintain salt and water which helps regulate our blood pressure. The resulting low levels of aldosterone can impact our electrolyte balance, leaving us hankering for some salt to correct this imbalance. Instead of reaching for table salts which are refined, contain fillers and other unnecessary ingredients, chose a little mineral salt or sea salt flakes which are rich in many trace minerals.
So, to recap on stress busting food choices - avoid sweets and sugar laden snacks and instead reach for wholegrains, seeds, nuts (as long as you don’t have a nut allergy), a variety of colourful fruit and vegetables, some protein rich foods such as lamb, beef, chicken, eggs or beans and lentils. You can also enjoy the odd square of dark chocolate and a sprinkle of mineral or unrefined sea salt if needed.
(This article was written for Fidelity for their staff newsletter)