For most of us, stress and food go hand-in-hand. Food can give us the feelings of power, control and satisfaction that we need in stressful situations. It’s no surprise that when our stress levels go up our resistance to ‘comfort’ foods goes down.
This isn’t always a bad thing — our favorite foods actually can reduce our stress levels. But moderation is key.
Giving your body the nutrition it needs is a positive step you can take every day toward combating stress. With the correct nutrition, you are better prepared to face the challenges of the day.
Adrenaline is produced during times of intense stress. That gives you a burst of energy, but your blood-sugar level drops after the crisis is past. Sustaining food is needed to replenish it. Certain foods increase the physical stress on your body by making digestion more difficult, or by denying the brain essential nutrients. Stress itself can cause bad digestion. Drinks can have just as great an effect — caffeine and alcohol both put a considerable strain on the body.
With a sensible diet it’s possible to reduce the effects of stress, avoid some common problems, and protect your health.
Avoiding Common Problems
- Indigestion. This can result from eating in the middle of a stressful situation, as the digestive system is not relaxed. It also can be due to eating on the run, so always sit down to eat and eat more slowly, chewing food properly. You will then really taste and enjoy your meals and snacks.
- Bloating. As we all know, bloating is unpleasant, and stressful in itself. It could be triggered by wheat products (bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits) and dairy products (milk, cheese, butter and cream), so try cutting out each food group for a couple of weeks to see if the problem eases.
- Caffeine dependency. Relying on caffeine to keep you going is a bad idea. It raises stress hormones and can lead to insomnia and dehydration, affecting your body’s ability to handle stress. There are many delicious caffeine-free alternatives, such as herb teas.
- Hangovers. No one functions well with a hangover, so drinking heavily will lead to trouble the following day. This does not mean that you need to avoid alcohol completely, just be aware of its effects, and resist using it regularly as a coping technique.
- Cravings. These often hit during the ‘post-lunch dip’, and increase at hormonal times and under stress. To curb your cravings, include small portions of the craved item into your usual diet, rather than trying to resist completely. Or distract yourself by getting involved in something else, and the craving may pass. Keep healthy food nearby, and do not wait too long between snacks.
- Sugar highs and lows. Although the brain needs glucose to enable it to perform effectively, very sugary foods cause your blood sugar level to spike and then plummet, leaving you sleepy and lethargic. This can lead to another sweet craving, and the cycle continues.
Theory into Practice
Some tips on improving your diet:
- Breakfast. Aim always to eat breakfast, even if you can only manage a piece of fruit. Fruit smoothies make a great choice for breakfast. They can be made with various combinations of fruits and with or without yogurt. Be adventurous by adding vegetables or spices.
- Lunch and the evening meal. Healthy options include baked potatoes with baked beans or tuna, sushi, vegetable soup, whole-grain sandwiches or salads. In restaurants, baked fish or chicken with vegetables are good choices. Or go for pasta with a tomato-based sauce.
- In-between. To sustain your energy, snack on healthy food throughout the day. This calls for a little planning. Bring a banana, yogurt, nuts and raisins, a few oatcakes or a bagel to work to have handy.
- Drinks. Cut down on stimulants such as coffee, tea, and soda as much as you can. Trade them for decaffeinated coffee or tea, 100 percent fruit juice and herb teas. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and protect your kidneys.
- Alcohol.Alcohol supplies little to no nutrients. Women should have no more than seven alcoholic drinks a week, and men no more than 14. ttempt to match each alcoholic drink with a glass of water or juice.
- Supplements. Consider a vitamin and mineral supplement to replace the nutrients depleted by stress, particularly the B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Herbal supplements to aid digestion include liquorice root, aloe vera, lemongrass and kava kava. Mint, dandelion, fennel, ginger, slippery elm and meadowsweet teas help digestion.
Jane Clarke’s Bodyfoods Cookbook: Recipes for Life (more readily found at Amazon UK)