When you think of stress relievers, you may think of a relaxing massage or a hot bath. However, what you eat can have a large impact on the stress levels in your body and can help provide a defense to help manage chronic stress. That is why having a variety of stress relieving foods in your diet is greatly beneficial for overall health! There are numerous nutrients that support the body, but let’s first get an understanding on what stress actually is and how it can impact your health.
Stress’ impact on health
Stress can come in many different forms, whether it’s from losing a job, over exercising, or being chased by a bear, the body views all of these as a stressor.
Stress triggers a combination of signals from both hormones and nerves in your body. Cortisol is one of these important hormones. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. It is typically released in response to particular events such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute or sudden stress. Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight response and temporarily increases energy production. The resulting imbalances then resolve once the stressor is eliminated.
For example, if an animal starts chasing you, it will set in motion the stress response. The adrenals secrete cortisol and cortisol prepares the body by flooding it with glucose from the liver so the body can have a quick form of energy. Cortisol also inhibits insulin production in order to prevent glucose from being stored so that it can be immediately used as energy to respond to the chasing animal. Additionally, cortisol narrows the arteries, while another hormone epinephrine increases the heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster. Once the animal runs in the opposite direction, the hormone levels then return to normal.
As you can see, this mechanism is designed to help get you through a sudden stressful situation and we all will have high cortisol from time to time. However, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, it can have a negative impact on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
The gut’s connection to the brain
Additionally, the gut is connected to the brain through the vagus nerve, which means that signals can be sent both from the brain to the gut and from the gut to the brain. Have you ever gotten “butterflies in your stomach” or felt nauseous before presenting in front of a large group? The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, and happiness, all of which can trigger symptoms in the gut. Conversely, the bacteria in our gut affect our brain health, therefore improving gut bacteria may improve brain health and reduce levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Wondering how you can improve your gut bacteria? This is where food variety and diversity come into play.
Foods and nutrients that help with stress
Now that you have an understanding of the stress response and the gut-brain connection, let’s dive into the foods and nutrients that can help reduce stress and provide your body with the support it needs. There are a few particular nutrients that play a role in helping our body through stress:
- L-Theanine is an amino acid that has been shown to have powerful stress-relieving properties.
- Vitamin D is a nutrient that impacts mood. While you primarily get vitamin D from sun exposure, it can be difficult to get enough especially if you stay out of the sun, use sunblock, or live in a place with limited sunshine. Vitamin D plays a vital role in mental health and regulating stress. Low levels have been associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression.,
- Probiotics/Prebiotics Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain beneficial live bacteria. Some probiotics have been shown to improve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Probiotics feed on prebiotics, which are forms of dietary fiber found in various foods or in probiotic supplements.
- Magnesium When levels of this mineral are low, it has been associated with anxiety and panic attacks. Additionally, chronic stress can potentially deplete the body’s magnesium stores.
- Omega-3 Both EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3s, are critical for optimal brain function and development. Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in the cell membranes of brain cells,therefore are vital for maintaining normal brain function, as well as managing stress.
- Tryptophan Serotonin, which is essential for mood stabilizing, is synthesized from tryptophan. Low levels of tryptophan are seen in people with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. By eating foods high in tryptophan, it provides your body with the tools to synthesize serotonin.
Some foods are particularly helpful to our bodies when dealing with stress. Below you’ll find some of the best foods for stress:
- Green Tea — Green tea provides L-theanine. Matcha, which is green tea powder, is an even better source of L-theanine than other types of green tea, since the process increases the content of L-theanine.
- Fatty fish — Fatty fish, such as salmon, are a great source of vitamin D, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Three ounces of salmon contains approximately 1.8g of omega-3 fatty acids and 450IUs of Vitamin D and are a great source of protein.
- Kimchi — Fermented foods, such as kimchi or yogurt, contain probiotics that help colonize our gut with good bacteria that are needed for our microbiome to thrive.
- Artichokes — These are a wonderful source of fiber, especially the type of fiber that feeds probiotics, called prebiotics.
- Avocado — They are an excellent source of magnesium. One avocado contains about 39 mg of magnesium.
- Eggs — The protein found in eggs can actually help boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan.
What comes next?
Did you know that your genes can also help you get a better understanding of what stressors you are more likely to respond to as well as how you are likely to respond? GenoPalate is excited to soon be offering genetic insights on your stress triggers and responses with even more detailed information on how these can impact your overall health and what you can do about it. By gaining a deeper understanding of how your genes impact your stress as well as small but effective ways to optimize your foods and dietary habits, you can begin to protect your body from the negative impact of stress and even potentially improve your overall mood and stress levels.