Updated: Jul 16
Stressors are a part of life, but what we eat and do (or don’t do?) can make us more stressed and have a more difficult time bouncing back. Did you know some foods you’re eating can actually stress you more?
Notice if you’re finding yourself reaching for these foods because you’re feeling unhappy, bored or stressed. It’s okay once in a while, but if it becomes a more frequent habit, it can make it more difficult to bounce back from life’s stressors.
When the body is under stress, it can trigger a number of biological responses that put us in the “fight or flight” response, including the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys that cause symptoms like increased heart and breath rate. If you are constantly stressed, the adrenal glands can get overworked and have difficulty releasing stress hormones like cortisol, which we need for energy and tissue repair. Long-term or chronic stress can cause an increase in blood sugar levels, blood pressure, risk of stroke, chronic fatigue, and can cause weight gain or resistant weight loss.
Emotional and physical stress can stimulate secretion of hormones that can cause you to want to eat foods higher in fat and sugar. These “comfort foods” seem to counteract certain stress responses, but they are only temporary emotional escapes!
Foods that stress us
Sugar & processed foods
Processed foods and those high in refined sugar, such as cookies, fruit juices, or chips can cause irritability or blood sugar to spike, then drop very quickly. The low blood sugar is perceived by the brain as a life-threatening situation, which makes the body more stressed.. Notice if you’re finding yourself reaching for these foods because you’re feeling unhappy, bored or stressed. It’s okay once in a while, but if it becomes a more frequent habit, it can make it more difficult to bounce back from life’s stressors.
Caffeine can help with mental focus when taken early in the morning in small doses, however, when consumed too much or in the late afternoon, caffeine can cause anxiety, jitters, and trouble sleeping. Some people are less sensitive to caffeine and might be able to tolerate more, but aim for no more than 16 ounces per day.
Our gut microbes can control how we feel, our mood, our weight, immune system and many other aspects of our health besides digestion. If you’re eating foods that you’re sensitive to, it can increase inflammation, cause an imbalance in gut bacteria and influence the way you feel. Some foods you could be sensitive to might be ones that are generally considered to be healthy like gluten-based foods, yogurts or even certain vegetables! Keep a food record to identify possible triggers and try a simple elimination with a single food item or food group for a couple of weeks to see if you get relief or work with a dietitian if you suspect food sensitivities or intolerances to get it figured out more quickly.
Foods that support relaxation
Include Vitamin C rich citrus fruits; vitamin B rich whole grains, poultry or fish; magnesium rich dark leafy greens like chard, spinach, or kale); omega-3 rich fish, nuts or seeds and enough vitamin D and iron in your diet to naturally combat stress, anxiety and increase the happy hormone serotonin. This can be simple to do if you keep a balanced plate in mind at your meals - half a plate of a green and orange vegetable (minimum!), fish/poultry/legumes as a protein source and 1/4 plate of grains/starchy vegetables. Sounds simple right? The hardest part is changing our behaviours and setting up the conditions for success!
Consider any practice that helps you to slow down. This can be hard for a lot of us because we’re used to a society that promotes being as productive as possible 24/7.
Try guided meditations using an app like Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer or simply start by setting a 2-minute timer for you to observe your breath and body (non-judgmentally!). This can all help to not only reduce stress, but also support more mindful eating and food choices.
Movement practices like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong combine the meditative aspect with movement and helps to lower cortisol levels. These practices help you to experience and process the emotions you’re having so they don’t get stored in your body and manifest as pain or other health issues.
So, the next time you’re feeling stressed, be aware that shifts in hormones can cause you to make poor food choices. Instead, be conscious of how you're feeling and choose mindfulness exercises that can help guide you through a healthier food decision. Making more conscious food choices can help your body learn to bounce back from stressors more quickly.