Nutrition and Stress

Dimitris Papadopoulos MD Fellow Of Interventional Pain Practice (FIPP)

Updated 18 June, 2011

Can a balanced nutrition fight stress? Nutrition, on its own, cannot eliminate stress from our life because a more holistic lifestyle change is needed. However, nutrition can improve our resistance to stress, improve our potential to overcome it more easily and reduce its long-term effects. When we submit ourselves to stressful conditions (and this happens also when skipping a meal), our body excretes cortisole into our blood- the so-called “stress hormone”- through some small glands that are called adrenals.

In these cases, cortisol is what our body needs. It provides a fast and strong energy dose, enhances the defence system and reduces sensitivity to pain. However, in case we are continuously exposed to very stressful conditions (which happens very often today), cortisol levels may become permanently high causing health problems. Some of these problems are: hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders (Irritable Bowel Syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, ulcer), low insulin resistance (diabetes, weight gain) and cardiovascular events. Finally, it suppresses the immune system. Think of how many times you have caught a cold or some virus when having heavy work load or after a stressful period because of moving house or after a very long and exhausting journey?
In a perfect world, we could simply close the door to stress but this is not that easy particularly with the modern urban pace of life. However, the science of Nutrition has identified some evidence-based ways helping our body produce fewer stress hormones.

A good start
Stress reduces concentration and affects memory. Start your day with a rich breakfast containing full grain cereals or bread, seasonal fruit, yogurt or milk, supplying the brain with fuel and creating the ideal conditions for thinking and solving problems.

Without an empty stomach
Stress affects blood glucose levels and, as a result, you feel moody or irritable. The steady energy supply through regular and balanced meals (2/ day) and snacks (3/day) secures more stable glucose levels in our body. On the contrary, when a meal is omitted, our body behaves as if being in an emergency, increases stress levels even more and, thus, stores energy in the form of fat resulting in more weight gain.
It is also very important to eat, drink and swallow your food slowly and thoroughly. You should devote time to your meal. This helps you  return easily to the non-stressful condition and savour more tastes and flavours of your meal.

The best “anti-stress” food

  1. TEA Various studies all over the world have shown that tea is “the number one anti-stress” having a calming effect on the brain and reducing cortisol levels. According to a recent trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming five cups of tea daily can reduce stress up to even 20 %.
  2. MILK According to research carried out at the Maastricht University, one glass of milk contributes to a nice calm sleep but at the same time it has been correlated with high vigilance during the next day. The effect of milk on sleep is attributed to a- lactalbumin, which contains tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin.
  3. CHEWING GUM According to studies conducted at the University of Swiburne in Melbourn, chewing a gum can reduce stress, increase vigilance and improve performance.
  4. SALMON According to studies carried out at the University of Pittsburgh, its content in ω-3 fatty acids has a positive effect on the mood, making people more optimistic and joyful.                .
  5. RED WINE It is well-known that red wine helps us relax but, according to a study from the Toronto University,  health benefits stop at the first red wine glass.                                The same study has demonstrated that one glass of red wine is beneficial to our heart rate but two glasses of wine increase the heart rate by six extra beats per minute. In addition, high alcohol consumption brings opposite results causing melancholy.
  6. CHOCOLATE Chocolate is the best “anti-stress” but do not count on it for long. As we all know, it has the property to raise our spirit and elevate our mood, but according to German researchers, this effect does not last more than three minutes!