Sometimes, life just gets on top of me. According to the Mental Health Foundation, this was a feeling shared by 74% of the people they surveyed last year.
But stress doesn’t just affect our mental health – it can attack us physically. High levels of stress can suppress the immune system, cause insomnia, contribute to heart disease and actually affects our gut health too. It does this by increasing our metabolism, causing us to excrete vital nutrients.
However, a good diet not only improves stomach heath – it relieves stress.
How diet can help reduce stress
Stress triggers the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. And the adrenal glands are significantly influenced by our blood sugar levels. So if we eat foods that stabilise blood sugar, we’ve got a good chance of managing our stress levels too.
A good breakfast can play an important part in how we feel during the rest of the day. So, if possible, avoid sugary cereals and coffee; caffeine can elevate levels of cortisol. Instead, try yoghurt which is full of probiotic bacteria (great for a stressed gut) and crucially – protein. When the body is chronically stressed, it actually demands more protein. Why not sprinkle on a few blueberries too? These are packed full of antioxidants. What’s more, they’re a great source of vitamin C which can help repair cells when we’re stressed.
Include some green leafy vegetables in your lunch. Spinach and asparagus are great sources of folic acid. In fact, two stems of asparagus actually provide two-thirds of your daily intake. These contain folate which produces dopamine; this chemical helps to keep us feeling calm. A 2012 study of 2,800 middle-aged and elderly people found that those who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression symptoms than those who took in the least.
Chicken, dairy, seafood, beans and pulses are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan produces serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’) which can give us a mental boost. Complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and whole grains can temporarily increase our levels of serotonin but limit simple carbs, e.g. white pasta and white bread. Some studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin B can cause feelings of anxiety. Avocados are a great source of vitamin B, so why not add a little homemade guacamole to your Mexican dishes.
Avoid crisps and add some more nuts to your diet instead. These are packed full of B vitamins and magnesium, which has been linked to anxiety management. Fruits like oranges, grapefruits and strawberries contain lots of vitamin C. A study from 2015 found that participants who took 500 mg of vitamin C per day had reduced levels of stress than those who didn’t. And if you do need to satisfy that sweet tooth, grab a bar of dark chocolate. This is rich in antioxidants which can help to lower stress hormones. However, try and enjoy in moderation.
When we’re feeling anxious it can be an uphill battle to get some rest. Try herbal teas like lavender or chamomile as these have a relaxing effect. However, try and avoid green tea as this still contains caffeine.
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