Why does your diet affect how you cope with stress? Well it’s all down to blood sugar levels and your body’s desire to maintain equilibrium at all times….

Your response to stress

When you are subjected to any kind of stress, your adrenal glands send out a cascade of hormones that trigger the release of glucose (sugar) for energy and galvanise the body into action, making sure you are prepared to run from danger or face a challenge.

The stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are a key part of this process – cortisol ensures there is adequate levels of sugar in the blood, while adrenalin fires up your engines ready for action. Insulin also works in tandem with cortisol, unlocking the cell membranes to allow the cells to take up the sugar to be used for energy.

The stress response is very effective in the short term but if stress is continuous or extreme the effects on the body can be extremely detrimental to your health, leading to inflammation, ageing and disease. An unhealthy, erratic diet plays havoc with your blood sugar levels and can place additional stress on the body leaving you anxious, tired, irritable and moody and far less able to cope with daily challenges.

The ideal anti-stress diet

Because cortisol also plays an important role in maintaining blood sugar balance, eating a diet that delivers a slow steady supply of sugar into the circulation throughout the day will reduce the constant demands on this hormone.

Skipping meals and eating the wrong types of foods can keep your blood sugar levels fluctuating wildly which puts undue pressure on your adrenal glands and can exhaust your cortisol supplies. Low levels of cortisol lead to low blood sugar which means your cells cannot function well and you are less able to deal with stress appropriately.

The good news is you can stabilise your blood sugar and keep stress under control easily by focussing your diet on slow releasing carbohydrates, balanced with a serving of good quality protein or healthy vegetable fats as well as avoiding stimulants and foods that quickly raise your blood sugar levels.

Our Top 10 Diet Rules for Stabilising Blood Sugar and Managing Stress

  1. Add protein at each meal – protein slows down the release of sugar into the blood stream. Good quality protein sources include: tofu, beans, meat, poultry, quinoa, amaranth, eggs, pulses, yogurt, cottage cheese, fish and lentils.
  2. Top up on high fibre foods – fibre also slows the absorption of sugar from food, particularly water soluble fibre found in legumes, oat bran, apples, pears and most vegetables.
  3. Never skip meals – eat when you are hungry, a small snack between meals of nuts, seeds or a piece of fruit and a slice of cheese, helps to even out the rate at which sugar is absorbed.
  4. Choose complex carbohydrates – switch from white bread, white flour products, white rice and pasta to wholegrains like oats, brown or basmati rice, wholemeal bread and pasta, vegetables and fruit. These slow releasing carbohyrates help to keep blood sugar levels steady between meals.
  5. Eat lots of veggies and fruit – At least 5 to 10 portions a day. These supply a whole host of important vitamins and minerals that are necessary to support a stress response in the body. Stress itself will increase the need for nutrients so if you are stressed you may already be depleted.
  6. Remove highly processed and sugary foods – clear your cupboards of cakes, biscuits, crisps, chocolate, sweets and pastries. These types of foods are high in sugar which is released very quickly into the blood circulation leading to sharp ‘highs’ and sudden crashes.
  7. Read all food labels – Many processed foods like tomato ketchup, baked beans, low fat products and ready meals contain high levels of hidden sugars.
  8. Include oily fish – these are a good source of omega 3 fatty acids. Insulin action is dependant on sufficient intake of essential fatty acids. Try salmon, mackerel, trout or sardines 1-2 times a week. Walnuts, and grass fed meat and poultry also contain omega 3s.
  9. Cut out caffeine – often stress and fatigue can make caffeine seem very tempting. Unfortunately this disrupts blood sugar balance so that, despite giving an instant energy lift it is quickly followed by an energy crash which may leave you tired, irritable and craving  another quick fix! Coffee and tea both contain caffeine so try alternatives like herbal teas or barley & chicory drinks and don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
  10. Avoid or considerably reduce alcohol – alcohol is both a stimulant and contains lots of sugar. It triggers the release of adrenalin, and produces strong swings in blood sugar levels. Despite feeling as though it relaxes you initially after a stressful day, ultimately it will disturb your sleep leaving you tired and more likely to reach for coffee or sugary snacks.

Key Supportive Nutrients

  • B vitamins – are vital to the health of your adrenal glands. Without enough B vitamins the body simply does not have the energy to respond to the stressors faced each day. Good sources of B complex vitamins include whole grains, beans, poultry, fish, green leafy veg, lentils, nuts, peas and avocados
  • Magnesium – magnesium is an important nutrient for helping both your muscles and your mind to relax and is necessary for the manufacture of insulin.  It is also commonly deficient in people with chronic stress. Eat lots of leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds for a good supply.
  • Chromium – assists with glucose tolerance factor and sensitises the cells to insulin. Broccolli is an excellent source of chromium but it can also be found in much lesser quantities in most food groups
  • Cinnamon – Helps to encourage a normal response to insulin and works well alongside chromium – add it to porridge or herbal drinks to enhance the flavour and sweetness
  • Vitamin C – may be the single most important anti-stress nutrient, helping the adrenals to produce more cortisol and adrenaline. It has also been shown to improve glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes. Another good reason to eat up your fruit and veggies.
  • Adaptogenic herbsrhodiola, ashwagandha and ginseng, support the adrenals and help the body to adapt to stress. They have been traditionally used for fatigue, nervous exhaustion, insomnia and physical and mental stress.
  • Liquorice – is a herb highly regarded for use in supporting adrenal function. It is thought to inhibit the breakdown of cortisol increasing its availability within the body. However, pregnant women and individuals with high blood pressure should avoid liquorice supplementation.
  • Calming herbs – Valerian, hops and passion flower have been used traditionally for centuries to reduce anxiety and encourage restful sleep.

    It doesn’t take long to notice significant changes in your mood and energy levels once you make these changes, so it’s really worth the effort for a stress free life!

    REFERENCES
    Bensky D, Gamble A (1993). Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica. Astland Press:Seattle.
    Gannon M, Nuttall F. Effect of a High Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People with Type 2 Diabetes. Metabolic Research Laboratory, VA Medical Center, Minneapolis.
    Lindhal O & Lindhal L. Double blind study of a valerian preparation. Pharmacol. Biochem Behav. 1989;32 (4), 1065-6.
    Poesnecker GE (1993) Chronic Fatigue unmasked. Humanitarian Publishing Co.
    Swarth J (1992) Nutrition for stress. Foulsham:UK.
    Wilson JL (2001). Adrenal Fatigue, The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Smart Publications: USA.
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Jackie Newson
About the author...
Jackie Newson , BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy, is a nutritional consultant providing dietary analysis for recipes and menu plans and assess nutritional therapy students on line.
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