- Where does stress come from?
- How does stress impact the body?
- What foods can provide stress support?
Stress affects over 74% of the UK population (1) and it is perhaps unsurprising that stress related illnesses are on the rise.
The cost of stress related illnesses is estimated to be over £10 billion.
This, coupled with the burden of a struggling healthcare system, has led to an increased demand for advice and solutions to relieve stress.
It is becoming clear that food and nutrients can influence the effects of stress and in particular some foods can be supportive for stress relief.
We always take an evidence-based approach and aim to provide you with actionable knowledge and tips to help you on your journey to optimal health.
In this article we take a look at what stress is, its impact on the body and our top 8 foods for stress relief.
What constitutes stress really depends on each individual person.
Some people find the smallest things can cause them stress whilst others may not respond in the same way.
Perception of stress can be very different and people most affected by stress can find even day to day activities a stress rather than a challenge.
The body is constantly exposed to challenges and the adrenal glands are designed to allow adaptation to these challenges.
The stress reaction, also called the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, helps to keep us from danger and triggers hormones to prepare the body to respond.
Stress can accumulate, and several small challenges may build up until there is ‘overwhelm’ - where everything seems to much to manage and feels ‘out of control’.
The table below gives an idea of where stressors come from.
It is easy to see that several factors can contribute to stress and it can build up over time which can lead to health issues.
Type of stressor
Trouble with relationships, isolation, financial pressures, work pressures, lack of social interaction, lack of purpose or direction in life.
Fear, anxiety, frustration, personal loss, anger, excitement, sadness.
Intense exercise, excess heat or cold, injuries, illness, sleep deprivation, heavy manual labour, surgery, infection, physical trauma.
Electromagnetic fields, noise, blue light from devices such as TVs, eBook readers, smartphones, laptops, desk top computers.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, food allergies and intolerances, excess sugar, high intake of processed food, caffeine.
Poor water quality, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and colours, pesticides and fertilisers, nicotine, chemicals in cleaning products and cosmetics and toiletries.
The trouble with the modern world is that we are exposed to constant sources of stimulation which the brain has to interpret as a threat or not.
A highly stimulated stress response can have significant effects within the body.
Chronic stress causes a release of inflammatory chemicals and leads to increased inflammation and a situation called oxidative stress (2).
This is where there is an imbalance between damaging molecules, called free radicals, and natural body defences to neutralise their effects.
Oxidative stress is linked to a whole host of conditions including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Stress impacts many areas in the body including the immune system, the brain, reproductive system and the digestive system.
This explains why there are diverse symptoms associated with stress including:
- Menstrual irregularities
- Mood issues
- Aches and pains
- Poor sleep
- Digestive disturbances
- High blood pressure
- Frequent colds and infections
Quite often when talking about stress relief there is a focus on what NOT to do.
Although this is important for reducing the impact of poor choices and behaviours on your stress levels, it is also beneficial to know which foods are going to help your body to deal with stress more effectively.
Let’s take a look at our top 8 stress supportive foods:
Tuna, mackerel, sardines, pilchards, salmon, trout and herring are good protein sources.
Protein is essential for stress relief as it helps to slow digestion and the release of energy from food.
This supports blood sugar balance which is a key step in combating stress.
The adrenal glands play a role in blood sugar imbalances and keeping an even blood sugar takes pressure off the adrenals.
Eating 2-3 portions of oily fish a week provides not only good protein but also omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids help the body better adapt to stress hormones (3) and are used in the body to make important anti-inflammatory molecules (4), therefore helping with the inflammatory side of stress.
Another great protein source, eggs have a very high biological value - this defines how much of the protein can be absorbed and used in the body.
Protein not only helps to keep you fuller for longer but is also used for making immune cells, enzymes and hormones as well as contributing building blocks for vital mood influencing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Eggs can have a powerful effect on blood sugar and studies show that eggs for breakfast can improve blood sugar control, insulin levels and regulate hunger hormones (7) which can help prevent over eating later in the day.
This can also help to reduce sugar cravings that frequently accompany stress.
Meat and poultry that have been reared in an organic way on green pastures differ from grain fed animals.
Not only are the standards of welfare better but the meat is GM free, lower in hormones and antibiotic residues and there is less exposure to pesticides as only 4 pesticides are permitted for use in organic farming.
As good sources of protein, grass fed beef and chicken also show differences in essential fatty acids compared to those fed grains.
Grass fed animals contain higher levels of omega-3 fats, important for tackling inflammation, response to stress hormones and mood.
In addition, it is a good source of the mineral chromium - vital for good blood sugar control.
Chromium also plays a role in how the body responds to insulin (9).
Choosing grass fed meat and poultry can be an important step in tackling stress related blood sugar imbalances.
Aim to eat it no more than once or twice a week alongside oily fish, white fish and eggs.
Oats are a rich source of soluble fibre which supports gut functioning and bowel health.
As a complex carbohydrate, energy is released slowly from oats helping to prevent blood sugar ‘dips’ and cravings for sweet foods.
Oats also contain good levels of the mineral chromium, further supporting better blood sugar balance.
Swapping highly refined, white cereals and goods for whole grains like oats provides not only blood sugar balance but also vital stress busting vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and magnesium, as these are usually contained in the bran and germ of the kernel, which are discarded during processing to make refined foods.
Almond are rich in protein, fibre and the mineral magnesium.
When it comes to stress support magnesium is a key mineral.
It is used in a variety of different reactions in the body and is a co-factor for the synthesis of adrenal hormones. In times of high stress, or chronic stress, it can be used up readily (10).
Adding ground almonds to smoothies, breakfast, home baked breads or eating whole almonds can contribute to better blood sugar and stress relief.
Symptoms associated with stress, like insomnia and fatigue, may also be linked to low magnesium levels (11).
‘Eat your greens’ is a common phrase heard in childhood and is wise advice.
Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, kale, cabbage, turnip greens and swiss chard are all rich in a variety of stress supportive nutrients.
One hundred grams of cooked spinach gives almost 100mg of magnesium.
Spinach is versatile and easy to add to sauces, stews, smoothies and juices.
It forms a great basis for a salad and works well with eggs for a nutrient rich breakfast.
Dark green leafies are also rich in antioxidants like vitamin C and carotenoids that help fight damage in the body from the free radicals produced in times of stress.
Adding a little olive oil or coconut oil when cooking them allows for better absorption of the fat-soluble nutrients.
Seeds are powerful in nutritional terms - bear in mind they contain enough nutrients to start growing an entire plant.
Eating a variety of seeds can increase intake of a wide range of nutrients that can be supportive during stressful periods.
Flax and sesame seeds contain lignans which can help support female hormone balance.
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are rich in vitamin E, zinc and magnesium, offering protective antioxidants and immune support.
Incorporating a daily dose of seeds in your diet isn’t as hard as you may think, as well as simply eating a handful on their own, they can make great salad toppers, blend well into smoothies, complement apples and pears as a snack and can be used to make a nutrient dense date, nut and seed bar.
Ensure you keep a variety of seeds, so you get full benefit from a range of nutrients.
The familiar sweet smell of cinnamon comes from essential oils within the bark which is rich in polyphenol antioxidants.
Evidence is showing that cinnamon helps with blood sugar regulation and can improve insulin sensitivity (12).
In Ayurvedic medicine cinnamon oil or cinnamon tea is used traditionally to aid digestive imbalances.
Around 1-6 grams a day, about a teaspoon, can be added to breakfasts or smoothies.
Use Ceylon cinnamon rather than the more common Cassia version as it is lower in coumarin which over the long term may be toxic to the liver and kidneys.
Making conscious choices on the types of foods eaten during times of stress can lower the negative impact stress can have.
Adding in psychological support by regularly committing to calming activities like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and creative hobbies can give further stress relief.
If you are experiencing chronic stress and would like to know more about factors that may be playing a role, a one to one consultation with an experienced practitioner can provide you with accurate functional testing and a personalised programme to help you tackle stress head on.
We are dedicated to providing insightful, evidence based and actionable content.
Did you find this article useful?
Have you tackled stress through food?
Please share your experiences, we'd love to hear from you.
Kelly Rose DipION FdSc VN
READ THIS NEXT: