Since 1992 Stress Awareness has been held every April. What does stress have to do with health and wellness? Everything. It is often an overlooked aspect of taking care of yourself and preventative health but is it absolutely the pivotal point in maintaining your health and wellness. Stress isn’t an emotion, it’s a real physiological state of your body and if you don’t manage it chronic stress can be a pre-cursor to all our modern-day diseases- Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes and even Cancer. Unmanaged stress raises your blood fats, triglycerides, cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation levels, and contributes to obesity. (Read more about how stress affects your body here)
What is Stress Eating:
Many people turn to ‘comfort foods’ when they are stressed. For some, it’s a sweet sugary carb, for others it may be a salty crunchy carb that seems to soothe them. And there is a truth to it, there’s a real scientific reason carbs make you feel better. When you eat a carbohydrate, it is broken down into glucose (sugar) which is released into your blood stream. Simple carbs like candy, white breads, white rice and white pastas, crackers, pretzels, and chips are quickly turned into glucose while complex carbs, because they contain more fiber are a bit more slowly released as glucose into the bloodstream. When glucose (sugar) enters the blood stream the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin rushes out to ‘carry’ the glucose to muscle cells to fuel your muscles or, if your muscles have not been particularly active, the glucose will be stored later for energy in your fat cells. What many people don’t know is that the pancreas also releases serotonin when it releases insulin.
Serotonin is a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that soothes, calms and makes you feel happy and content. When your blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas quickly secretes a spike in both insulin and serotonin to help your body take care of the glucose in your blood (blood sugar). That burst of serotonin is the reason why carbohydrates can be so soothing (and so addicting…). The problem is, with simple carbohydrates your blood sugar spikes very high, very fast and you get a big rush of serotonin, but it falls just as quickly- imagine it like a piece of paper thrown on a fire; it flares up and then fizzles out fast. When you ‘crash’ you feel cranky, depressed and begin seeking more serotonin, so you end up heading to the pantry or fridge to seek out something else to sustain that “feel-good” feeling. This becomes a cycle and can quickly and easily become a habit of ‘stress-eating’. You feel stressed and need something to relax so you naturally gravitate to foods that soothe. Complex carbs, because they contain fiber which slows down the release of the glucose into your blood stream let you enjoy that feel-good feeling for a longer time, so they are a much better go-to for stress-eating than simple carbs.
Below are some foods listed that not only help you lesson the physiological damage that stress can do in the body but will also help to sustain you emotionally and physically so that you don’t grab those simple carbs to soothe yourself.
Foods to help manage Stress
- Dark Chocolate: Good news here! Dark chocolate (a one- ounce square, not the whole bar) can help you manage stress and feel better. Consuming dark chocolate that has a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity and can support cognitive, endocrine and cardiovascular health.
- Complex Carbs: Carbs stimulate serotonin production (Remember- serotonin is the ‘feel-good-happy’ neurotransmitter that is released by the pancreas at the same time insulin is released in response to eating carbs.) If you are feeling very stressed and anxious, go for a dense complex carb like whole grain pasta/bread or a warm bowl of oatmeal. If you add a bit of a healthy fat or lean protein at the same time, it can slow the release even more which gives you a long-sustained release of serotonin and helps keep you calm. Stay away from ‘simple carbs’ like candy, sugar, cake, cookies, white bread, hard rolls, white pasta and white rice which spike your blood sugar and create a roller coaster ride of serotonin making you feel even more stressed and anxious and even depressed.
- Citrus Fruits: Oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes are citrus fruits. Eat the whole fruit, not in the form of juice. The Vitamin C helps boost your immune system which gets suppressed when you are under stress and is also shown to lower stress hormones in the body
- Green Leafy Veggies: Spinach and dark leafy greens are high in magnesium which relaxes muscles that are tense from the stress reaction in the body.
- Fatty Fish, Walnuts, Nuts and Seeds: Wild Salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines as well as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are all high in Omega 3 fats which helps reduce the damage that stress hormones wreak on your cardiovascular system as well as healthy nerve and brain function. These foods reduce inflammation that all those stress hormones cause in the body. Eat a serving of fatty fish 2 X’s per week and make sure to include nuts and seeds in your daily diet. They are an easy and tasty addition to salads and smoothies
- Potassium Rich Foods: Avocados, Bananas, Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, Watermelon, White Beans, Black Beans, Coconut Water, Beets all supply a great source of Potassium. Potassium helps to counteract the rise in blood pressure that can occur with stress.
- Raw Veggies: The secret is in the crunch! One of the best ways to sense your own stress levels is to notice the tension in your face and jaw. Using those muscles to chomp on crunchy raw veggies helps to relax the buildup of tension in the jaw. And the fiber, nutrients and antioxidants are a bonus as you eat them because stress lowers your ability to absorb nutrients. Flooding your system while you relax tense muscles is a great way to improve what you can absorb from the food.
- Sleep inducers: If you are under stress it may impair your quality and quantity of sleep. A light complex carb before bedtime can boost serotonin and help you fall asleep and stay asleep. A low-fat or non- fat dairy like a glass of skim milk can help boost calcium levels and is known to reduce anxiety.
Chronic long-term stress damages your body is so many ways. Your adrenal glands (the ones that secrete your stress hormones) can get very fatigued under chronic stress making you feel chronically tired, depressed, anxious and lethargic but also insidiously damaging your cardiovascular system and cell function as well as drastically reducing your immunity and cranking up inflammation in the body. This soup is from Dolores S. Downey’s seminars “Balancing Body Chemistry with Nutrition”. It supports your adrenals and helps reduce the detrimental effects of stress in the body. It is known to have a very calming effect on the body. It’s easy to make and freeze and use as needed. It is known as Taz Soup and is widely acclaimed for help with chronic stress.
Taz Soup for Stress
- 16 oz. green beans
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 cup tomato juice
- 1 cup spring water
- 2 tbsp. raw honey
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 1 cup chicken broth
- Combine ingredients and simmer for one hour until vegetables are tender. Pepper to taste.
Stress is an unavoidable part of our lives, but how we respond and react to it makes all the difference in our health and well-being. Eating foods that support our body in positive ways to counteract stress is a good way to help manage the deleterious effects that stress can have.
By: Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach