You INCREASE Stress or DECREASE Stress with Your Food Choices
By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
May 11, 2021
I love a good food acronym. Around this time last year, when we were all adapting to the new COVID normal, I came across a presentation about the stress response. The presenter shared that for something to cause a stress response, it must meet at least one of the following factors1:
N = novel
U = unpredictable
T = threat to ego
S = sense of control (really, lack thereof)
Raise your hand if this sums up the last 14 months in your or your family’s life!
Now a question: what have you done to combat the NUTS in your life? Have you made time to meditate? Did you pull out the yoga mat gathering dust in the closet? Do you make it a priority to go for a stroll in nature? Have you made some standing appointments with a massage therapist (or maybe a mental health therapist)? Do you take time away from your phone or social media?
When we think about stress-relief and self-care, these are some of the common practices we gravitate toward and each of these certainly have their own merit. As dietitians and nutritionists (and you, the dedicated blog reader!), we are always aware of how nutrition can also influence stress, for better or worse. As author Dr. Leslie Korn says in her book, “There is no doubt that nutrition affects mental health.” What we put on the end of our fork is one of the most powerful biochemical influences in our body. By extension, this also means we have the capacity to INCREASE stress or to DECREASE stress with our food choices.
Here are some of the basic ways that foods impact our stress level:
- Blood Sugar Balance: When I work with nutrition counseling clients, I tell them we’re aiming for “rolling hills” blood sugar, not a rollercoaster. Our bodies go to great lengths to keep the sugar in our blood at a steady level. When our blood sugar is steady, we FEEL steady, focused, patient, adaptive to change (and yes stress). On the flip side, Dr. Korn in her book says, “Mood swings follow blood sugar swings.” Big inflections in blood sugar are a stress to the body and change the way we act, leaving you feeling out of control. This is what we call a blood sugar rollercoaster. Too much sugar in the blood too many times or for too long is toxic (imagine your cells swimming in syrup) and comes from eating or drinking too much sugar or too many carbohydrates. Too little sugar in the blood represents starvation and sends a panicked message to the brain to find food NOW. Dr. Korn points out that many signs of low blood sugar look like signs of stress: anxiousness, worry, irritability, shakiness, brain fog, panic attacks. Low blood sugar often follows a blood sugar spike or can result from eating a low-fat or calorie-restricted diet or going too long without food.
- Magnesium: I’ve said this before, but if there was a favorite mineral, mine would be magnesium. I always describe magnesium as THE relaxation mineral. We can get in a vicious cycle if we’re not careful about maintaining our magnesium levels. Let me explain, mental and physical stresses deplete us of magnesium faster than normal.2 Magnesium deficiency, in turn, enhances the stress response. Getting rid of things that deplete us of magnesium (high sugar/processed carb diet, antacids, chronic loose bowel movements, excessive exercise) will help slow this loss, while eating foods rich in magnesium (nuts & seeds, dark leafy greens, avocadoes) will help replete our tissues. Most clients may benefit to supplement with 400-600mg of Magnesium Glycinate as part of their bedtime routine.
- Gut Health: We have a common saying in our lexicon “I feel it in my gut” or “I have a gut feeling.” Is it any surprise then that the health of our gut impacts our mental health and stress level (and vice versa)? If we are not digesting our food well (meaning your gut isn’t working properly), we are lacking in protein and fiber intake, or we take medications that impair our gut function, over time we deplete our neurotransmitters that are produced in the gut. Many of our neurotransmitters help us feel calm, cool, and collected. When we lack the materials to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, we can suffer the effects by feeling stressed, depressed, “hamster wheel brain”, moody, and unable to sleep. For some clients, eating fermented foods or taking a good quality probiotic is all they need. Bifido Balance is a great place to start and Biotic 7 is a good option if you’ve taken probiotics before. For others with chronic digestive issues, relief may come from a multifaceted approach of an anti-inflammatory diet, supplements, and mindfulness practices.
Do you need some practical places to start putting this information to good use? Check out a few of these resources or cut through the clutter and schedule a virtual appointment with one of our excellent nutritionists or dietitians. Nutrition truly has the power to change how we respond to our life especially as we can’t always control what kind of NUTS life throws at us.
For more information on food’s impact on stress and vice versa, check out these resources:
- Read: 3 Ways Parents (Anyone!) Can Lower Stress + 2 Supplements For Extra Stress Support
- Inspire: “My anxiety and depression are gone, and I’m able to manage stress more easily.” – McKayla’s Story
- Online Class: Stress, Food & You
- Listen: Nutrition & Mental Health