Stress is a somewhat inevitable part of life. At one point or another everyone will feel stressed-out, whether it’s due to work, kids, money or other personal issues.
According to a study from the Mental Health Foundation, a whopping three quarters (74%) of people have felt so stressed they have been “overwhelmed or unable to cope”.
The pandemic has only amplified these feelings, with Office for National Statistics (ONS) data from 2020 finding that coronavirus has “significantly increased” the percentage of people who reported high levels of stress and anxiety.
While many people will automatically assume the only way to overcome stress might be therapy and/or medication, your diet can actually have a really big impact on your mental wellbeing.
Recent evidence has revealed that good nutrition is essential for mental health and that a number of mental health conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety could actually be influenced and controlled by dietary factors.
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While many of us reach for food in times of stress, instead of grabbing an unhealthy sugar fix that will inevitably leave you feeling crashed and burned later it is actually possible to opt for foods that can actually help relieve your stress.
“Food can be one of your biggest allies (or indeed enemies) when it comes to stress levels,” explains Elizabeth Stewart, registered associate nutritionist at www.Vitl.com.
“Sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed carbohydrates, alcohol, caffeine and smoking are all typically well known for spiking stress (both on a cell and a mental level); meaning increased oxidative stress of our cells, more mood swings, greater stress, and an overall stressed-out body and mind.”
However, there are foods out there that can help to combat increased oxidative stress which may lead to release of everyday stress levels.
As well as being an excellent source of vitamin B6, garlic is packed full of vitamin C and other minerals, such as calcium, potassium, iron and copper.
“However, it’s actually the sulphur compounds found in garlic that help to increase levels of glutathione in the body,” Stewart explains. “Glutathione is the antioxidant that helps form your body’s first line of defence against oxidative stress, caused by diets high in fat, sugar, processed foods and smoking.”
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Blueberries are well known for being a superfood, and rightly so. The concentrated antioxidants in blueberries head into a stressed-out brain faster than a large sauvignon.
“When our bodies are suffering from the physical effects of stress, vitamin C is essential to help protect and repair our cells, and blueberries are jam-packed with vitamin C and bursting with antioxidants,” Stewart exlains.
One study reveals that vitamin C may help reduce the levels of stress hormones found in the blood, and also helps to keep the adrenal glands from becoming overly enlarged.
Rich in vitamin B6, chickpeas are great for helping to manufacture serotonin; known as the 'feel good' chemical that transmits messages between nerve cells that's believed to act as a mood stabiliser.
“Chickpeas provide both tryptophan and slow-burning carbs, which make a great combination for reducing stress,” explains Stewart. “Chickpeas also contain a large amount of folate – a B vitamin that helps regulate mood.”
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Broccoli is a powerhouse of a vegetable containing vitamins that help replenish our bodies in times of stress.
“Like many other green leafy vegetables, broccoli is packed with vitamins and also contains B vitamins and folic acid, which help to relieve stress, control blood pressure and keep on top of cortisol levels,” Stewart adds.
In times of stress, reach for the chocolate. Just make sure it is dark.
“Dark chocolate is very rich in magnesium (64mg in a 28g bar). When we’re stressed, magnesium depletes quite dramatically, which can lead to fatigue, anxiety and even insomnia in some extreme cases,” explains Stewart.
Need further proof science is giving you permission to grab a bar? Research conducted in 2014 found that consuming 40g of dark chocolate over a two-week period was an effective way to reduce perceived stress in females.
Avocados sometimes get bad press because they are high in fat, but it's the monounsaturated kind and it is these 'good' fats, coupled with high levels of potassium, that give the popular fruit stress-busting status.
“Rich in B vitamins, particularly B5, avocados can help support normal functioning of the adrenal glands,” explains Stewart.
“The fatty acids found in avocados are necessary to produce the hormones the adrenal glands are responsible for.”
Mussels, clams and oysters are all high in amino acids – one of which being taurine, which has been studied for its mood-boosting properties.
“The chemical compound is also needed to produce dopamine, essential for regulating the body’s response to stress,” Stewart adds.
A source of probiotics that look after the gut, Greek yoghurt helps it to function at its best.
“The gut requires a rich microflora of varied bacteria strains to help you process and digest the food you eat,” Stewart explains. “This microflora can be affected by a number of things, including stress, illness, a lack of sleep and even anxiety.”
Stewart says the gut microbiome influences your body’s reactions as it’s linked to your brain through the vagus nerve; a long bundle of fibres that runs throughout your whole body that speak to your enteric nervous system.
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Sweet potatoes help to lower cortisol, the hormone produced by the adrenal glands which trigger the stress response in the body.
“They’re also rich in magnesium and vitamin B3, reducing tiredness and fatigue which, on top of stress, can be very difficult to deal with,” Stewart adds.
A recent study conducted by a team of researchers in 2019 found that taking 2.5g of omega 3 (or 340g – 425g of salmon) can reduce stress by more than 20%.
“The omega 3 in salmon can reduce inflammation and promote healthy blood flow, both of which are compromised if you’re suffering from chronic stress,” Stewart explains.