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Is Your Diet Making You Feel More Stress?
Traffic jams, bills, deadlines, screaming children, nit-picky bosses – all these and countless other factors can cause stress in our daily lives. But what if your diet was also to blame for raising your stress levels? What if by avoiding certain foods you could actually reduce anxiety and feel calmer and more at peace? Check out what researchers are now saying about how the food you eat impacts your body’s stress levels…
1 – What is Stress?
While stress is generally thought of as a negative effect of unpleasant circumstances in our lives, the fact is that all stress isn’t bad. So what is stress exactly? Stress can be anything that challenges or threatens us. Actually, any stimulus that causes stress is called a “stressor” and stress itself is that feeling you get when you’re faced with pressures or challenges to your well-being.
Humans often react with a fight or flight response when facing major stressors. This fight or flight response is actually how the sympathetic nervous system reacts. Larger amounts of the “stress hormones” cortisol and adrenaline (more on that later) are released causing accelerated heart rate, heightened alertness, and muscle preparedness.
These physiological changes can be beneficial when in a survival situation and can even help in routinely stressful situations. But when the body continually experiences the other side of the fight or flight response, such as the slowing down of the immune and digestive systems – this can take a toll.
2 – How the “Stress Hormones” Work
Stressors set off alarms in your body that led to the release of certain hormones. The three major stress hormones are cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is a steroid produced by the adrenal glands. As part of the fight/flight response, cortisol can be very helpful. But too much cortisol increases blood pressure, suppresses the immune system, and can even decrease sex-drive and cause weight gain.
Adrenaline is also produced by the adrenal glands and causes an increase in heart rate. Norepinephrine serves a similar role as adrenaline as it makes you more responsive and focused. While both of these hormones can be beneficial, it can take your body days to return to its natural state once these hormones have been released. When these hormones are released over and over again in a short time period it can wear down the immune system and cause exhaustion.
3 – Can Food Relieve Stress?
So what does all of this have to do with food? The foods that you eat actually have an effect on both how much stress you feel and how well your body handles stress. Diet is a major component in overall body health. And just like certain foods can lower or raise your risk of health complications and disease, the foods you eat can either help you or hurt when it comes to dealing with stress.
Switching to a healthier diet is a good step for anyone seeking to reduce stress and improve the body’s reactions to stressors. But even if you already eat healthy, you still might not be getting all of the vitamins and minerals you need to max out your body’s ability to deal with stressful situations.
Check out this list of foods that combat stress:
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Many fresh fruits and vegetables help the body handle stress. Leafy greens like spinach aid your body in balancing healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Oranges and other citrus fruits are high in vitamin C which helps slow down the body’s production of cortisol. A study conducted by the University of Alabama found that lab rats given a vitamin C supplement and faced with a stressful event had lower levels of cortisol than normal.
Oily fish – like salmon, mackerel and sardines – contain lots of omega 3 fatty acids which help to lower stress levels in the body. According to a study done by Ohio State University researchers, test subjects given omega 3 supplements experienced a 20 percent drop in anxiety when dealing with stressful situations compared to test subjects who did not take the supplements. And another study conducted in France showed that omega 3 fatty acids keep adrenaline and cortisol levels from peaking.
That’s right; one of nature’s most deliciously addictive foods can also help relieve stress. Dark chocolate is chock-full of flavoniods – natural relaxers that may ease feelings of anxiety. Chocolate also contains the mood-enhancing chemical phenethylamine. Eating just a small amount of dark chocolate daily can lower cortisol levels. Nestle researches found during a two-week study that subjects given daily chocolate experienced decreases in cortisol levels.
Nuts are a great healthy food source that helps you combat stress better. Almonds are packed with vitamin B2 and magnesium. Vitamin B2 and magnesium both aid in serotonin production, helping to relieve stress by regulating mood. Walnuts have been shown to help those with high adrenaline levels by lowering blood pressure levels. Other tips to help your body handle stress better are drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep at night. You can also eat regularly – about every four hours – in order to keep your body’s metabolism going.
4 – So Which Foods Trigger Stress the Most?
We’ve discussed how hormones in the body cause higher levels of stress and what foods can help you handle stress better. But what about the foods you should avoid? Some foods that can raise stress levels or impede your body’s ability to handle stress are listed below.
Coffee and Energy Drinks
Coffee contains the neuro-stimulants caffeine and theo-bromine. These stimulants put your body on edge making it less capable of finding balance in stressful situations. Energy drinks, of course, also contain caffeine as well as lots of sugar. Sugar crashes can leave you feeling tired and grumpy and less able to deal with stress.
While the idea of having one stiff drink to calm the nerves is popular, alcohol can actually increase stress levels. According to a study done in 2008 and published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism alcohol stimulates cortisol release. Steering clear of alcoholic beverages for the most part may lead to lower stress levels.
It’s common to be tempted to grab a sugary snack when feeling anxious or stressed about something. In fact, raised cortisol levels bring on sugar cravings. But trying to relieve stress by eating sugary foods can backfire. According to a University of South Florida study, lab rats fed diets high in sugar had higher levels of stress when faced with the same stimuli as rats on low-sugar diets.
In general a diet of fast food, sugar, and alcoholic and caffeinated drinks will trigger more stress-inducing hormones and inhibit your body’s natural ability to deal with stress. On the other hand, you can help your body deal with stress more effectively with a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and nuts. The old saying ‘you are what you eat” still holds true. So a change in diet could mean a more peaceful and relaxed you.
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