Stress and food: is there a link?

What do you reach for when you’re stressed out? A glass of wine? Chocolate? A bowl of ice-cream?

Andre Hill

Andre Hill

When you’re stressed you may be tempted to reach for anything but healthy, nutritious foods. Sometimes those poor food choices can make a stressful day even worse.

So, what is the link between stress and diet? When you’re under chronic stress, your body needs to mobilise energy for fuel which requires more B vitamins and vitamin C; your body also has to make more stress hormones.

Because of this influence on hormone levels, stress can make you crave foods; it can make you overeat; it can even make you gain weight.

So there is a lot of truth to the fact that if you are fueling your body properly during the day, you have more energy – mentally and physically – and you’re better able to handle stress.

Stress inducing foods:

Alcohol: Despite the fact that people may have a drink to relieve stress, alcohol actually stimulates the body’s stress response by releasing various stress hormones in the body. Alcohol can also interfere with sleep which can make a stressful day seem even more exhausting. If you must drink during stressful periods, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day.

Caffeine: Like stress, caffeine can also boost the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the body. If you have high blood pressure, the combined effects of caffeine and stress are additive resulting in larger increases in cortisol and blood pressure. Avoiding caffeine is a good idea if you are under stress – especially if you have high blood pressure. As a healthier alternative, try herbal teas or switch to decaf coffee.

Sweets: Without a doubt, a stressful day can make passing the vending machine or cookies at work that much more difficult, especially if they are just lying around! Sweets and other sugary foods cause rapid spikes in the blood sugar which lead to a low blood sugar reaction – hunger; fatigue; irritability; headache. This effect on your blood sugar creates more stress for the body and increases cortisol levels. Snacking on healthier, low-glycemic snacks like yogurt, apples, almonds, and whole-grain crackers with hummus will provide better fuel for your body and help support a much more controlled blood sugar throughout your stressful day.

Stress reliving foods:

Bananas: Bananas are an excellent source of vitamin B6, a nutrient needed to make serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter) that can help ease psychological stress. Enjoy a banana with a tablespoon of nut butter or yogurt as a mid-morning or afternoon snack.

Avocados: As a great source of potassium, avocados can help keep blood pressure healthy. Half an avocado actually supplies more potassium than a banana! So, if you want a high-fat snack when you’re stressed have some guacamole with a few tortilla chips (or better yet, red bell pepper strips – read on to find out why!)

Spinach: Spinach is a great source of magnesium, which is needed to help regulate levels of cortisol in the body. Most of us don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, so adding spinach, as well as figs, lentils, and black beans can be a great way to boost this important nutrient in the body when under stress!

Red pepper: This is one of the top sources of vitamin C – half a cup of red pepper supplies more vitamin C than an orange! Increasing your intake of vitamin C can help keep your immune system healthy, which can help lower the risk of getting sick when under stress.

Black tea: Studies show that drinking tea can actually help you better recover from stressful events. Studies show that four cups of tea per day can lower cortisol levels and help you feel calmer. What more could you ask for when you’re stressed out?

Exercise: Although exercise is not a food, regular physical activity like brisk walking, swimming, and yoga can do wonders for relieving stress while also keeping both mind and body healthy.

Despite the fact that people may have a drink to relieve stress, alcohol actually stimulates the body’s stress response by releasing various stress hormones in the body.