Stress: The Food Friends and Foes

BY Christal Sczebel, C.H.N., Nutritionist in the Kitch


Ah, stress. Our bodies need it to function, but, far too often this necessary stress becomes overwhelming or chronic and leaves us feeling exhausted, anxious, irritable, depressed, or all of the above. Not only does chronic stress affect our mood and performance but it can lead to weight gain or the inactivity to lose weight despite our best efforts.

When stress occurs on a consistent basis from many factors in our life creating chronic stress there is a hormonal cycle which occurs that can damage the adrenal glands (the glands that regulate stress hormones in our bodies), leading to more stress, and further cortisol overproduction. This vicious cycle can ultimately lead to fatigued adrenals, blood sugar issues, and increased body fat.

I myself am no stranger to the negative effects of high stress levels and have had to learn how to manage my stress through diet, exercise, and saying “No” in the kindest way possible! It’s a work in progress, but the more I learn, the better I become at overall stress management. Remember, practice makes progress!

When it comes to nutrition, food can definitely be a friend or foe for managing stress and keeping the cortisol cycle at bay. Let’s look at the some Stress Busting Foods and how they help our bodies combat the negative effects of stress as well as the two main Stress Inducing Foods to limit.

Stress Busting Foods:

1. Oranges - These juicy sweet fruits are loaded with Vitamin C, which is one of the main vitamins essential for healthy adrenal gland function. Our adrenal glands are the stress hormone regulators of the body and can suffer when we are under chronic stress. Giving the body a steady boost of Vitamin C found in oranges can help counteract the burden on the adrenals.

2. Turkey - We have all heard that turkey makes us sleepy, and while that might be slightly true, it’s actually a relaxing effect which is from the amino acid L-Tryptophan which is plentiful in turkey. L-Tryptophan increases the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in our body which can reduce irritability or a depressed mood from chronic stress.

3. Spinach - One of my favourite leafy greens! Spinach is loaded with Folate, a B Vitamin that increases dopamine (another feel-good neurotransmitter like serotonin) produced by the body. B Vitamins are also depleted when the body is under chronic stress so ensuring you are getting adequate food sources of Vitamin B, like spinach, can keep those B Vitamins at healthy levels!

4. Wild Salmon - This oily and delicious fish is full of Omega-3 Fatty Acids which have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Because chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body resulting in joint pain, muscle tension, and cognitive issues like brain fog and poor memory, salmon can help to counteract this health-hindering inflammation.

5. Dark Chocolate - Who doesn’t reach for the chocolate when stressed?! Well, that might not actually be a bad thing… in moderation of course. High quality dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa) made with unrefined sugars is full of antioxidants which combat the negative effects of chronic stress in the body. So yes, pass (one or two squares of) the chocolate!

Stress Inducing Foods:

1. Refined Sugars - Aside from tasting delicious, refined sugars, provide us with nothing beneficial, especially during periods of stress. When refined sugars are consumed we can experience big fluctuations in blood sugar levels which lend to mood swings, energy lows, irritability, and the inability to cope with stress. While we may want to naturally reach for sugar when we are stressed it’s better to go with naturally sweet foods like yogurt with berries, an apple with cinnamon, or a piece of (high quality 70% + ) dark chocolate!

2. Caffeine - …and all the coffee drinkers are instantly angry with me… I know, but hear me out! Caffeine, in moderation can be fine for many people, one cup of joe a day might be just what the doctor ordered for you, but caffeine also becomes a stress inducer when it it is consumed in large amounts (more than 500ml per day). A higher intake can stimulate the surge of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, which intensifies the physical stress response in the body and can lend to its chronic nature. Also, if you are an anxiety-prone individual or someone who is often always feeling “stressed-out”, caffeine will only serve to perpetuate those symptoms.

What Else Can You Do To Kick Stress In The Butt?

While our diet does play a big role in our ability to deal with stress as well as combat the effects of stress on our bodies, a healthy diet alone will not solve chronic stress.

One of the best ways to kick stress in the butt is targeting it directly at the roots!

If you feel constantly overwhelmed, burdened, and weighed down by the amount of stress in your life (I’ve been there too!) it is so very important to look at what the sources of your stress are and take action. What can be changed? Can you pull back in areas of your life and do less? Can you cut down on commitments? Are you always saying Yes to please others when you really just want to say No? Do you set unrealistic expectations for yourself? I encourage you to honour your health and learn about setting healthy boundaries which is a key component to stress management.

If something cannot be changed about a situation, then changing perspective is always a good start. Our thoughts are powerful and while we may find ourselves overly stressed due to circumstances out of our control, intentional positive thinking is a very real and useful tool for keeping stress levels at bay!

As GorgoGirls we are strong, but we also have our (necessary) limits. Knowing and respecting those limits is essential to our overall health. Let’s always remember to make time for work, play, and rest!