Stress is part and parcel of life and in balance can actually be healthy. It keeps us motivated, helps us get out of bed in the morning and can be a good warning sign that things aren’t working for us in our current everyday lives, and encourages us to make positive changes. 

However, what happens when we simply can’t turn that switch off and stress turns into something chronic? 

Our body has a very efficient way of dealing with stress. We release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which raise our blood pressure and heart rate and shift glucose from the liver into our bloodstream, ready for our muscles to use. This is also known as the “flight or fight” response in our nervous system, which gears us up for exactly that: fight or flight. It’s the opposite to the “rest and digest”, which is associated with metabolising and assimilating the nutrients in the food we eat, as well as regenerating and repairing cells. 

Our prehistoric bodies aren’t made for chronic stress

Despite this intelligent stress response, our prehistoric bodies are not used to being in a constant state of stress, which depletes our body of vital nutrients, such as B vitamins and magnesium, that are necessary for optimal health. The constant elevation of cortisol and adrenaline, our body’s stress hormones, can lead to prolonged levels of inflammation, as well as weakening of the immune system’s defences. 

Poor dietary habits are also sources of stress

In addition, our nutrition and diet also contributes to increased stress levels and illness. While simple carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine give us energy in the short term, in the longer term they lead to constant adrenal overload, i.e stress. As a consequence of chronic stress and poor dietary choices, a growing number of people are suffering from anxiety disorders, panic attacks, low mood, insomnia, chronic fatigue and stress-related weight gain.  

How stressed are you?

There are some key dietary strategies we recommend anyone undergoing chronic stress tries. But first, we have a simple test you can take for you to get an idea of your stress levels:

  • Is your energy less now than it used to be?
  • Do you feel guilty when relaxing?
  • Do you have a persistent need for achievement?
  • Are you unclear about your goals in life?
  • Are you especially competitive?
  • Do you work harder than most people?
  • Do you become angry easily?
  • Do challenging situations trigger anxiety or panic?
  • Do you find it hard to think straight under pressure?
  • Do you often try to do two or three tasks simultaneously?
  • Do you find it hard to relax or switch off?
  • Do you avoid exercise because you feel too tired?
  • Do you get impatient if people or situations hold you up?
  • Do you have difficulty getting to sleep, or staying asleep?
  • Do you wake up feeling tired?

If you answer yes to five or more, that’s a fair indication you’re highly stressed. The higher your score, the greater the negative impact of stress on your life. 

We know that chronic stress has dire long-term health consequences, increasing risk for heart disease by five times and doubling the risk for obesity, dementia and diabetes. 

So it’s not something we can ignore or let take over our lives. 

Dietary recommendations to improve stress management

There are also some simple dietary changes you can follow to support stress levels; of upmost importance is to eat correctly in order to keep blood sugar levels balanced, as dips can trigger production of stress hormones and lead to an energy deficit in the brain.

The brain requires steady blood sugar levels

The human brain weighs just 2% of an average body’s weight, however it is the organ that demands the most energy in the human body. The brain’s preferred source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar that most of our food gets broken down into to create a sort of energy currency in our body. 

A whole 20% of the glucose traveling round our body gets directed to the brain and its functions. 

So now you can imagine why our brain is so sensitive to fluctuations in our blood sugar levels, and this gets even worse when chronic stress is in the picture. 

Chronically elevated cortisol levels due to poorly managed stress, triggers an increase in blood sugar levels as our body prepares itself for “fight or flight”. This is why it’s even more important to stabilise our blood sugar levels when we are chronically stressed to avoid further anxiety and mood swings. 

Below are a few top tips to eat for less stress and to balance blood sugar:

  • Eat three meals a day and never skip breakfast – This helps you keep your blood sugar even. Blood sugar dips either from not eating or as a rebound after eating something too sweet or starchy, which triggers adrenaline release, and hence stress.
  • Eat protein with every meal – For example, eggs, plain natural yoghurt, smoked salmon or kippers with your breakfast; and meat, fish, eggs, dairy foods, or pulses combined with wholegrains for your lunch and supper. This will help to sustain your energy levels.
  • Choose slow-releasing carbohydrates rather than refined foods Opt for brown rice, whole grain bread, quinoa and oatcakes (avoid processed and white equivalents)
  • Reduce your dependence on stimulants – ie. coffee, tea, energy drinks and cigarettes. Rather than giving you energy, these deplete energy over time, and contribute to blood sugar imbalances.
  • Snack preemptively – if you know you have an energy dip before lunch and around 4pm, have a snack mid-morning and again mid-afternoon. Avoid sugar-loaded treats and instead opt for energy-sustaining fresh fruit and nuts, an oatcake with some cheese, nut butter, paté or hummus.

We hope you find these tips useful. However, if you’re experiencing frequent panic attacks, chronic anxiety and depression, it may be worth seeking some personalised support with an integrative mental health practitioner that can also advise you on your diet. 

Please head to our ‘Seeking Help’ page for more information on organisations and networks you can reach out to.