The stress mind-body loop: Nutrition and lifestyle strategies to break it - Food for the Brain

Stress is a human adaptive response involving complex, yet fascinating physiological and psychological mechanisms

Stress has been designed for our daily survival as species, however, when stress becomes the only response we can lean on to live our lives we may find ourselves trapped in a loop with detrimental effects to our overall health and wellbeing.

Exposure to intense, repetitive and prolonged stress (chronic stress) tells our bodies and minds to continue to respond with stress, even when the stressful event is no longer present. Our bodies will not only adapt to cope with higher levels of stress, but will also continue to release hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that keep this adaptive physical response or continuous loop going. 

This stress mind-body loop can feed an endless list of physical and mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, insomnia, IBS, depression and anxiety, but it can also impact our nutritional status, i.e. the essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to survive and thrive.

Stress can lead to prolonged release of the stress hormone cortisol, impacting the ability of our brains and adrenal glands to regulate it. In turn, excessive cortisol creates inflammation and weakens our immune system.

Nonetheless, stress responses are a key part of our body’s ability to self-regulate and bring itself to a state of homeostasis. Think about stress as a continuum, varying from positive stress-resilient responses to negative ill-health stress responses. As we navigate through this continuum day by day, nutrition and lifestyle can become one of our best allies in helping to minimise the negative effects of this loop, if not stop it completely.

A diet rich in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, magnesium, folic acid and vitamin B6 has been associated with positive benefits with regards to stress resilience. Omega-3 fats can be found in oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts; vitamin E in olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds; magnesium in almonds, bananas and dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and broccoli; folic acid in organ meats, spinach and beans; and B6 in chicken, salmon, chickpeas and sunflower seeds. These nutrients can help by regulating our stress response, balancing our hormones, strengthening our immune system and protecting our brain function and mental wellbeing.

Eating processed and refined foods with a higher number of calories and lower nutrient content (e.g. sugar, alcohol, saturated and trans-fats), can make us feel increasingly tired, irritable, anxious and lacking attention and focus. These foods can cause our blood sugar levels to rise quickly then drop suddenly like a rollercoaster ride. A simple change to more nutrient-dense meals and foods, i.e. foods with a high level of essential vitamins and minerals and other nutrients, such as protein, fibre and complex carbohydrates can be very supportive for the body during times of stress.

A lifestyle that includes regular exercise, restorative sleep and rest, emotional support, positive social interactions and relationships, and plenty of laughter, fun and creativity can also help boost our resilience to stress and adversities and support a shift whereby stress is no longer perceived as a permanent threat but as an adaptive bio-psychological response.

With thanks to our volunteer, Catia Soares, for this article. Catia is a Psychologist and Nutritional Therapist with more than 11 years experience in the field.