When in balance, stress can be helpful. It keeps us motivated, helps us get out of the bed in the morning, and can serve as a warning sign that we need to make some lifestyle changes. Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can have serious consequences for our wellbeing, not least because of its impact on our eating habits and nutritional needs.

Chronic stress increases the body’s metabolic needs, which may result in increased uptake and excretion of nutrients. Chronic stress can therefore increase nutrient requirements, and also exacerbate deficiencies that already exist. 

Furthermore, during periods of prolonged stress, our food choices may alter, causing increased consumption of sugar and processed foods. One reason for this may be reduced time and energy to prepare meals, leading to increased reliance on processed foods and ready meals. 

Another possible reason is that during periods of stress we actually have an in-built preference for higher fat and sugar foods. Theoretically, this mechanism may have been beneficial to early humans during stressful periods such as food scarcity, since fat provides significant calories and sugar affords a quick release of glucose, and therefore energy. However, in modern times, stress can last for significant periods of time, due to work, relationships, financial pressures and other stressors and so can literally tip the scales in the wrong direction.

Moreover, food availability is more abundant: there is an ever growing array of processed foods, microwave meals, as well as high sugar and fat snacks cheaply and readily available. 

Caffeine, from coffee and energy drinks, is also readily available, and often employed as a coping mechanism for stress and stress-related exhaustion. High consumption of caffeine causes blood glucose levels to fluctuate, through increasing cortisol levels and dysregulating insulinotropic polypeptide and GLP-1, which are both involved in regulating appetite control and insulin levels. 

The impact of prolonged stress, therefore, may be weight gain and blood glucose dysregulation, heightening the risk of the development of chronic diseases related to obesity, such as type II diabetes. 

Using Nutrition to Build Resilience

Nutrition can be used as a means of supporting the body during times of stress, increasing resilience, building strength and re-equipping the body with nutrients that may become depleted during periods of chronic stress. 

Research has indicated that magnesium and vitamin B6 may support individuals experiencing stress. A study by Pouteau et al. (2018) indicated that combined supplementation helped to alleviate stress levels in subjects who were experiencing extreme stress. 

A further study by Jahangard et al. (2019) indicated that individuals who were administered omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated reduced markers of psychological and physiological burnout, including decreased cortisol levels, compared with controls. 

Here are some practical ideas for increasing your consumption of these nutrients: 

  • Consume green leafy vegetables, nuts and cacao, which are all rich in magnesium
  • Take a bath with Epsom salts to increase magnesium levels transdermally 
  • Up your vitamin B6 intake with turkey, chickpeas and salmon. Salmon – along with other oily fish – is also a great source of omega 3 fatty acids. Enjoying turkey and salmon with homemade hummus and a colourful salad would be an excellent way of increasing vitamin B6 and omega-3 fatty acids

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.