By Ayah Murad,

Clinical Dietician

 

Our lives can be quite stressful. Financial commitments, family responsibilities and the constant need to manage a work-life balance preoccupy our thoughts. One of the key ways to manage and reduce stress is healthy eating.

 

We’re prone to craving comfort foods when stressed and get instant gratification when we fall prey to them, but this also reduces our ability to manage stress overall. Resorting to comfort foods under stress often leads to a vicious cycle of more stress followed  by futile attempts to manage it through eating more unhealthy food.

 

Symptoms of repeated stress

 
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Weight gain

Elevated blood sugar levels

Infections

Hypertension

Disruption in sleep

Reduced energy

These symptoms create metabolic syndrome (a group of factors that raises your risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke) and tend to lead to the need for medication with side effects that lead to more medication. Again, another vicious cycle that can be mitigated through eating healthy.

 

Can sugar make you stressed?

Simple sugars like glucose are in many desserts and foods. When simple sugar intake is above a certain threshold, yeast in the large intestine and Ecoli (the bad bacteria) produce gasses, which may make a person think they have IBS. In a professional or even social setting, such gas production by itself increases our stress, and we may even feel like we cannot manage it because we connect it to stress or believe it is linked to a chronic state. What’s more, excessive simple sugars create acidity in the body, which has many negative effects. Taken together, these effects explain why sweet desserts are good comfort foods but frequent or excessive intake of sugar increases cortisol over time. Cortisol is the hormone released when we are in a stressful situation. When cortisol is released in our bodies repeatedly, it leads to adrenal fatigue which can be quite harmful to our body.

Stress and acidity

The body needs a specific balance of acid-alkaline levels and the balance is significantly disturbed by stress. Overall imbalance in food intake, whether it is an excessive intake of protein, fat or carbohydrates can lead to body acidity. The body tries to correct this acidic state in two major ways, respiratory and metabolic compensation:

 
Respiratory compensation is when you have quick short breaths, a way to get rid of the excess carbon dioxide. This may overload the heart and less oxygen is delivered to the brain, causing stressful headaches.

 
Metabolic compensation increases the frequency of urination, which leads to dehydration unless we increase our water intake. Dehydration is one of the main causes of headaches that can be stressful and release cortisol

Foods that reduce cortisol level

 
Dark chocolate 

Cooked tomatoes (Allayet Bandora)

White (non-fermented) tea 

Pre and probiotics (near expiry yoghurt)

Fruits like banana, mango, green apples and pineapples

 

Additionally, avoiding coffee on an empty stomach is key as it directly increases the cortisol level and increases urination (which dehydrates the body); consider replacing coffee with cocoa or white tea. Most importantly, keep your body hydrated and drink a lot of water, increase your intake of fruit and decrease fried and baked foods. Some supplements can help as well, including Omega 3 fish oil, avocado, nuts), zinc (seeds), magnesium (dark green leafy vegetables).

 

Stress-reducing tips

 
Better and consistent sleep habits, aiming for eight hours

 
Keeping a stress journal to identify stressful events and triggers and then avoiding or withdrawing from events, or situations that trigger stress or by finding better ways to react to them

 
Stocking up on healthier snacks (people tend to eat what is available and convenient when stressed and busy, so keep apples near you instead of candy)

 
Finding stress relievers other than food (exercise or socialising)

 
Managing when you eat (staying too long without eating is likely to leave you opting for an unhealthy convenient choice when hungry)

With better nutrition, you are better prepared to face the challenges of the day. Smart food choices give us the power to think right, control ourselves and our environment better and be more satisfied and content. Let’s commit ourselves this New Year to fundamental and simple ways to be less stressed and better manage stressful situations in our everyday lives.