By Willow Lawson, published on February 4, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Stress is inevitable. However, there are ways to minimize its grip on your life, starting with your diet.
Most of us recognize that certain foods have brutal effects on the brain—for productivity, mood and mental energy. Too much chocolate can leave you dragging after the sugar and caffeine jolts fade away. An overdose of salty chips dehydrates the body and the brain, bringing on fatigue. High fat meals raise stress hormone levels and keep them high.
The problem is that these are precisely the foods we reach for at exactly the wrong times, as they exacerbate tension from work and daily life just when we seek relief.
The Food and Mood Project, a nutrition research group in the U.K., identified "food stressors" and "food supporters," foods that exacerbate stress from the inside and those that help people under stress. The lists were drawn on the basis of personal experience among 200 people surveyed.
Nearly 90% of those surveyed reported that their mental health had improved significantly with changes in diet they had made on their own.
Participants reported that cutting down or avoiding "food stressors" like sugar (80%), caffeine (79%), alcohol (55%) and chocolate (53%) had the most impact on mental health. So did having more "food supporters" like water (80%), vegetables (78%), fruit (72%) and oil-rich fish (52%).
The survey also found some dietary strategies particularly helpful in encouraging a healthful diet: eating regular meals, carrying nutritious snacks and planning meals in advance.
"Despite evidence suggesting that dietary and nutritional interventions can provide symptom relief and benefits to health, these approaches remain alternative or complementary," says Amanda Geary, a nutritional therapist with the Food and Mood Project, which advocates dietary changes to boost mood before turning to medication.
Nevertheless, quality research now underway is seriously tackling how the foods we consume affect our internal chemistry. We already know that stress hormones like cortisol actually rob the body of vitamins, hijacking them to support such classic stress responses as the tensing of muscles and the rise of blood pressure, reactions fundamental to the fight-or-flight response.
Thus at times when we're experiencing the nervous-system workout of anxiety, we are in special need of B vitamins, which help maintain our nerves and brain cells. B vitamins also used up in converting food into energy for the body.
It's double whammy for the body if calories consumed during stressful times don't come from nutritious foods, as they'll then be depleted even more quickly. Even a slight vitamin B deficiency—say, from a few days of overloading on chips and soda—upsets the nervous system and compounds stress, according to Elizabeth Somer, R.D., a nutritionist in Salem, Oregon.
A better bet at trying times: bananas, fish, baked potatoes, avocados, chicken and dark green leafy veggies. All are loaded with B vitamins.
Extreme stress can create even more nutritional havoc. The "fight or flight" effect on our bodies is drastic. Some 1400 chemical changes occur as stress hormones sap the body of important nutrients, such as those B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin A and the mineral magnesium.
The hormones released in response to stress can cause carbohydrate cravings by lowering levels of serotonin, the calming hormone. Increasing carbohydrate intake can strengthen tolerance to stress by boosting levels of serotonin, says Somer, but it can also cause weight gain and overeating, particularly of sugary foods.
When the pressure is on, it's difficult not to turn to junk food for solace. But sticking to highly nutritious, low fat, low sugar, and low caffeine diet will be its own reward.