person lying on a bed with their hands over their face

How nutrition impacts stress and anxiety

person lying on a bed with their hands over their face

What have stress and anxiety got to do with nutrition?  Surely the two are mutually exclusive. 

Stress and anxiety are feelings and nutrition is what we eat.  How can the two be connected?

Neurotransmitters and their role in stress and anxiety

We all know and have felt the pattern at some point in our lives.  Something happens which is beyond our control, our boss berates us, we get caught in traffic and are running late, we have a deadline that we are SURE we are going to miss or we worry about our finances.  These days it seems like the list of things that we could feel stressed or anxious about is endless, and growing!

As soon as we experience a stress trigger the amygdala in the brain senses the trigger, our hypothalamus then starts triggering the adrenal glands by sending nerve signals to the adrenal glands to produce the neurotransmitter adrenaline which tells our body to ramp up its awareness, increase blood pressure, deepen the breath, to drop sugar into the blood from the muscles and liver and to prepare to get away from the situation.
Cortisol – the stress hormone, is triggered by a signal from the pituitary gland.  Cortisol is much slower to be produced but hangs around a lot longer, it’s sent out from the adrenals too if the signal for danger remains strong, to dampen the immune response.  Cortisol also affects the reproductive system, we don’t want to be producing children while we are trying to escape a predator!   

Why sustained high stress is bad news

Persistent, frequent adrenaline surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing your blood pressure and raising the risk of heart attacks or strokes.  

Elevated cortisol levels create changes in the body that help to replenish the body’s energy stores, which deplete during the stress response.  This inadvertently contributes to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain.  

Cortisol increases appetite, so people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases the storage of unused blood sugar as fat.

The power is in your hands

Whilst we can’t prevent ourselves from EVER becoming stressed, let’s face it, life would be pretty mundane with nothing to feel passionate or strongly about, but we can manage it.  Perhaps rather surprisingly triggering the stress response isn’t reserved for external factors.  

Missing meals, missing sleep, eating poor quality food, especially highly processed carbohydrates, high sugar, and low nutrient density foods, drinking alcohol / caffeine, smoking, and dysregulated blood sugar can all contribute to the release of adrenaline and cortisol.

✔ Ensuring that your meals contain a decent amount of protein – aiming for 30g per meal

✔ Sleeping 7-9 hours per night at the same times each night

 ✔ Avoiding high sugar, high processed carb foods

 ✔ Eating a nutrient-dense diet to include plenty of antioxidants that help to quash any       inflammation in the body which also leads to stress on the body

 ✔ Limiting alcohol and caffeine – especially if you are already struggling with sleep

 ✔ Including Magnesium rich foods – nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.  Magnesium is depleted by stress and regulates neurotransmitter production

 ✔ Including good fats from avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, fatty fish.  Fat helps the body to regulate blood sugar and helps us to feel grounded

✔ Include foods rich in B Vitamins which are depleted by stress. Especially focus on B6: Low levels are associated with panic attacks.  Research shows people who consume more B6 through food are less likely to experience anxiety

✔ Include Iron: Deficiency is a well-known trigger for anxiety which is important to be aware of since it’s the most common nutrient deficiency in the world

 ✔ Fibre feeds gut bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids that appear to decrease anxiety.  A high fibre diet also balances blood sugar, which reduces anxiety symptoms.


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