And I’m not talking about comfort eating. The ability of good nutrition to counteract the effects of stress on your physical and mental health are broadly underestimated. The nutrients in the food you eat can help your nerves to calm down, your adrenals to reset and your happy chemicals to flourish. What’s more, you can use nutrition to help rectify the physical impacts of stress, for example on your digestion, joints, skin, immune system and reproductive health.
Stress related illness
We used to think of stress related illnesses as something a bit woolly or made up. Actually the many impacts of stress on your physical body have been well documented.
With regards to digestion, stress will downgrade its function significantly. If you need to deal with a threatening situation, you don’t want hunger getting in the way, or digestive processes using up all your energy. So your stomach and intestines may seek to empty what’s there – either up through vomitting and reflux, or down through diarrhoea and loose stools. If stress hangs around for longer, then the effects of system shutdown may change. Appetite may stay low, or you may just crave refined foods, sugars and other processed foods that don’t take much digestion. You may also end up being constipated, having cramps or bloating and further effects from not being able to digest your food properly.
The impact on your gut lining and microbiome can contribute to inflammation throughout your body. Which is one of the reasons why joint pain or skin complaints might flare up in times of stress.
Fertility is also a low priority during stressful times, so menstrual health and sperm production can both take a hit.
Plus your immune system can affected by stress in a number of ways – which can be a vicious cycle when you’re worried about your health.
The good news is that you can support all of these systems directly via a nutritional approach. However, you first need to address the stress.
Soothe stressful nerves
Let’s start with your nervous system. Your nerves send electrical messages around your body, a bit like texts, that either stimulate or calm activity. They use neurotransmitters as a kind of language. GABA and acetylcholine tend to provide soothing messages, so anything that will help you make and release those should help keep you and your body calm. GABA can actually be produced by certain microbes in your gut, for example, so gut and microbiome health is important.
There are even foods that help you make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. Salmon, for example, contains the tryptophan you can make serotonin from, plus the B6 you need to convert it into your happy chemical. If you’re vegetarian, try combining sweet potato (for the B6) with spinach (for the tryptophan).
Electrical messages and neurotransmitters don’t just send themselves. They are fired by sodium, potassium and calcium, so you need to make sure you have the right balance of those in your diet. Plus you’ll need essential fatty acids, like those found in fish oil, nuts and seeds, alongside other raw materials to make healthy nerve cells. These omega 3s are usually depleted by stress, so even more reason to make sure you have enough.
Reset adrenal stress hormones
Hormones are another kind of messenger system. If nerve signals are text or instant messages, hormones are more like a traditional letter in an envelope. That “letter” has to be delivered to its target cells, which will have hormone receptors (think letterboxes) in a shape that matches that particular hormone.
Your adrenals sit on top of your kidneys, and release a number of hormones in response to stress. Hormones that make your heart beat faster, your fight and flight muscles ready for action, and your vision tunnelled to the threat ahead. They direct energy away from digestion, reproduction, elaborate thought processes and anything else it doesn’t have time for right now.
Certain nutrients are helpful in resetting and unravelling all of this. Nutrients such as vitamin B5, zinc and magnesium, alongside a host of others. A lentil daal with spinach will give you a boost in all of these. Zinc and magnesium are also useful anti-inflammatories – but again, can be depleted by stress, so you may need an extra boost of these.
Rebalance your microbiome
There has been interesting research around the relationship between your microbiome and how easily your adrenals can reset from stress. A double-blind placebo-controlled randomised test with healthy human volunteers showed that those taking probiotic supplements had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as reduced anxiety, depression and other mental health factors.
There are 3 key nutritional factors to establishing a healthy microbiome:
- Eat a large variety and quantity of fibre-rich vegetables
- Eat frequent but smaller amounts of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir or yoghurt
- Reduce sugar, refined foods and anything you know irritates your digestion
How you eat is just as important as what you eat. I talk about that more here:
Find out more about stress and nutrition
So you can start by following some of the tips in this article, But if you’d like to find out more:
- Join one of my workshops on Soothing Stress with Nutrition – I run these regularly online through Evolution Arts
- Read my book Nutrition Brought to Life – there are chapters on The Gut-Brain-Adrenal Triangle, Specific Adrenal Support, Your Microbiome: Your Inner Ecosystem, Nourishing Your Microbiome, Mindful Eating and Your Health, plus further chapters that talk you through how to support digestion, hormonal balance, nerve tissue, your immune system ad a whole lot more.
- See me for a One-to-One Consultation. I’ll take a detailed case history so I can assess which of your systems need support, how best to nourish your adrenals and reset your stress responses, and what kind of nutritional approach seems best for you right now.