Nutrition and Stress Management in Simple Terms

“Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose.”  ~ Maureen Killoran

What is Stress?

Stress is simply a fact of nature — forces from the inside or outside world affecting the individual. The individual responds to stress in ways that affect the individual as well as their environment. Due to the over-abundance of stress in Nigeria and our modern world today, we perceive stress as a negative experience, but from a biological point of view, stress can be a neutral, negative, or a positive experience. What matters is our stress management, and in this, nutrition is a key player.

Stress comprises of the external and internal factors.

  • External factors include the physical environment, including your job, your relationships with others, your home, and all the situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations you’re confronted with on a daily basis.
  • Internal factors determine your body’s ability to respond to and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors. Internal factors which influence your ability to handle stress include your nutritional status, overall health and fitness levels, emotional well-being, and the amount of sleep and rest you get.

Eating Right to Reduce Stress

During times of stress or our stress management efforts, we often turn to traditional “comfort” foods such as macaroni and noodles, shawarma, pizza, and ice cream. Ironically, these high-fat foods are usually the worst possible choices because they can make us feel lethargic (I.e. tired and unwilling to do work effectively) and less able to deal with stress. Not only that, but stress can drive up our blood pressure and raise serum cholesterol levels, wreaking havoc on our arteries and increasing our risk of heart attack due to an extremely high blood pressure.

The Best Solution for Stress Management

Low-fat, high fibre, carbohydrate-rich meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables and plenty of water. That’s the solution. They soothe us without sapping our energy and give us the nutrients we need to boost our immune system. Here’s a guide to which foods reduce stress and aid stress management. Also, which foods make it worse. You can also read our article on high blood pressure and the DASH diet.

Foods to Include

High-fibre, carbohydrate-rich foods: Scientists believe carbohydrates cause the brain to produce more serotonin, a hormone that relaxes us. And lots of fibre is helpful in preventing late-night binge eating. Some examples of healthy comfort food include baked sweet potatoes, corn, rice grain products, minestrone soup, or sautéed vegetables over rice.

Fruits and vegetables: Chronic stress can weaken our ability to fight disease. So by increasing our intake of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, we can boost our immune system. Eggplant (Garden egg), spinach, apples, oranges, onions, cherries, lettuce and carrots, for example, are great sources of the antioxidant beta-carotene. Citrus fruits provide plenty of vitamin C most especially, another stress-busting antioxidant. In fact, all fruits in a season should be taken in adequate amount.

Foods to Avoid

High-fat foods: Fatty foods such as meat or fried dishes and many baked goods thicken our blood which in turn makes us feel tired, even lethargic. This is clearly not a good way to reduce stress! Even just one high-fat meal can increase our risk of a heart attack.

Caffeine: Many of us deal with a stress-induced lack of sleep by turning to coffee, tea, and colas. Unfortunately, caffeine stays in our systems longer than many realise. Cutting back on caffeine can help with both sleeping problems (insomnia too) and jitters.

Sugar: As a carbohydrate, sugar tends to calm us. The problem with sugar is that it’s a simple carbohydrate, so it enters and leaves the bloodstream rapidly, causing us to, in effect, “crash.” On the other hand, complex carbohydrates? Such as pasta, bread, legumes, lentils, vegetables and cereals. The starchy parts of foods… soothe without bringing us down.

Water: Surprisingly as little as half a litre of water shortage can lead to increased levels of a hormone called Cortisol which is a stress hormone. The body is made up of water but just focus on the brain for a minute. Current thinking is that almost 80% of the brain is water and a mere 2% reduction in that water level can begin to cause problems as the brain’s makeup changes. Short term memory issues, sometimes called brain fog, will manifest themselves as the start of increasing levels of stress.

Read more about how water aids stress management here

Stress and dehydration are part of the same vicious cycle with many different factors impacting each other. A simple example is when you are stressed, your heart rate will increase which will increase your breathing rate which in turn means you will be exhaling more water leading to further dehydration. So, accepting that there is a link between hydration and stress, we should point out that keeping correctly hydrated won’t make your problems disappear. Honestly, we wish it was that simple.

However, it will put you in a better place to deal with your stress and leads to increasing levels of well-being. The key is if you are thirsty you are already dehydrated and there’s no quick fix for this one. It’s not about solving the problem by drinking excessive amounts of water today. You need a change of mindset to ensure you correct your levels of hydration and maintain them at the new levels.

So, ask yourself today. How much water are you drinking? Enough? About right? Too little?

Cheers to the new week!


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