When you start looking at ways to reduce your stress levels, you probably focus on how much work you are doing, what your daily responsibilities are, and whether or not you practice good self-care. These are all very important, but don’t forget about the simplest choices you make every day that could be impacting your stress.
A common one has to do with your diet, where some foods can protect the body from stress, while others may add stress to the body’s function. In fact, your diet has a much larger impact on your stress levels than you might expect, and your stress can determine what your food choices end up being. This is a continuous stress-nutrition cycle that starts with focusing on proper nutrition to fuel your body.
Defend Against Nutritional Deficiencies
The first thing that can happen if you have a diet with nutritional deficiencies, is that your body will not be prepared to deal with stress. These deficiencies can affect not just your physical health, but your emotional health as well.
For example, did you know that a lack of folate, a B-vitamin that is needed to make red and white blood cells in the bone marrow, can affect your mood and lead to extreme tiredness and lack of energy? You can get folate from foods like eggs, asparagus, spinach, and avocado.
Some other nutrients you need to help balance your mood and fight stress naturally are:
Omega 3 fatty acids – Healthy fats are still important! You can get your fatty acids from healthy sources of fats like salmon, tuna, walnuts, and olive oil.
Vitamin D – Do you know why you feel more energized and happier during sunny days? It is the vitamin D from the sun’s UV rays. IF you live somewhere that is cloudy and rainy a lot, or it is the winter where there isn’t much sun, you will need to supplement vitamin D through your food. You can get it from foods like fatty fish, eggs, dairy, and fortified cereal.
Fiber – For more fiber, eating more fruit, avocados, and whole grains is usually a good place to start.
Calcium – While many people get their calcium from dairy and yogurt, you might not be someone who can eat a lot of dairy. In this case, you can get it from foods like almonds, sesame seeds, tofu, and kale.
Iron – You also want to make sure you have enough iron. Iron can help with your mental health, as well as balance your energy levels. Get iron from red meat, turkey, some nuts, and seeds like pumpkin seeds and almonds, broccoli, and dark chocolate.
Protein – You get protein from many of these same foods, including meat, poultry and fish, dairy, cheese, eggs, and nuts.
Life is About Choices – Emotional Eating
Another link between stress and nutrition is that you can often “help” the stress and emotions with food. The problem here is that many people go for more unhealthy foods. Food can be a drug that helps one instantly feel better at the moment but may have long-term negative effects. If you know that you are an emotional eater, try to fill your pantry and fridge with foods that will build you up nutritionally, rather than pull you down. Rather than having donuts in the pantry ready for a stressful binge, try to replace them with a healthier sweet treat, like a protein cookie, or chocolate-covered nutrition bar. If salty snacks are your “binge food” get single-serving snack bags, to help you control the amount you eat when under a stress snack attack.
Be Mindful of Unhealthy Habits from Stress
Having a glass of wine at the end of a long day to de-stress is ok! It is when it turns into a bottle, then a bottle every night that you might need to determine if there are other ways to de-stress before you grab the glass of wine.
We all know having too much stress in life can further encourage unhealthy habits. When you don’t get time to de-stress, it is easy to dive into “not caring” because of feeling overwhelmed. This can not only lead to vitamin deficiencies and emotional eating, but eating unhealthy foods, not getting enough exercise, sleeping too much or too little, excessive alcohol, smoking, or abusing drugs. Life is about moderation. If you see yourself having excess in any of these categories, it may be time to step back and re-think what method you are using to de-stress.
The Healthy De-Stress Cycle
Stress eating can be a vicious cycle that is very hard to get out of. Once you start going to unhealthy foods to deal with your stress, you may feel that temporary “food high”, but it is hurting your body and mental health in the long term. The best thing you can do is notice when you fall into the cycle. Recognize the triggers that send you to stress-eat or stress-drink. Try to get a plan for those moments when “you just don’t care” and fall into the unhealthy stress cycle. Have your healthy stress food ready and avoid even having the big-time junk foods around.
Adding any form of physical exercise to your life can help reduce stress. Exercise can re-set your body and mind, and give you a different perspective. If exercising seems overwhelming, start off with just a 10-minute walk once per day, then increase it by 5 minutes each week. You might also try meditative breathing or basic yoga to let go of built-up stress. Within a couple of weeks you can easily build a de-stress routine into your life that will give you multiple health benefits.