What You Need to Know about the Complicated Relationship of Stress and Nutrition

Stress is an inescapable and unavoidable part of life. Common stressful events may include a new job or project, raising kids, managing household finances, being a caregiver, or the passing of a spouse or family member.

We all have our “go to” solutions – many of which we do without even thinking about them – to ease our stress.

While some people may opt for healthier stress management techniques such as exercise or meditation, many of us learned in our college days that nothing quite quelled the butterflies or anxiety over an exam like cookies, a piece of pie, some potato chips, or the favorite of many, several slices of pizza.

Carbs and sugar offer an almost immediate calming effect. Unfortunately, they are usually followed by a crash and cravings for more of the same unhealthy food.

Given the current state of world affairs, it would be more than understandable if you were tempted to reach for those cookies and potato chips. Or, maybe you never really gave up having an emergency stash of stress food in the house.

Nutrition and stress have a mutual cause-and-effect relationship. In addition to motivating us to eat comfort foods, stress may impact how effective our body is at using the nutrients contained in the food we eat. Moreover, the nutritional value of the foods we eat can increase or decrease our stress levels.

Stress Impacts Nutrition

Stress triggers a cascade of reactions in the body, many of which can contribute to a nutrient deficiency. If you think back to high school biology, you probably learned about the “fight or flight” response to any type of threat.

Your body basically reacts in the same way today as did our ancestors’ bodies millennia ago, although the “threat” now may be financial insecurity instead of a hungry predator. Here are some examples of what happens when you get stressed and the effect on your nutritional state:

Stress Hormones Make Us Crave Unhealthy Foods

Hormones such as cortisol and insulin are released (to get your muscles ready to either run or fight), and these, in turn, tell your brain that you need to eat to have enough energy.

The problem is your brain will not tell you to eat a salad. It will make you crave unhealthy foods. Stay stressed long enough, and you run the risk of becoming obese, with all its inherent health consequences.

Using Up Stores of Vital Nutrients

Your body will usually start tapping reserves of magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C to better support your cardiovascular system as well as your muscles. Depleting these nutrients can contribute to deficiencies.

And, as you can imagine, these are important nutrients for boomers, both for our health in general and also for managing stress (the cruel irony is that stress often depletes the very nutrients we need to better handle stress in the first place).

Poor Digestion

If you are in “fight or flight” mode, your body will give nutritional priority to your cardiovascular system and muscles. Whatever is left over would then go to support your digestive system.

This means that food may not be fully digested, and it may be harder for your body to absorb the nutrients it needs from this food as it passes through your digestive system.

What This Means

An interesting study asked participants to down a mineral drink while they were not stressed. When the researchers did a nutrient test shortly after, they found that the participants’ bodies had absorbed all the nutrients.

When the researchers then asked the participants to drink the same formula while having to concentrate on listening to two people who were simultaneously talking about two different subjects, the follow-up test showed a marked drop in nutrient absorption.

In addition to magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C, stress can also deplete vitamin A, vitamin E, chromium, copper, iron, and zinc. While all are important, zinc is especially vital for boomers since it helps our immune systems function properly.

Last but certainly not least, when we are stressed, our blood sugar levels rise. Over time, these increases may raise our risk for developing diabetes or make it harder to manage if it is already present.

Nutrition Impacts Stress

In the same way that stress can cause nutrient deficiencies, not having good nutrition can trigger stress or make stress management more difficult.

To better manage stress, we have to be proactive about our nutrition. So here are three suggestions:

Replace the Nutrients That Stress Depletes

Make sure to take in more of those nutrients that combat stress, including:

  • B vitamins, which you can get from whole grains, meat, eggs and dairy products, seeds and nuts, dark leafy vegetables, and fruits.
  • Magnesium, which is present in dark chocolate (just don’t eat too much), whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, and avocados.
  • Vitamin C, which is abundant in citrus fruits such as oranges, as well as in broccoli, leafy greens, and tomatoes.
  • Zinc, which is plentiful in meat, shellfish, nuts, eggs, dairy products, and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas.

Add Nutrients That Help Manage Stress

Stress management nutrients are:

  • Copper, which can be found in oysters, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and dark chocolate (in moderation, of course).
  • Antioxidants, which are plentiful in foods such as dark chocolate, blueberries, artichokes, kale, and spinach.
  • Vitamin D, which can be supplied by a simple walk outside in the sun (which has the added benefit of exercise) or by including fatty fish, cheese, and vitamin D-fortified foods in your diet.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in nuts and seeds, plant oils, and fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines.

Avoid Foods That May Increase Stress

Finally, make sure you don’t indulge (and even avoid) foods that increase stress. These include white flour, salt, processed meats, caffeinated beverages, fried food, and alcohol.

Some Tips to Reduce Stress and Get the Nutrients We Need

Luckily, when it comes to reducing stress and making sure we get the nutrients our body needs, we are not looking at an “either—or” situation.

We can readily manage stress without resorting to foods that end up creating more stress and harming our health. In other words, avoid eating foods that may trigger the vicious circle of stress-eating in the first place.

When planning your diet, be sure to include plenty of nutrient-dense foods from a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s also a good idea to prepare your own meals at home since this way you will know exactly what you are eating and how it was prepared.

It may be a good idea to get your nutrient levels tested on a regular basis to see if your body is getting what it needs and in the right amounts. There are even tests that your doctor or healthcare provider can order to test your stress level by measuring the amount of “stress hormones” you have in your system.

It’s important to remember that exercise – especially walking – is an excellent stress reliever in addition to bringing physical benefits of its own. You may also want to consider other stressbusters such as yoga, Pilates, tai chi, meditation, and even aromatherapy.

How much stress would you say you have in your life? How often do you catch yourself stress-eating? Do you keep “stress food,” such as junk food and simple carbohydrates, and sugary snacks around the house? How do you handle your stress? Please join the conversation.