I can hear you nowÃ¢Â?Â¦ “Diet? I thought stress relief was all about long, hot soaks in an aromatic bath or lying in a hammock, being soothed by the sounds of nature. I don’t even want to think about diets. I’ve been on so many different diets I can’t count them all! Diets never do any goodÃ¢Â?Â¦”
But, we’re not talking about dieting for weight-loss.
Someone faced with a serious health condition like heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes has certain diet guidelines to follow in order to help their system cope with the illness. Excessive stress is another condition that can be managed with proper nutrition and, as with other health conditions, proper nutrition is also preventative medicine.
Stress should not be taken lightly, or thought of as something you “just have to learn to live with.” It can lead to serious health problems, so it’s important to be aware of how your diet can affect your stress level for better or worse.
Basic good nutrition is somewhat common sense, especially with the wealth of information that has become available on the subject. We’ve all heard that we should eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and saturated fats. We know that we should drink more water and less coffee and soda pop. But there are some specific nutritional elements that are especially helpful in dealing with stress.
1.Complex carbohydrates – A diet must for fighting stress. Complex carbohydrates cause the brain to release serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical that has a calming effect on the body and mind. So, when you feel really stressed, try a piece of whole grain bread or maybe some oatmeal, knowing that your brain will soon provide nature’s own tranquilizer. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains (bread, pasta, cereal, etc.), vegetables like broccoli, leafy greens, potatoes, and corn and also in bananas (although bananas are the only fruit that has this effect).
2.Magnesium – Magnesium is an essential mineral that the body uses to fight stress, relax muscles and promote restful sleep. Not only is magnesium reduced by stress, but also by the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fatty foods. You can boost your magnesium intake by eating plenty of leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Be sure to make these a part of your daily diet.
3.Vitamin B6 – The B vitamins are calming nutrients and B6 helps deliver magnesium into the cells. Again, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are your best sources of B vitamins. If you want to supplement your diet, look for a B-Complex supplement that includes all of the B vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folic acid, B12 and biotin. The B vitamins are most effective when combined in the proper balance.
4.Vitamin C – Because Vitamin C is not stored in the body, we need a steady supply of this nutrient in order to reap its immune benefits. Unfortunately, stress (and many common substances like nicotine, caffeine and birth control pills) depletes the level of vitamin C in the bloodstream, leaving us vulnerable to all types of illness. For this reason, it is vital to include plenty of vitamin C in the diet especially when under excessive stress. Eat plenty of citrus fruits and consider a vitamin C supplement.
5.Calcium – The benefits derived from calcium are widely recognized, especially with recent heightened awareness of osteoporosis. Not as commonly known is the relaxing effect that calcium, in combination with magnesium, has on the muscles. This is an obvious plus when under stress. As stress is known to deplete calcium levels, calcium in the diet should be increased especially in stressful times. You may want to add a combined calcium/magnesium supplement to your daily intake.
The following substances should be reduced in any healthy diet. But in cases where stress has peaked to the point of severe depression or anxiety, they should be eliminated from the diet entirely.
1. Refined sugars – Excessive use of simple sugars can cause low blood sugar levels because of an over-production of insulin (the hormone that helps transport glucose to the blood). This is why a sugary snack can give you a quick burst of energy, soon followed by a sudden drop in energy. These low sugar levels can cause anxiety, depression, shakiness and less ability to concentrate on a task.
2. Alcohol – Another form of simple sugar, alcohol has the same effect on blood sugar, while also adversely affecting the nervous system and liver. The liver’s effectiveness at cleansing the system of toxins is reduced, creating further possibilities for illness.
3. Caffeine – Found in coffee, tea, chocolate and some soft drinks, caffeine has a stimulant effect that increases the stress that your body attempts to manage. Caffeine also robs the system of important nutrients that help maintain emotional stability.
As mentioned in the introductory article for this series, “Getting a Grip on Stress,” the use of these substances is often a response to stress. But the temporary “fix” only serves to add further stress to the system. This can create a dangerous cycle that is best stopped once it is recognized.
Now we’ve covered the basics of breathing, exercise and nutrition. As the series continues, we’ll be looking at some of the alternative methods for stress relief and stress management.