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Eat the stress away: how to support your body to manage stress better

What does stress do to the body?

We all know how we feel when something hasn’t gone to plan, work deadlines are looming, family life is hectic or we are worried about finances.

In the body, the biological response to stress is rooted in protecting our core bodily functions.  It hasn’t really evolved since we dressed like Freddie Flintstone. 

Your body biologically responds to an argument with your boss, the trials of a difficult teenager or family illness in the same way as it would if you were being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.

First, our autonomic nervous system is activated which increases blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, cholesterol and sweating.  It also decreases our digestive, reproductive and immune system ability in a bid to preserve the energy you will need to get you away from giant Tiddles.

Secondly, we have a hormonal response to stress. The brain signals to our adrenal glands that we need adrenaline and cortisol to help with our fight or flight response.  Adrenaline increases our heart rate to pump more blood to our muscles and brain.  Cortisol increases blood sugar and blood pressure.

In the short-term these biologically hard-wired responses are beneficial. 

Think about when you are giving a presentation to a large group of people, or you’re about to sit an exam.  You want as much energy directed to your brain as possible.

However, if the stress is chronic or long-term, even at a relatively low level, our bodily systems start to go awry and the feedback loops that turn off the stress response break. 


And then there is ‘internal’ stress….

As well as the more obvious sources of stress in our lives which turn into physiological responses, our body recognises things that aren’t working quite so well as stressors.

This includes things like a poor diet, nutrient deficiencies, infections, chronic pain, a disrupted digestive system and poor sleep. 

Many of these things we all live with because they aren’t ‘bad enough’ to address. 

They may be niggles you’ve checked out with a doctor and nothing sinister was afoot but the niggles still persist.

However, they are contributing to the impact of stress on your physical and mental health in both the short and long-term.

These things both increase the total stress ‘load’ that the body perceives and add to the likelihood of poor health developing. 

Overall, chronic stress has been shown to impact the immune system, metabolic health, increase rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems and high levels of anxiety.


How do I know if stress is impacting my health?

If you are fairly in-tune with your body you will probably know when stress is affecting you.... short-temper, apathy, anger...

But there are other symptoms that aren’t so obvious to most of us such as allergies, unrelenting fatigue, feeling cold, craving salty foods, low immunity, hot flushes, sleep disturbance, memory loss and weight gain around the midsection or weight loss to name just a few.

Sleep disturbance in particular is a tricky vicious circle as the more stressed you are, the more your sleep is impacted. However, studies show even one week of less than 6hrs sleep a night consecutively can raise cortisol levels by as much as 80%.


How can food help?

Unfortunately the crisps, takeaways, cake and wine we may naturally reach for when we are feeling stressed are (unsurprisingly) not the answer.

There are four main areas to think about:

(1)   Balance your blood sugar

I’ve talked a lot about blood sugar and how keeping it at a steady level is crucial for all aspects of health.  You can read more about that here.

One of the most stress-relieving blood-sugar balancing actions you can take is to make sure you eat 3 meals a day which include at least 20g of protein with every meal. 

Not only does this help to balance your blood sugar and give you more consistent energy, but we need the amino acids in protein to make our happy hormone neurotransmitters. 

If you aren’t eating enough protein you won’t have the raw materials to produce the very chemicals you need to make you more relaxed and happy.

To give you an idea of what 20g of protein looks like… that’s 3 eggs, a small chicken breast, a fillet of salmon or 4 tablespoons of cottage cheese.

I wrote about some easy protein hacks in a previous blog post you can find here.

(2)   Love your gut

Stress hormones can increase gut permeability, motility and unwanted bacterial growth which can lead to diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and discomfort.

In another vicious circle, disrupted gut bacteria interfere with the gut-brain communication system and exacerbate the impacts of stress.

A healthy gut is one with a great variety of friendly bacteria; bacteria that all have a useful job to perform.  Many of our happy hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, GABA and serotonin are made in the gut by these bacteria. 

Each different type of bacteria needs to be fed with different nutrients.  If we have a diet that is more or less the same every day we will not be feeding certain bacteria in our gut and they will simply die off.  This not only means they can’t do their job for you but they also leave space for pathogenic bacteria to take up position.

Eating a diverse rainbow of colour from fresh whole foods across your week is the easiest way to ensure you are feeding lots of different friendly bacteria in your gut and preventing the exacerbation of your stress response.

In an ideal world you want to aim for 30 different plants a week e.g. blueberries, carrots, peppers, cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower etc….  each plant only counts ‘once’ across the week (although of course you can eat it more than once!).

(3)   Power-Up Nutrients

As well as protein, there are some important nutrients that we need to eat even more of during periods of stress.  Ironically, when we are stressed our body uses up our supply of these nutrients even more quickly than normal to fuel the stress response.


These are needed for so many bodily processes and are water-soluble so we don’t store them for long – we need to eat them every single day.

In particular, B-Vitamins are crucial for energy production, liver health, nerve function and brain health.

To give just one example of the impact stress has on these nutrients lets look at serotonin production, one of our happy hormones that also helps us sleep as it gets converted to melatonin. 

We need B6 and protein to make serotonin. However, we use up B6 at a rate of knots to make adrenaline when we are stressed, not leaving enough for serotonin production.  B6 is also involved in GABA and dopamine production, our feel-good hormones.  Over time, depletion of these neurotransmitters can lead to anxiety and depression.

Boosting B6 is therefore crucial to help fuel our extra needs during times of chronic stress. Foods rich in B-Vitamins include beef, liver, eggs, chicken, dark leafy greens, dairy and nuts & seeds.

Minerals – Zinc, Magnesium, Iron

Although we do store these nutrients for longer than B-Vitamins, when we are stressed they are all depleted so quickly we need to be eating foods rich in them every day. 

One of the reasons we often pick up viruses when we are stressed is because our immune function is suppressed as we’ve used up our body-battery store of nutrients it needs to function well.

Foods rich in these minerals include green leafy vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, beans, seeds and avocados.

Omega 3

Stress increases inflammation throughout our body.  Omega 3 is a type of fatty acid that is super anti-inflammatory and fights against the impact of inflammation in our brain caused by prolonged stress.

Omega 3-rich foods include oily fish such as salmon, herring, anchovies, mackerel and sardines and plant foods such as ground flaxseed and chia seeds.


(4)   Vegas your Vagus

Ok so this one isn’t about food.  But alongside all of the usual advice to spend time in nature, do things you love, see friends… this is one of the most important lifestyle actions you can incorporate which doesn’t take much time or effort.

The Vagus Nerve is actually a pair of nerves that serve as 2-way communication channel between our gut and our brain and many organs in-between.  It plays a big part in controlling processes such as breathing, heart rate, digestion and immune response.

The Vagus Nerve is also a vital part of ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system which we needed to switch on to balance the fight or flight ‘run from Tiddles’ stress response.

Poor digestion, reduced microbiome health and our stress response is therefore hugely impacted by the actions of our Vagus Nerve. 

We need to keep our Vagus Nerve in prime condition – it needs regular exercise just like the rest of our body.  Essentially, we need to have fun with our Vagus Nerve and keep it active.

Activities such as humming, singing, gargling, meditation and mindful breathing increase the plasticity and function of this important nerve. 

Laughing also has a positive effect.  I recently tried Laughter Yoga for the first time and I was on a high for at least 24 hours afterwards.  I hadn’t heard of it before either… read more here.


Food & lifestyle choices really will help your body to respond better to stress – you don’t let your phone battery run out so don’t do that to your body.

If you'd like to explore how you can use food and targeted supplementation to support your stress levels or health overall please do get in touch. I offer free, no obligation calls, you can book a time to suit you here.


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