You remember when my friends, Sonja and Alex, at A Couple Cooks interviewed me about the age old question, “How to eat?”? Today, we are together again talking about how to eat in times of stress! I presented the couple with a challenge to create a recipe using some of the best foods to eat when stressed. The ingredient list included: avocado, almonds, citrus (orange or lemon), cauliflower, greens (spinach or kale), and the wildcard ingredient, raw cacao. They came up with a stellar Stress Reducing Avocado & Quinoa Nourish Bowl , and in exchange I’m sharing with them how to redefine comfort food to reduce stress. The full article can also be found on their website. I hope you enjoy the article!
It’s a familiar pattern. You have a string of stressful days, you begin to feel rundown, moody, or anxious, and you need comfort, fast! You turn to food that soothes in the moment but later leaves you feeling bloated, crampy, or constipated, and your anxiety returns. You might not even realize the self-justification dialogue running in the background: you deserve a reward for coping or muddling through a challenge, right?
Stress is a quirky concept. We tend to think it's something that happens to us, but it is often something we create from our perceptions of and reactions to a situation. In other words, we have more control over how much we *feel* stressed than we realize, especially as it relates to building up our energy levels and protecting our immunity and mental wellbeing. Below, I’ll provide guidelines that help you redefine comfort food as food that honestly nourishes and position you to feel incrementally better when stressed, including:
- How to healthfully "digest" stress using food and lifestyle strategies
- How the health of the gut affects our ability to cope with stress, and vice versa
- How diet can improve gut health, boost immunity, mood, energy, and protect our sanity
We all know about “fight-or-flight”, the body's automatic initial reaction to perceived stressors. From an evolutionary perspective, it puts us in high-alert survival mode by raising stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to ensure we respond defensively to danger. But our bodies were never designed to be on high-alert 24/7, like they so often are today. So when chronic stress leaves this fight-or-flight response in the permanent on position, it depletes energy and nutrient stores.
Translation: If we run from one stressful situation to the next without coming up for air to rest and replenish, we may think we’re “doing everything possible”, “necessarily sacrificing for our employer, partner, or family”, or even “being heroic”. But in reality we're running on empty causing risk levels for anxiety, weight gain, and digestive issues to soar. Failure to take good care of ourselves literally creates chemistry in our body that leads to unwanted eating behaviors, cravings, and illness.
Turn It Off!
So many situations in life are outside our control. Yet others are firmly in our control. We can put protective measures in place, both by what we eat and how we live our life, to turn off this stress response and turn on the restorative "rest and digest" state, the only state where our body can return to normal functioning. From a lifestyle perspective, studies point to the benefits of activities such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, practicing mindfulness, and being in nature, especially when practiced regularly. The temptation can be to do these “if there is time left”, rather than putting them first. Put them first. Trust how you and the rest of your day benefit as a result.
Restore Depleted Nutrients
From a dietary perspective, magnesium, and Vitamins B and C are some of the first to go during times of stress. Restoring and maintaining a healthy store of these nutrients is crucial for sustaining energy, balancing mood and cognitive function, protecting immunity, and encouraging muscle relaxation. Vitamin companies try to manufacture quick fixes and market high-absorption, but nothing beats the integrity of natural, whole, unprocessed foods. Some of the best sources of magnesium and vitamins B and C come from including in the diet:
- Cruciferous veggies. Popular choices include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and kale. (Enjoy cooked, especially if you have thyroid problems)
- Raw cacao and/or carob powder
- Nuts and seeds including almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds
- Citrus including oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes
- Whole grains, such as quinoa, oats, and brown rice
Sonja and Alex’s Stress Reducing Avocado & Quinoa Nourish Bowl is full of these nutrients and the perfect meal for stressful times.
Our Gut + Stress
A fun fact: we have ten times more microbes in our body than human cells. Studies indicate the balance of bacteria in our gut is crucial to our health and ability to respond to stress. We not only "digest" stress in our head and heart, but also in our stomach. Our intuitive sense of a situation or our gut feeling quite literally comes from our gut. Also referred to as the "second brain", our gut is home to a part of the nervous system responsible for making the majority of serotonin, the happy protective hormone. So with our gut having the ability to 'feel', 'sense', 'think', and 'remember' much like our cognitive brain, it influences our mental state. A healthy gut helps us cope with stress by producing serotonin to regulate mood and cognitive function, digest food to absorb nutrients, support immunity, regulate metabolism, weight, and more.
But the brain-gut connection goes both ways. On one hand, changes in the brain related to stress and anxiety can cause undesirable changes in the quality and quantity of gut flora. For example, one study of college students revealed a decline in good gut bacteria on exam day. On the other hand, an imbalance in the gut can directly influence the part of our brain that governs our response to stress. Another study showed 60% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) also had anxiety and depression.
A whole foods, plant-centric diet rich in fiber and beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods improves the quality and quantity of the good bacteria in our gut and helps protect our body and mind during times of stress. Finding ways to incorporate these foods into your regular diet will support the long-term health of your gut.
- Eat whole foods + lots of plants
- Minimize processed, refined, packaged products which don't benefit the good bacteria and feed the bad bacteria!
- Focus on fiber (in particular, specific types of fiber found in high amounts in the below foods):
- Sweet potato, pumpkin, winter squash, cauliflower, artichoke, radicchio/chicory, onions, garlic, leeks, oats, green tip bananas, legumes
- Enjoy fermented foods:
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, other pickled vegetables, and miso; kombucha; kefir and yogurt with “live active cultures” (sheep/goat’s milk or coconut)
- Pursue a healthy lifestyle
- Adequate sleep and other lifestyle activities previously mentioned are equally important.
- Be mindful that long-term use of birth control, antibiotics, steroids, and pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin can damage the integrity of our gut flora.
A Few Tips to Get Started
Some of these guidelines for a gut-friendly diet and restoring depleted nutrients might be familiar. Others might feel foreign and difficult to implement. Here are a few final tips for making adjustments to improve your diet:
- Start with the familiar, and go slow, one change at a time. Identify just one suggestion in this article that feels manageable. Success early on builds motivation and momentum to continue on your journey. We gain more clarity and insight when there are fewer new variables added in at once. This is especially important to remember for you multi-taskers!
- Get creative and curious experimenting how to implement a change. There may be more than one way. See what does and doesn’t work, and stick with it. When it’s right, the change should feel enjoyable as should the process of discovery. Success often hinges on the small tweaks we make to our behaviors and attitudes, rather than the major overhauls. This isn't about sacrifice, loss, or being stoically rigid.
- Forming new habits can sound a lot easier on paper in the moment, than in practice when experimenting with what can feel unnatural and strange. Many people committed to making diet and lifestyle changes find it helpful to work with a coach for support and step-by-step guidance that is tailored to their needs.