Food for thought! Relieving stress using food

Stress, feelings of overwhelm, worry and fear are all normal and understandable reactions as we face the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are in extraordinary times, and therefore extraordinary measures need to be taken when it comes to managing stress.  One of the best interventions to combat stress is to nourish your body with foods that can help promote positive mental health.

Stripping back stress

Stress affects all systems of the body and triggers biological responses. Stress can be positive, propelling us into action via the ‘fight/flight response’, allowing us to perform well or stay safe. However, when stress is chronic, it can create internal chaos, and we might be left:

  • Feeling tired

  • Feeling depressed or anxious

  • Lacking motivation and inability to concentrate and make clear decisions

  • Craving foods – especially salty and sweet foods

  • Feeling irritable and less tolerant

  • Having difficulty with sleep

  • With brain fog and lacking clarity

  • With physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, upset stomach, or low blood sugar

We cannot control a lot of what is happening around us right now with this COVID-19 pandemic, but doing the things we can control, like what foods we choose, can be critical in preserving mental health and managing stress during this time.

Eight food tips to beat stress

Eat regularly

Avoid skipping meals to prevent those blood sugar crashes, which may result in cravings and fatigue.  However, do avoid snacking late into the night so that your body gets essential rest from digesting overnight.

Love your gut 

Your gut is a collection of trillions of bacteria, the microbiome, that influence all aspects of health, including brain health via the gut-brain connection.  Include a wide variety of seasonal and colourful fruits and vegetables for prebiotic fibres to feed the microbiome.  And for a natural source of probiotics include fermented foods like kefir and natural unsweetened yoghurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut.  

Maximise the magnesium, zinc and B vitamins

 These essential vitamins play a vital role in helping your brain handle stress better.  These can be found in green leafy vegetables, legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and beans, in fish, grass-fed beef and free-range poultry and eggs, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, avocados, and nuts.

Foods to support sleep  

I’m a firm believer (and see consistent proof of this with my patients) that when you sleep well, so many other conditions seem to improve, especially stress.  The body works hard during sleep carrying out essential healing and repair.  To improve sleep, avoid stimulants like caffeine, chocolate, and alcohol in the afternoon and evening and maintain a consistent sleep time and routine.

Sip away the stress

 The act of making a cup of tea can be quite stress-relieving in itself, forcing a moment of a ‘pause’.  Choose herbal blends that help with relaxation like chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, passionflower or green tea.

Ditch the sugar

 In times of stress, it is common to reach for the packaged and sugary foods.  However, these added refined sugars can increase anxiety and cause cravings and fatigue.  Swap out the refined sugars and ‘white’ carbohydrates, like sweets, white bread and pasta, processed cereals, soft drinks and sweet drinks.  Include whole food low-GI options such as brown basmati rice & quinoa, wholegrain sourdoughs, steel-cut oats, whole fruits, and sweet potato. 

Praise the protein

Protein provides the amino acids that are needed for essential brain chemicals – neurotransmitters – that make positive emotions and help combat feelings of stress.  Animal foods such as grass-fed meats and dairy, fish, free-range poultry and eggs, contain all eight essential amino acids making them a ‘complete protein’.  Vegetarian and vegan protein sources include eating a combination and wide variety of things like quinoa, hemp, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds.

High five the healthy fats

Healthy fast are essential for brain health, reducing inflammation and helping to stabilise mood.  Dress your salad with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, include oily fish like sardines or salmon twice a week, snack on raw nuts like almonds, walnuts or brazil nuts, have a side of eggs and avocado, and ditch the refined vegetable oils.

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

Focus on adding in the ‘good stuff’ and ‘crowd out’ the foods that don’t serve our mental health.  By eating nourishing foods rich in all the essential nutrients for combatting stress, eating less out of a packet and more real food, our bodies can be fuelled to maintain positive mental health.


Source: Emily Connell Nutritional Medicine 

Emiy Connell, BHSc Nutritional Medicine, BAppSc Occupational Therapy

Emily is a Nutritional Medicine practitioner, writer, speaker, facilitator and trainer.  Emily combines her passion for Nutritional Medicine with her background in Occupational Therapy, mental health & management to support people to achieve health & inspire wellness.  

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