One way to keep stress at bay is through diet. “Food can’t fix stress, but it can certainly play a role in how your body responds to it,” says Lauren Elliott, a registered dietitian and wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Center for Health Management.
According to Elliott, our bodies respond to stress by producing a steroid called cortisol. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight or flight reflex. Yet too much of it, too often, can wreak havoc on our ability to manage our weight, keep our immune system functioning properly and prevent disease.
Chronic, systemic inflammation is another culprit in cortisol production, and the foods we put on our plate can support our body's resilience. Elliott shares six easy ways to reduce inflammation and use food as a natural stress reducer.
- Get colorful
A vibrant array of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes is not only visually stimulating, but it also packs an antioxidant punch. Fresh, colorful plant foods are packed with phytonutrients — bioactive plant compounds linked to better health.
When visiting the grocery store, fill your cart with lots of color. Strive to incorporate all colors, like dark reds (cherries, purple cabbage), deep greens (kale, avocado), bright oranges (squash, citrus) and light whites (cauliflower, mushrooms).
- Maximize magnesium
Magnesium has been shown to play a role in lowering inflammation, fighting depression and reducing blood pressure. One study found that magnesium deficiency is a predisposing factor for chronic inflammatory stress, and can increase the likelihood of chronic disease development.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends most adults consume between 320 to 420 milligrams of magnesium daily. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains nearly half the recommended daily intake. Other potent sources include cooked spinach, black beans, quinoa, halibut and almonds.
- Know your omegas
The Western diet is generally full of processed oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. These omega-6 fats contribute to inflammation and are found in most processed and packaged goods, from cookies and crackers to dressings and marinades.
Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, are heart-healthy and have been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms. Incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into your diet by choosing fatty fish such as salmon, cod, sardines, mackerel or tuna. Also, try adding chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed or walnuts to your smoothies, oatmeal or salads for an omega-3 boost.
- Go with your gut
Research shows a connection between the human brain and the bacteria that reside in our gut. These bacteria have many functions in promoting our overall health, such as enhancing our immune response and synthesizing new vitamins.
We can introduce this beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, to our digestive system through various foods, including ones that contain live cultures, such as yogurt or kefir. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha or kimchi, can also provide probiotics.
- Skip the simple sugar
Refined and processed foods lack the fiber and balance of protein and fat that slow digestion. Our bodies quickly assimilate this sugar and, afterward, our blood sugar levels plummet, leaving us feeling lethargic. Check nutrition labels to see the sugar content and be on the lookout for added sugars. When enjoying treats, consider choosing a smaller portion and savoring the experience of eating more indulgent foods.
- Be mindful with meals
Creating a peaceful environment for eating prepares the body for better digestion. When we are in tune with our food and not distracted, we are more capable of detecting when we are hungry and when we are full. While convenience foods make it easy to grab a bite while on the go or watching TV, take a moment to turn off the electronics and sit down to your next meal.