(BBC) – What you eat could improve how your body responds to stress, according to experts. Introducing some new foods while cutting back on others may reduce the impact stress has on your body and day-to-day life. Here are four dietary changes designed to help you handle stress better.
As well as feeding you, the food you eat feeds the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Some studies find regulating gut bacteria via diet can have a positive impact on anxiety symptoms. The amount and types of bacteria in your gut are affected by your diet, and good dietary choices can “communicate calm to the brain”, according to Dr Rangan Chaterjee.
“The cheapest and simplest thing you can do to diversify and optimise the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut is to increase the variety of foods you eat…. Try to eat five different coloured vegetables every day”, says Dr Chaterjee. That’s because “minimally processed wholefoods – fibre” are best for your gut bacteria.
How does it work? The body cannot digest some fibre, including that found in many fruits and vegetables, so it’s fermented in the gut. Here it supports the growth of helpful microbes. As part of the fermentation process, the bacteria release essential chemicals and acids that interact with all the cells in your body. This interaction influences brain and immune health, according to Felice Jacka, Head of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia.
Jacka recommends eating foods from the Mediterranean diet, such as “fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, which all contain plant fibre”. She says fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir can nurture bacteria and yeasts in the gut, as well as being good for your wider health.
If your idea of dealing with stress is downing a pint of ice cream, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a ‘sugar high’, and possibly the ‘crash’ that comes afterwards. When you eat lots of sugar, your body releases insulin to absorb the excess glucose and regulate your blood-sugar levels. This journey of ups and downs may have negative side-effects, such as lack of concentration and tiredness, which can “hinder your ability to cope with stressful situations”, according to dietitian Sophie Medlin.
Positive and negative effects of caffeine on anxiety have been recorded. Most studies are based on research done with people already diagnosed with anxiety, but dietician Medlin says the results can often be applied to people suffering from everyday stress.
“The way you react may depend on your genetic sensitivity to caffeine, your gender and how much you drink, as well as existing anxious feelings”, says Medlin. Drinking caffeine can affect your sleep, which may impact the way you deal with stress. If drinking or eating caffeine negatively affects you, it’s a good idea to switch to decaf (although do this slowly, as caffeine withdrawals are no joke!).
“Never go into any stressful situation hungry… we’ve long recognised that hunger leads to irritability”, says Medlin. When you’re hungry, your blood sugar drops and your cortisol and adrenaline – those fight-or-flight hormones – rise. This is because the neuropeptides, secreted by neurons to control the chemicals in the brain, are the same for hunger as for anger. “Your body is pretty much still a caveman”, says Medlin. This explains why we often become irritable when peckish.
Adding ‘hanger’ to a stressful situation can enhance negative emotions. Have a few healthy snacks at hand to keep hunger pangs at bay, especially if you’re expecting a trying day.