Fight Stress With Food? Yes, Really!
Because stress is widely believed to influence heart health, health pros often encourage stress reduction methods as part of an overall strategy for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. But don’t overlook the power of food.
Many of us have a tendency to reach for unhealthful comfort food when stressed or depressed, but some foods really can help relieve stress and anxiety. It’s a win-win proposition because not only do these foods help combat stress, which in turn may improve heart health, but many, such as nuts,whole grains, fruits, and veggies, are also known to have a more direct effect on cardiovascular health. Adding these nutritious foods to your meal plan can join an overall healthful diet, exercise, and relaxation training as core weapons in the fight against heart disease.
In 2007, Kristen Brown’s healthy, 31-year-old husband died suddenly from a heart attack. Her emotions were turned upside down, and she searched for a way to cope with her feelings.
Instead of turning to antidepressants as her doctor recommended, the now 34-year-old mom and author of The Best Worst Thing: A Memoir,searched for a more natural path. “I changed my eating habits to include more fruits, vegetables,and grass-fed meats and less processed foods and cut way back on alcohol,” explains Brown, who also supplemented with B vitamins and tried herbs to diminish stress. “It helped tremendously, and the healthy food habits have continued and are being instilled in my daughter as well.”
Uncontrollable variables, such as the death of a loved one, job stress, marital troubles, problems with work-life balance, illness, and financial woes,can all lead to anxiety, stress, or depression, particularly if genetics already predispose you to the blues.
“Diet, on the other hand, is something we can control,” says Lisa Cimperman, RD, of University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s unlikely a vitamin or mineral deficiency would be the sole cause of trouble in someone suffering from anxiety or depression, according to Cimperman, but there’s no doubt nutrition can impact mental health.
For example, B vitamin deficiencies can cause symptoms of fatigue and anxiety. “Vegetarians are at risk for B12 deficiency, which can cause pernicious anemia and the associated fatigue,” Cimperman explains. She also points to new research that may indicate an association between low vitamin D levels and fatigue, irritability, and depression. In addition,other preliminary studies have indicated that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may help fight depression.
“Foods can affect your mood because they contain essential nutrients, like protein, fats, and carbohydrates, that support proper functioning of your brain,” says Teerawong Kasiolarn, ND, MSAc,a naturopathic doctor at Nova Medical and Urgent Care Center in Loudoun County, Virginia. If stress,mild depression, or anxiety are getting you down,he recommends looking at your intake of the following:
- Protein: Also known as the “happiness hormone,” serotonin is not technically a hormone but is important for regulating mood, appetite, sleep, cognitive function, and muscle contraction. The amino acid tryptophan, found in protein food sources, can affect serotonin, which means restricted or inadequate protein can negatively affect serotonin levels and lead to moodiness and depression. Nuts such as pecans, walnuts, and almonds also contain tryptophan and can improve depression and promote relaxation.
- Iron: Extreme fatigue, which can cause depression,is sometimes the result of iron-deficiency anemia,which may explain why some menstruating women feel extra tired during their periods. Iron is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the blood, and myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscles. Certain herbs, such as thyme,parsley, and basil, as well as dried beans; eggs;beef; shellfish; salmon; whole grains; almonds; and vegetables including kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli, supply iron to the body and may be just the ticket during menstruation.
- Vitamin B12: Depression may occur if there’s insufficient intake of vitamin B12, which is required for proper neurological function, DNA synthesis, and the production of red blood cells, which prevent anemia. Liver, clams, shrimp, scallops, salmon, beef,kelp, and fermented plant products such as tempeh,miso, or tofu can raise B12 levels.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression, chronic fatigue, and muscle pain as well as osteoporosis, PMS, hypertension,and cancers such as breast, colon, and prostate. Cimperman suggests looking for fortified milk,liver, and calcium supplements to boost vitamin D levels. In addition, Cimperman says 15 minutes of sun exposure on the face and arms three times per week will help keep vitamin D levels up. “Vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol, is a natural form of vitamin D supplement,” Kasiolarn says. However,he suggests avoiding less effective synthetic forms of vitamin D, such as vitamin D2 and ergocalciferol.
- Magnesium: Those suffering from magnesium deficiency are also at risk of chronic fatigue,increased muscle tension, irregular heartbeat,insomnia, and restless leg syndrome, which can all cause depression or anxiety. “Magnesium is a very important mineral because it is used in hundreds of enzyme reactions in our body,” Kasiolarn explains.
Green, leafy vegetables; whole grains; nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans; and seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, sesame,and flax all contain magnesium. Magnesium supplements are available as well, but it’s best to obtain the mineral through food. “Avoid taking magnesium oxide or magnesium citrate, which are poorly absorbed and can upset your digestive system, leading to diarrhea or loose stools,” Kasiolarn says.
“Diet can really play an important role in how we think and feel,” Kasiolarn says. Poor dietary choices, such as processed foods with little or no nutritional value or foods with high amounts of saturated and trans fats,preservatives, artificial colors, and other food additives, can cause inflammation and disrupt the production of serotonin. Kasiolarn also suggests staying away from refined carbohydrates such as candy and cookies as well as caffeine and alcohol. “High-quality, nutrient-dense foods,such as unrefined whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, essential fats, and quality proteins low in saturated fats, are all part of a healthy dietary program that can make you feel well and balanced physically and emotionally,” Kasiolarn says.
If anxiety or depression originates from social or personal stressors, such as divorce, a death in the family, or poor workplace environment, Kasiolarn says, dietary modifications may help, but a psychologist or a psychiatrist should address persistent psychological stress.
4 FOODS TO AVOID
1) Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, soda,and chocolate, can cause anxiety and raise stress hormone levels.
2) Sugar causes spikes in blood glucose levels and increases insulin. This affects your adrenal glands, which regulate stress hormones and help the thyroid regulate body weight.
3) Trans fatty acids such as hydrogenated vegetable oil are found in many baked goods and can hinder the immune system and increase the risk of heart disease.
4) Alcohol puts more sugar in the body,and excessive consumption can damage the adrenal glands.