Stress and neurotransmitters
When we are under high stress, we can often reach for foods that are “comforting” like biscuits, donuts, cake, pastries, and chocolate bars, but these foods may not be the best choice for feeding your brain under stressful and demanding circumstances. Comfort foods are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor.
Further, under high stress we release adrenaline. This is part of our natural alarm response system. Adrenaline is an essential neurotransmitter that is released as part of the fight-flight response. It enables our body to get us to safety, shut down non-essential functions, and make sure the muscles needed for flight or flight get activated. Cortisol, a hormone, is also essential for the alarm system to function optimally.
Unfortunately, over extended periods of time, the alarm system can go into over-drive, and this is one factor that can lead to re-experiencing memories, flashbacks, hypervigilance, being on edge all the time, feeling anxious and panicky when reminded of the traumatic event, struggling with sleeping and having nightmares.
Neurotransmitters and micronutrients
Making neurotransmitters and hormones requires micronutrients like zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and niacin. If your body is depleted of these nutrients, then either it won’t have sufficient nutrients to make these essential chemicals, or it will redirect all resources to the fight-flight response (as it is so vital for survival) and there won’t be much left for ensuring optimal brain function to do things like concentrate, regulate moods and deal with anxiety.
Consequently, as micronutrients get depleted at a high rate during times of stress, we need to replenish them in greater quantity from our food (and perhaps other sources).
Restocking your micronutrients
Compare a banana to a biscuit; one obtains far more of these micronutrients (like potassium, magnesium, folate) that are required for brain function from a banana. Reaching for a carrot stick and dipping it in hummus would be better for your brain than gorging down a commercial meat pie (although meat pies can be healthy if they contain lots of vegetables too). Choosing nuts and seeds over pretzels would also give you better brain food.
Question: where can we get micronutrients from?
Answer: nutrient-dense foods – that is, real food, not highly processed foods.
Overall, to cope well with stress, your goal should be to increase intake of plant food and food high in nutrient density while still getting adequate protein, fats and carbs. Fish is a great source of protein and of essential fatty acids, which are also vital for brain function. In eating these types of foods, you would be shifting your diet from a Western type of diet (highly processed, high in sugar) to a Mediterranean-style diet (high in fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, healthy fats and low in processed foods).
The simplest (and most cost effective) way to get your essential nutrients is to ensure you eat different types and colours of food. Have a look at your plate…what’s the predominant colour? Sadly, those delicious comfort foods like donuts, chips and bread tend to be yellow and brown, meaning a lot of refined sugar and fat, providing very little nutrition. Eat your greens, reds, purples and oranges first, then if you’re still craving that donut, you’ll be good to go.
Professor Julia Rucklidge
School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing
Director of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group