Eating well under high stress

When coping with stress in the aftermath of traumatic events, sweet comfort foods may not exactly feed your head. What food choices can really help the brain and body deal better with stress?

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Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

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 (and it doesn’t actually matter what has caused the high stress, whether it be a natural disaster like an earthquake or fire, or witnessing something really traumatic, like the recent shooting in Christchurch), the reactions our body goes through can be quite similar. 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.

Making neurotransmitters and hormones requires micronutrients, which are numerous kinds of vitamins and minerals. This is a well-established scientific fact. Micronutrients like zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and niacin are all essential for making neurotransmitter chemicals for the brain and the body. 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).

Where can we get these micronutrients from?

Answer: Nutrient-dense foods; real food, not highly processed foods.

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. Eating kale chips over potato chips would also provide more nutrients. 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.

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).

Therefore, stop counting calories and start focusing on nutrients, especially nutrients that are good for your brain.

Would this be sufficient to soothe the over activated alarm system in a situation of high and chronic stress? Possibly, although some people might need more nutrients than what they can get out of their diet, even if it is a healthy one. There are many reasons for this, some of which reflect reduced nutrient density in modern foods, some of which are due to our own specific genetic make-up, and some have to do with the health of our microbiome (the millions of helpful bacteria that live inside us, especially in our gut).

If you do need to consume more nutrients than what you can source from your diet, or you are struggling with cooking due to your particular circumstances and the stresses you are experiencing, or you are time poor because of family or work demands, what do you take in terms of a supplement? Our research following the Christchurch earthquakes as well as other research on stressed communities shows that B vitamins in particular can be helpful. In addition, some may find reduction of intrusive thoughts require additional minerals as well. Feel free to email us specifically for more information on what supplements have been studied: mentalhealthnutrition@canterbury.ac.nz

Speaking of vitamins and minerals, 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.

Here are some more self-care basics to help heal and cope after a traumatic event.