It’s a familiar pattern. You have a string of stressful days, begin to feel rundown, moody, or anxious, and you need comfort, fast! Food that soothes in the moment later leaves you feeling bloated, crampy, or constipated, and the anxiety returns. You might not even realize the self-justification dialogue running in the background: you deserve a reward for coping, right?
Stress is a quirky concept. We tend to think it’s something that happens to us, but it is often something we create from our perceptions and reactions to a situation. In other words, we have more control over how much we feel stressed than we realize, especially in terms of building up energy levels and protecting our immunity and mental wellbeing. Below, I’ll provide guidelines that help you redefine comfort food as food that honestly nourishes and position you to feel incrementally better when stressed, including:
- How to healthfully “digest” stress using your food and lifestyle
- How the health of the gut affects our ability to cope with stress, and vice versa
- How diet can improve gut health, boost immunity, mood, energy, and protect our sanity
We all know about “fight-or-flight”, the body’s automatic initial reaction to perceived stressors. To ensure we respond defensively to danger, our body puts us in high-alert survival mode by raising stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. But our bodies were never designed to be on high-alert 24/7, like they so often are today. So when chronic stress leaves this fight-or-flight response in the permanent “On” position, it depletes energy and nutrient stores.
Translation: If we run from one stressful situation to the next without coming up for air to rest and replenish, we may think we’re “doing everything possible”, “necessarily sacrificing for our employer, partner, or family”, or even “being heroic”. But in reality, we’re running on empty, which causes risk levels to soar for anxiety, weight gain, and digestive issues. Failure to take good care of ourselves literally creates chemistry in our body that leads to unwanted eating behaviors, cravings, and illness.
Turn It Off!
So many situations in life are outside our control. Yet others are firmly in our control. We can put protective measures in place, both by what we eat and how we live our life, to turn off this stress response and turn on the restorative “rest and digest” state, the only state where our body can return to normal functioning. From a lifestyle perspective, studies point to the benefits of activities such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, practicing mindfulness, and being in nature, especially when practiced regularly. The temptation can be to do these “if there is time left”, rather than putting them first. Put them first. Trust how you and the rest of your day benefit as a result.
Restore Depleted Nutrients
From a dietary perspective, magnesium and Vitamins B and C are some of the first to go during times of stress. Restoring and maintaining a healthy store of these nutrients is crucial for sustaining energy, balancing mood and cognitive function, protecting immunity, and encouraging muscle relaxation. While vitamin companies try to manufacture quick fixes and market high-absorption, nothing beats the integrity of natural, whole, unprocessed foods. Some of the best sources of magnesium and Vitamins B and C come from including in the following foods in your diet:
- Cruciferous veggies including broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and
kale (enjoy cooked, especially if you have thyroid problems)
- Raw cacao and/or carob powder
- Nuts and seeds, including almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds
- Citrus, including oranges, grapefruits, lemon, limes
- Whole grains, such as quinoa, oats, and brown rice