It is generally accepted that how we feel can influence what we choose to eat or drink, but what is less well known is how what we eat can affect our mental health. There are several reasons why what we eat affects our mental health, including fluctuations in blood sugar levels, influencing our mood and energy levels. There are links between vitamin B deficiencies and schizophrenia, lack of zinc and eating disorders, and low levels of omega-3 oils and its impact on depressive symptoms.
The relationship between nutrition and stress is complex because when we are stressed we desire high fat, sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol – all of which compound the stress. Eating these foods increases the likelihood of stress because our bodies will not be at optimum defence. Furthermore, during stressful periods, we often feel like we haven’t the time or motivation to prepare healthy meals and will often opt for fast food, which inevitably contains lots of fat and/or be high in sugar.
The following are the main foods which impact upon stress:
Caffeine encourages the body to release adrenalin and cortisone, which are already heightened during stressful periods. In addition, the stress response will be greater if you already have heightened adrenalin circulating through your bloodstream. If you feel you need excess caffeine to overcome tiredness, it is probably time you allowed your body to rest, rather than mask the fatigue.
With already increased glucose in the bloodstream during periods of stress, the consumption of sugar accentuates this response making the pancreas work even harder. Sugar can also result in mood highs and lows which can lead to feelings of aggression, anxiety, confusion, depression, fatigue and irritability.
Fats in moderation and from the right type of foods e.g. Omega 3 fats are essential to the body and reduce the symptoms of depression. However, during periods of stress, we often crave foods which are high in saturated fats e.g. chocolate, biscuits, due to the cortisol which is produced as part of the stress response, which further increases risks to health.
When consumed in moderation, alcohol has a relaxing effect on the body. However, because regular heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains (needed for positive mental health) it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. It will also make the body release large amounts of adrenaline and can result in feelings of nervousness, anxiety and reduce the quality of your sleep.
Eat your way to a healthy stress level:
- Try to eat low fat and low sugar foods on a regular basis to maintain blood sugar levels.
- Don’t skip meals and make sure you have healthy snacks to top up on if you’re energy levels drop.
- Dehydration can affect how you feel physically and mentally, so make sure you stay hydrated by aiming for 1-2 litres of water a day.
- Keep a food diary for a week to see how different foods affect your mood and stress levels. Record how you feel emotionally and physically after each meal.