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Managing Stress

by Suzanne Caithamer, RD

Stress is everywhere in our modern society. It is a primary risk factor in many chronic illnesses, including the rise of heart issues. Though it may be impossible to avoid, the key takeaway here is to try to manage stress so it does not cause ill effects on the body and mind.

Stress can affect us physically, emotionally, or mentally. Physical signs of stress include irregular heartbeat, digestive issues (haven’t we all felt that queasy stomach before giving a presentation, or some other anxiety-inducing event?), insomnia, headaches, and numerous aches and pains, especially in the chest and/or jaw. Other signs include irritability, anger, depression, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. There are numerous signs and symptoms of excess stress on a person, and chances are you are familiar with some of them.

Many turn to alcohol or comfort foods in times of stress. After all, a bowl of ice cream or a beer or two is going to soothe your brain much more than a bowl of broccoli, right? Not so fast. While rich, sugary foods can temporarily give your mood a boost, it is just that – temporary – and often feelings of guilt after overeating can make one’s mood even worse.

On the flip side, there are certain superfoods to include in your diet that can help with an improvement in mood. Some foods contain compounds or vitamins that help your brain produce beneficial neurotransmitters (“chemical messengers” in the brain that help to regulate mood). If you find yourself in a chronic stress situation, or exhibit some of the symptoms of stress or anxiety mentioned above, try including these foods in your diet regularly.

  • Blueberries have a deep pigment called anthocyanin which helps the brain produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.
  • Salmon and other fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce feelings of anxiety.
  • Dark leafy greens are high in folate, which also helps produce dopamine, and serotonin, two “feel-good” neurotransmitters. They are also good sources of magnesium, along with avocados, nuts, and seeds. Magnesium acts as a precursor for neurotransmitters like serotonin. A deficiency of magnesium can trigger anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, according to Carolyn Dean, MD, in the book The Magnesium Miracle.
  • Organic dark chocolate produces anandamide in the brain, a neurotransmitter that temporarily blocks feelings of depression and pain.
  • Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut or kefir (a fermented yogurt-based beverage), contain probiotics which can help keep your intestinal lining intact and working well. A healthy, well-functioning digestive system directly affects brain health, as they are connected by the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the gut. Feeding your gut processed foods and sugar can disrupt the healthy balance of bacteria present, and lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and poor mood, among other things.

While you may have to take a multi-faceted approach to stress relief, rest assured that your diet can play a role in how you feel on a daily basis. Highly nutritious foods like those mentioned above will help your body and brain deal with today’s stressful lifestyles.

If you or someone you know needs additional guidance and accountability with changing nutrition in order to maximize health, please call our office so we can help you with the process!

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