Economic upheavals, downsizing, bankruptcies, tough deadlines and tougher business targets—stress has become the most constant of companions for the urban professional. And we are not even touching the personal issues.
The consequences of this are many, and none of them good: Physical illnesses ranging from high blood pressure to colds, marital dysfunction, anxiety, even depression. Workwise, it can hit productivity at work, as fatigue caused by stress affects the ability to think clearly.
How does one recognize the symptoms of fatigue? Sleepiness, irritability, decreased attention span, slow reactions, and short-term memory loss may be signs of fatigue. Consult your doctor if you suffer from any of these. But for now, let’s look at what we should eat to fight stress.
A nutritious diet can counteract the impact of stress by boosting immunity levels and help lower blood pressure. Certain foods are high in serotonin—a calming chemical found in the brain that is known to have a positive effect on mood. These include foods like oats with milk (a great way to start the day since the complex carbs in oats also provide sustained release of energy through the day). You can also add nuts, especially sunflower seeds and peanuts, and egg white in your diet.
Foods like chicken or chocolate are great stress-busters too. These are high in tryptophan, an amino acid which triggers the release of the “feel good” serotonin.
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates will help you work better and longer since they cause a constant and slow release of sugar, providing sustained energy. These include products from wholegrains, pulses, fruits and vegetables. Simple sugars, in contrast, will spike your blood sugar levels, flooding you with energy for a short time, and then causing a massive slump.
Some simple sugars like those in dark chocolate, however, can help in temporarily elevating mood because chocolate contains phenylethylamine—a mood-regulating chemical found naturally in the brain—and also boosts the production of serotonin. So eat it in moderation and in conjunction with a complex carb for longer effect.
Apricots are rich in magnesium.
Vitamin C-rich foods, like oranges and cantaloupes, help reduce stress and regulate blood pressure and cortisol levels in stressful situations. Vitamin C is also known to boost immunity. Fortify yourself with foods high in vitamin B, zinc and magnesium—because we use these up very quickly in response to stress. Apricots and spinach are high in magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. Low levels of it can lead to migraine and fatigue.
Nuts too are full of vitamin B, zinc and magnesium. Keep a pack of mixed nuts (without salt) handy in times of anxiety. Since they are high in protein, they curb hunger and naturally balance sugar levels.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help heart health and brain function, also improve our ability to cope with stress. Oily fish like mackerel, salmon, trout or sardines are all rich sources. Oily fish also contain vitamin B, zinc and magnesium. Sushi is a great choice because it gives you the benefits of omega-3, and has seaweed, which is high in B12, magnesium and pantothenic acid, which contributes to the health of the adrenal glands that play a major role in stress management.
The adrenal glands produce their hormones in response to stress and are responsible for the fight or flight response. In a stressful situation, they raise your blood pressure, transfer blood from your intestines to your body’s extremities, increase your heart rate, suppress your immune system and increase your blood’s clotting ability.
Garlic is well-known for its potent antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. It reduces inflammation, supports circulation, balances blood sugar levels and also detoxifies the body—all of which are compromised in the face of stress.
Nutritive stress-busters: Garlic has antibacterial properties.
Berries, especially raspberries, contain the highest level of ellagic acid, a chemical known to help eliminate toxins in the body as well as regulate female hormones.
Chamomile tea is widely used to treat insomnia and anxiety. Chamomile raises the level of hippuric acid, a chemical that fights infection, in the body. It also helps regulate digestive issues like stress-related irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
It is not for nothing that cocoa in Latin is called theobroma or “food of the gods”. And chocolate is obtained from it. As little as 40g of dark chocolate a day can help you cope with stress by releasing “happy chemicals” called endorphins in the brain.
The best way to incorporate all the food above is to eat small meals through the day, which also keeps blood sugar levels stable. When blood sugar levels fluctuate, it affects mental, physical and emotional energy.
Foods to avoid
Caffeine: Caffeine injects adrenalin into your system, giving you a temporary boost, but makes you fatigued and depressed later. As a result, one very often takes more caffeine to counteract these effects, and ends up spending the day in an agitated state, jumpy and even edgy by night. It also increase the stress hormone cortisol that increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, the effect of which we have already discussed.
Sugar: It causes obvious spikes in blood sugar levels which make the adrenalin glands lose their ability to control stress hormones, causing anxiety, irritation and mood swings.
Alcohol: Apart from the fact that it adds unnecessary sugar to the body, and is harmful, alcohol is a known depressant—clearly, it doesn’t help in achieving a happy state of mind!
Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.
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