Rising fuel bills, increasing food prices and, with a ‘double-dip’ recession, it’s no wonder that many of us are feeling stressed. Finding time to relax, making sure you take at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week, and eating a nutritionally balanced diet are all key factors for a healthy lifestyle and essential components of any stress-reduction programme.
Cortisol and stress
When faced with crisis, the body responds by releasing hormones which help prime the body accordingly. Cortisol is well known as the ’stress hormone’ because it is released into the body in response to stress, along with other hormones such as adrenalin. The production of this ‘fight or flight’ hormone is a natural reaction to a traumatic event and, once the crisis is over, the body should return to its normal state. Undoubtedly, cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, but it is also important that the body’s relaxation response is activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. In times of anxiety – financial worries, low job security, lack of sleep and so on – the body’s stress response may be activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.
Food and cortisol
Whilst there are very few foods that can reduce cortisol on their own, maintaining an overall healthy diet with a good variety of nutrient-rich food groups can help reduce stress and regulate cortisol levels. In general, staying away from foods that are highly processed and high in calories derived from saturated fat and refined sugar, or foods that are high in simple carbohydrates (such as refined grains, white bread, pasta and white rice) is a good move when attempting to modify the diet to reduce cortisol. These types of foods are known to increase insulin levels, leading to the release of stress hormones which can exacerbate cortisol levels.
The glycaemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels, and is a good guide as to which to eat more of and which to avoid or reduce. Foods high in fibre, like fruit, vegetables and whole grains, have a low GI and release their complex carbohydrates slowly, thus avoiding the sudden spike in blood sugar. Good low GI carbohydrates include high-fibre cereals, whole grain products, beans, pulses, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, fruit and vegetables. Additionally, unrefined, unprocessed foods that are in their natural state tend to be high in vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, folate and zinc – all known to play a positive role in behaviour and mood – natural stress reducers.
What to eat
We are constantly advised to eat a healthy diet and this should be one that consists of a variety of foods from all the food groups: fat, protein and carbohydrate. These include fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and beans, oils, and sources of ‘good’ fats. If grains such as wheat, barley, rice and oats are included in the diet, they should be derived from whole grain foods rather than refined grains such as white flour or white rice, which are stripped of vital nutrients during processing. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colours, such as red, yellow or orange fruits, and dark green and orange vegetables helps to ensure you will consume a good variety of essential nutrients.
For dairy, try to make choices that are low in fat and choose products that are rich in calcium. Try milk, cheese, or yoghurt. Use cream and butter sparingly; although they do offer some vitamin and mineral content, their saturated fat levels means they should not be enjoyed too often! When eating meat, try to make choices that are lean such as fish, turkey or chicken. High in protein, they are excellent sources of the essential amino acids required by the body for the production of the enzymes and neurotransmitters needed to ensure we have the adequate ‘machinery’ to deal with all the body’s metabolic processes, including modulation of the stress response.
Other good sources of protein include quinoa, quorn, soya beans, chickpeas and lentils. Oily fish, as well as being high in protein and nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium and B-vitamins, is the richest available dietary source of important omega-3 fatty acids. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a particularly significant omega-3 fatty acid, as individuals who consume the highest levels (whether through direct consumption of oily fish or through supplementation of pure E-EPA oils) have been shown to have low stress levels and it is hypothesised that EPA, by directly inhibiting the over-production of cortisol,1 is responsible.
Oils are also an essential part of a healthy diet, but you should be sure that the oils are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fat. Both coconut oil and olive oil are good examples of healthy oils whose nutritional benefits are well documented. Other food sources of healthy oils include nuts, olives and avocados.
Top foods for reducing stress
Anchovies are one of the highest sources of EPA – an omega-3 fatty acid clinically shown to reduce cortisol, making it extremely beneficial for reducing the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
Vitamin C is utilised by the adrenal glands in the production of all of the adrenal hormones, most notably cortisol; high intake can help lower the production of stress hormones. Most people think of oranges as a rich source of vitamin C, whereas one large red bell pepper contains around three times the amount of vitamin C found in an average orange.
Like peppers, blueberries are a rich source of vitamin C and often hailed as one of the top ‘superfoods’ crammed with antioxidants, which repair and protect the body from the effects of stress. Blueberries also have the additional benefit of helping to regulate blood sugar levels, which can exacerbate stress if they fluctuate too much.
Dark leafy greens
Broccoli, kale, spinach and other dark green vegetables are packed with B vitamins, known to relieve stress. Most dark leafy greens also contain folic acid, which has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, panic and depression.
Rich in compounds called polyphenols – powerful antioxidants that help regulate the stress response – green tea is the ideal drink for calming the nerves and reducing stress.
Eating a healthy diet is paramount for maintaining long-term health and will help lower or regulate the levels of cortisol in the body. Whether you choose to eat three meals or six smaller meals, it is important to try to include all the nutrients that your body needs at some point throughout the day. Consuming the right foods can go a long way towards managing stress, but attention should be drawn to the detrimental effects of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, which can trigger cortisol production and should be avoided. In addition, attempting to reduce stress by incorporating exercise into your daily routine can lead to even better results. Taking walks, cycling and relaxation techniques such as yoga are all great stress reducers, with benefits relating to heart rate, blood pressure, and reduced levels of stress hormones. It’s also important to find time to relax by listening to music, reading a book or perhaps taking a warm bath.
All in all, there are plenty of ways through combining diet, exercise and relaxation techniques to combat the stresses that everyday life throws at us. Importantly, don’t stress that you are not getting it right! Ease changes into your life, so that you are happy with your choices and reap the benefits of lower stress levels.
1. Jazayeri, S. et al. Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid and fluoxetine on plasma cortisol, serum interleukin-1beta and interleukin-6 concentrations in patients with major depressive disorder. Psychiatry research 178, 112-5 (2010).