In times of stress we tend to forget everything we know about healthy eating and favour quick meals instead. They might fill us up temporarily and lead us to think that we will go back to healthier options when life is less busy but… are we fuelling the fire by not taking the time to eat well? Let’s see what we can do to counteract the effects of stress, and promote better hormonal balance:
1. What we eat is important, but also when we eat:
Skipping breakfast: Intermittent fasting is becoming very popular as a way of cutting calories and save time in the mornings. However, in a person who already suffers from stress, fasting until lunch may be counterproductive as it turns up our fight or flight response – potentially amplifying underlying issues and other symptoms like anxiety, lack of focus and afternoon energy slumps.
- Solution: if you are not big on breakfast (or don’t have time) have some smart snacks handy for the commute, or store them in the office. A clean, non-denatured whey protein shake can be a good ally; or a small handful of nuts packed with healthy fats and fibre will help you with energy levels and the stress response until your next meal.
Excessive snacking: The stress hormone cortisol and blood sugar balance are interdependent. When we snack continuously throughout the day we are causing insulin to spike and drop many times; these constant peaks and troughs promote cortisol release, which in the long-term can result in our cells losing their capacity to process the glucose (insulin sensitivity). This is one of the main reasons behind our sugar and refined carbohydrate cravings! In the long-term, this vicious cycle can promote the appearance of lifestyle illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, and contribute to mitochondrial damage (mitochondria are our energy factories).
- Solution: have some quality protein in regular meal intervals, or slow-release carbohydrates that keep us fuller for longer. And skip the snacking! If you feel peckish between meals try drinking more water or herbal teas, as sometimes thirst can be the real reason you feel constantly hungry in the office.
2. Eat the rainbow
The gut and the brain are connected! Did you know that we produce serotonin, the happy hormone, also in the gut? By having a variety of colourful fruit and vegetables not only we are providing our cells with the antioxidants needed to protect our cells from oxidative stress, but also, we are keeping our good bacteria well nourished. There is a growing body of neuroscience research now exploring the relationships between our mental health and nutrition, and the conclusions point at vegetable variety as the key to a happy gut-brain alliance.
- Solution: remember your 5-a-day? A generous mixed leaf salad, steamed cruciferous veg like broccoli and cauliflower, roasted fibrous veg medley or a homemade veg soup are perfect lunch ideas that we can prepare in advanced. Add a dash of prebiotic extra virgin olive oil or grass-fed butter to increase your brain-protective omega 3 intake.
3. Avoid stimulants
Coffee is not a food group. We tend to rely on coffee or tea to get us through the day, but in high stress environments this habit can get us in trouble if we overdo it. Caffeine amplifies the cortisol response, which as a consequence leaves our bodies in need of extra essential nutrients. When we use these crutches as a substitute for balanced meals, we are increasing our demand for vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium – all crucial for proper nervous system function and adrenal support.
- Solution: caffeine can also impair the absorption of essential nutrients like iron. If you can’t quit the habit, limit your caffeine to one or two cups in the morning, away from your meals. Dandelion coffee and rooibos tea can be helpful swaps. Herbal teas can help you reach your recommended water intake, and also provide antioxidants (green tea, rosehip); as a bonus, some of them have calming effect: camomile, lemon balm, rose, lavender…
4. Fat is not the enemy
The human brain is 60% fat. Essential fatty acids, in particular omega 3, are involved in the synthesis and functions of brain neurotransmitters and are required for maintenance of optimal health, but they cannot be synthesised by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources.
- Solution: stay away from trans-fats included in processed products, especially when they are combined with sugar, and reach out for some quality fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds or a portion of SMASH fish with your lunch (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring).