Nutrition, Stress and Mental Health
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and stress is a large component to overall mental health and wellness. In this post we are going to look at some lifestyle choices you can make to improve your stress response and consequently improve your mental health.
• Overeat or mindlessly eat?
• Eat late at night?
• Eat when you are not hungry?
• Eat when you are nervous, sad or mad?
• Get orally fidgety and need a food pacifier?
• Live on fat food due to lack of time?
• Crave sweets?
• Eat too much fat and salt?
• Skip meals or forget to eat?
• Delay eating until you are starving?
Stress and hectic lifestyles can affect your rating patterns and food choices. The stress hormone cortisol depletes your blood sugar and makes you hungry. All of which can make you crave “bad” carbohydrates that give you an energy rush followed by a crash…leaving you “hungry” for more “bad” foods like sweets and fatty/salty foods. This is a vicious cycle that is all fueled by stress.
Try these eating suggestions to help break the stress cycle…
Eat a protein rich breakfast each and every morning – Your brain and body run on fuel in the form of protein, fats and complex carbohydrates. The brain’s energy come primarily from carbohydrates, and skipping breakfast can cause “alarm” that releases stress hormones. Your first meal of the day really is the most important (just like your mom told you) Protein helps to curb hunger longer and won’s give you the crash that sugary foods do.
Eat low-glycemic, whole foods – The glycemic index (GI) measures the rise in clood sugar after consuming a food – the higher GI food causes greater spike in blood sugar and can feed the stress cycle. As a general rule, stick with whole foods (nuts, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and raw fruits and vegetable) that are minimally processed – most of which have a low glycemic load and also have a higher nutritional value. Avoid foods that are packaged, high in sugar and/or fried.
Eat small and frequent meals – keep your brain happy by eating 3 meals and 2 snacks daily. Eating every 3-4 hours also helps to maintain blood sugar levels. Blood sugar drops when you are hungry, which can signal unhealthy cravings and cause you to overeat. Plus smaller portions mean fewer excess calories at meals that can potentially be stored at fat. This can also be helpful at preventing late night snacking.
Don’t feed emotions with junk food – Ask yourself is you are really hungry when you are reaching for food. Eating to feed emotional hunger rather than your physical need can wreak havoc on an otherwise healthy diet. Emotional eaters may eat when bored (for an activity), when upset or stressed (instead of facing difficult emotions) or when generally dissatisfied with life (to fill a void). Once the underlying issues are identifies and dealt with, food won’t have the same pull on you.
Find new “comfort” foods – your favorite indulgence foods – or the ones you crave in times of stress – may the worst for you (high in saturated fat, salt and sugar). If this sounds familiar, try to substitute your usual comfort foods with low-glycemic load food you like to eat (and keep them on hand) If you suddenly crave a soda, go with a bubbly mineral water. If you crave a cookie, consider a piece of fruit with nut butter.
Reducing stress can be as simple as changing your eating habits. You are not only what you eat but also how you eat it and both may be adding unnecessary stress to your life, or helping to keep you stressed. These suggestions not only help you manage stress better, but also reduce your risk for chronic disease.
Adopting a healthful diet should be one of the first steps a patient should take in alleviating depression symptoms and reducing stroke risk. A recent study conducted at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria found, for example, that a diet high in trans-fats and saturated fats increased depression risk while switching to polyunsaturated fats found in fish and olive oil reduced the risk by 48%. Other foods to avoid include sugars, refined flours, and alcohol.
Exercise is another important way to ease depression and anxiety symptoms while improving cardiovascular health. Two studies released last year find that sessions of at least 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise had lasting positive effects on mood and stress levels. To encourage the exercise habit, choose one that is fun and fits well into your current lifestyle.
Lastly, smoking cessation is essential for both physical and mental health. A study from Brown University this past December finds that quitting smoking makes people happier and elevates mood, despite the stereotype that smoking eases anxiety.
Click here to take our stress survey, then compare it to our scorecard by clicking here. If you rate high on this test, please consider scheduling an appointment and taking a functional medicine approach to stress management.
In good health,
Dr. Kim Bruno