Healthy eating during stress

Everyday stressors from parenting, work, community volunteering and otherwise spreading ourselves thin create an ideal platform for the body to exist in chronic stress. We know what we need to do—be in nature, meditate, eat whole foods, exercise and sleep eight hours per night. Instead, we skimp on self-care in order to simply survive.

Then a traumatic event occurs and our stress levels spike. This week, for example, I was the victim of identity theft. Besides the discomfort of feeling violated, I had to drop everything to deal with the bank process, filing reports, canceling credit cards. My blood raced, my heart rate increased and my nervous system reverberated—the perfect storm for inflammation, nutrient-depletion and illness.

Thankfully, I’ve been through high-stress scenarios like this before, so I knew what nutritional remedies to initiate: Start with food (and perhaps supplements) that mitigates immediate stress, helps sustain my energy and focus, and fuels my body during worrisome experiences.

Whole foods—ideally plant-based and low in toxins—will support and calm the body and mind during a stress response. Specific nutrients depleted by stress can be restored with foods rich in the following:

  • B-vitamins in a wide range of whole foods: eggs, fish, milk, nuts, legumes, mushrooms, avocadoes, spinach.
  • Vitamin C to support the adrenals and immune system: citrus, orange-colored fruits and vegetables, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts.
  • Magnesium to calm the nervous system and maintain energy metabolism: whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, spices and, my favorite, dark chocolate (70 percent or higher).
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (and especially EPA) to reduce brain inflammation and support nerve signaling: wild, fatty fish, which may be easier to obtain from supplements when stress is acute.
  • Probiotics to aid nutrient digestion/absorption, support the immune system, balance blood pressure: whole-fat plain yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and other naturally fermented foods.
  • Antioxidants to reduce stress hormone activity and provide more oxygen to the brain: beans, nuts, fruits, berries, acai, colorful veggies, ginger, turmeric extract.
  • Nutrients to support the endocannabinoid system, the body’s natural regulator of homeostasis: maca, black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, basil, cruciferous vegetables.

What we don’t put into the body is as important as what we consume. Avoid foods high in pro-inflammatory compounds and low in nutrients: refined and processed foods; baked goods high in sugar and unhealthy fats; fried foods.

Hydration is key. Ensure ample intake of water, and avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine.

Finally, eat meals and snacks every few hours to maintain blood sugar balance. Don’t wait until you’re starving and make eating your only task. Sit down to eat deliberately, away from the computer or the steering wheel.

Here’s a practical example of well-balanced, easy-to-prepare meals for an especially stressful day:

Breakfast—sautéed eggs, kale and mushrooms with a side of sauerkraut.

Mid-morning snack—smoothie with ginger tea, leafy greens, frozen mango, cinnamon, maca, cod liver oil and avocado.

Lunch—whole-fat plain yogurt, chopped nuts and seeds, blueberries.

Mid-afternoon snack--two large squares of salted dark chocolate dipped in almond butter.

Dinner—bowl of quinoa, beans, roasted Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower with turmeric, black pepper and rosemary, and a tahini-lemon-olive oil-ginger dressing.

Jamie Truppi, MSN, is an integrative nutritionist focusing on functional foods and family wellness.

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