Maintaining a Healthful Diet During Times of Stress

We are all faced with stress during our lifetime. Certainly, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasing need for stress management resources and the need to maintain adequate nutritional status.

Stress has an impact on every system of your body- including sleep patterns, menstrual cycle (in women), immune function, blood pressure, and even blood sugar levels.

In this article, I will discuss how you can maintain a healthy diet during times of stress. I will talk about the impact of stress on your body, which nutrients you need more of when stressed, and give tips on how to manage stress.

Let’s get to it!

>To skip to “Tips for Reducing Stress Levels“, click here<

To read up on two dietary patterns that may help relieve stress, check out:

Effects of Stress on Your Body

There are many different types of stress- work-related stress, stress over health or the health of a loved one, financial stress, stress over your children, relationships, upcoming events, etc. The list goes on and on.

However, no matter what type of stress you are experiencing, it’s killing you. Literally killing you.

However, not all stress is associated with negative emotions and experiences. Certain life stressors are “good”, such as getting married, getting a promotion, moving to a new house, etc. Stress is simply a response to physical and emotional demands.

Whenever we feel stressed, this usually means that the demands of the situation exceed all of our available resources.

For this article, I will be referring to negatively associated stressors and their effects on the human body.

woman with hands covering her face as she stresses over a variety of life issues

Stress and Brain Health

Ultimately, it is our brain that decides what is stressful. It also determines our behavioral and physiological responses, whether health-promoting or health-damaging. This process involves many chemical, neurological, and hormonal processes, which are very complex and beyond my scope of practice.

However, many studies have taught us the effects of stress on brain function which I can touch on.

Long-term stress can contribute to negative conditions ranging from mental illness and depression to shrinking the volume of your brain.

Chronic stress can also result in long-term changes to your brain. This may explain why some people are more prone to mood and anxiety disorders later in life, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Socially stressful events have also been shown to kill new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for the formation of new memories, learning, and emotions. In particular, studies show that people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) have smaller hippocampi than those without PTSD.

With that, it is also important to note that different kinds of stress affect the brain in different ways. Recent stressful events (job loss, car accident) can affect emotional awareness. Whereas traumatic events (death of a loved one, serious illness) have a greater impact on mood centers.

In addition, an accumulation of stressful events makes it more difficult to deal with future stresses, particularly if future stresses are more demanding of your emotions and efforts to overcome them.

Stress and Immune System

Stress also plays a role in your immune health. Research shows that those under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses and common colds along with other infections. This is because stress increases inflammation and decreases your body’s ability to release antibodies to fight off viruses and infections.

In the case of chronic stress, immune function may be impacted so severely that it leads to mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and autoimmune diseases.

Even acute stresses can lead to fatigue, decreased appetite, listlessness, or having little interest in anything- usually associated with depression.

Stress and Heart Health

While stress is not listed as a risk factor for heart disease by the American Heart Association, they do agree that it can negatively impact heart health.

Several studies show a strong association between stress and cardiovascular diseases. Again, this is due to chemical, neurological, and hormonal reactions stemming initially from your brain and leading to inflammation.

During times of stress, your adrenaline and cortisol levels rise. Your blood vessels also narrow which leads to an increase in blood pressure. The heart has to pump harder and faster. In circumstances of chronic stress, this can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke, and/or sudden heart attack.

Likewise, blood cholesterol levels also rise during times of stress. If you have persistent high cholesterol levels, this may cause atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries), which is a chronic inflammatory disease.

High cortisol levels and stress are also associated with the development of metabolic disease (accumulation of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, impaired fasting glucose, and high cholesterol). This can increase your risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases.

For more on blood pressure: Hypertension Self-Care: Your Ultimate Plan For Lowering Blood Pressure at Home

Or to help lower cholesterol: How Long Does It Take To Lower Cholesterol?

Stress and your GI System

Oftentimes, stress is linked to disturbances in eating habits and hormone levels. The resulting fight-or-flight response by your nervous system can affect your GI system, leading to heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation.

If you already have a GI disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease, increased stress may aggravate your condition. Have you ever experienced diarrhea or gotten sick to your stomach after being put under sudden stress?

Other gastrointestinal problems resulting from increased stress include cramping, bloating, inflammation, and loss of appetite. This is because your gut is controlled in part by the central nervous system in your brain. Because of this brain-gut connection, the gut has been called by some scientists the “second brain“.

Measurements of Stress

In a clinical setting, high levels of stress can be measured using numerous techniques including questionnaires, lab testing, and monitoring vital signs. Some common indicators of stress are:

woman stress eating junk food

Nutrition For Stress Management

Your body and brain rely on proper nutrition to function and to maintain a steady balance (or homeostatic state). By continuing to eat a healthy diet full of specific nutrients, you can help regulate your stress response. These nutrients include:

  • Various B vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Your body can become depleted of these nutrients during stressful times. Additionally, they are needed during the calming period following stress in order to regulate itself. During your body’s calming process, these nutrients are needed to synthesize the amino acid tryptophan into a brain chemical called serotonin (a neurotransmitter needed to return your body and mind to a stable state).

Now, let’s dive deeper into the nutrients you need when stress levels are high.

B Vitamins

B vitamins are water-soluble. We need them during times of stress to make hormones and neurotransmitters- specifically adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine.

B vitamins also lower blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine.

High levels of homocysteine may put you at risk for several heart conditions, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and colorectal cancer.

Overall, maintaining an adequate intake of B vitamins shows improvement in symptoms of stress and regulating mood and energy levels.

In total, there are eight (8) different B vitamins:

  1. Thiamine (B1)
  2. Riboflavin (B2)
  3. Niacin (B3)
  4. Pantothenic acid (B5)
  5. Pyridoxine (B6)
  6. Biotin (B7)
  7. Folate (B9)
  8. Cobalamin (B12)

The recommended daily allowance of these B vitamins varies individually and by gender (See Table 1 below).

WomenMen
B1 (thiamine)1.1 mg1.2 mg
B2 (riboflavin)1.1 mg1.3 mg
B3 (niacin)14 mg16 mg
B5 (pantothenic acid)5 mg (AI)5 mg (AI)
B6 (pyridoxine)1.3 mg1.3 mg
B7 (biotin)30 mcg (AI)30 mcg (AI)
B9 (folate)400 mcg400 mcg
B12 (cobalamin)2.4 mcg2.4 mcg
Table 1: Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI) of B vitamins. When RDI has not been established, adequate intake (AI) is listed.

Foods High in B Vitamins

All of the food groups contain various B vitamins, including meat, poultry, dairy, grains, legumes, seeds, fruits, and leafy greens.

We need to make sure we consume foods with various B vitamins in our diet because our bodies do not synthesize most B vitamins on our own.

Some of the best sources of various B vitamins include beef and beef liver, salmon, tuna, eggs, clams, broccoli, mushrooms, almonds, peanuts, fortified cereals, oats, yogurt, milk, and potatoes with skins.

Vitamin B Foods List

Vitamin C

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a water-soluble antioxidant that plays a special role in stress management. The brain and adrenal glands are organs with the highest concentration of vitamin C. So a lack of vitamin C will affect your brain functioning and therefore your ability to cope with stress.

Our bodies cannot make vitamin C for us, so we have to get enough from food sources.

And remember earlier when talking about stress and brain health, I mentioned the hippocampus? Vitamin C deficiency is associated with a decrease in the volume of the hippocampus in animal and human studies. This lower volume leads to impairments in learning and memory.

So when you experience stress, make sure to consume some of the following foods daily to prevent decreasing brain volume!

The recommended daily allowance for vitamin C for adults 19 years of age and older is 75 mg for males and 65 mg for females. Individuals who smoke will require an additional 35 mg of vitamin C per day than nonsmokers.

Foods High in Vitamin C

When you think of foods that contain vitamin C, there are more than just citrus fruits to choose from.

In the American diet, the main contributors of dietary vitamin C are citrus fruits, tomatoes, tomato juice, and potatoes.

Other sources include red bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Eating most of these foods raw will add more vitamin C than if they are cooked, as the cooking process can reduce the vitamin C content.

There is little vitamin C in grains, but it may be added in the form of fortified breakfast cereals.

Vitamin C foods list

Magnesium

When maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress, it is also important to consider adding foods with magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral that helps in the production of adrenaline and neurotransmitters during a stress response.

Studies show that chronic stress can deplete magnesium levels. Interestingly, the reverse situation of low magnesium levels can cause psychological stress symptoms.

Similarly, animal and human studies show that when subjects are exposed to stress, their magnesium levels decline. Stress may also increase the amount of magnesium excreted in your urine, leading to a possible magnesium deficiency.

Overall, magnesium deficiency harms brain functioning and your ability to cope with stress.

The recommended daily allowance of magnesium for adults 31 years of age and older is 420 mg for males and 320 mg for females.

Related article: Chelated Magnesium: A Supplement To Benefit Heart Health?

Foods High in Magnesium

Magnesium is present in a variety of food sources and food groups. They include green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.

High food sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, soymilk, black beans, peanut butter, and potatoes with skins.

Foods can also be fortified with magnesium, like breakfast cereals and other fortified foods. Additionally, mineral waters and bottled waters may also have some magnesium.

Magnesium Rich Foods list

Iron

Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that many people all over the world suffer from.

Two-thirds of our iron is present in the blood and is responsible for oxygen transport and DNA synthesis.

Animal studies show that psychological stress may decrease serum iron levels in the blood and bone marrow by decreasing absorption.

Interestingly, human studies also show a correlation between psychological disorders and low iron levels. For example, iron levels are lower in those with schizophrenia than in those without schizophrenia.

Low iron levels are also associated with depression, anxiety, and fearfulness in infants and children.

Still, further human studies need to be conducted to fully understand how stress impacts iron levels and its associated proteins (transferrin, ferritin).

The recommended daily allowance of iron for adults 19-50 years old is 8 mg for males and 18 mg for females (which decreases to 8 mg for females 51 years and older).

Foods High in Iron

There are two different forms of iron, 1) heme iron, and 2) nonheme iron.

Heme iron is better absorbed than nonheme iron. However, it is good to know that consuming vitamin C along with high-iron foods can help with absorption.

The best sources of heme iron include meats and seafood, while nonheme sources include beans, nuts, vegetables, and fortified grains.

Iron Rich Foods list

Zinc

Zinc is also a crucial nutrient for maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress. Like some of the other nutrients listed, blood levels of zinc tend to decrease when we are under stress.

Low levels of zinc may lead to depression, anxiety, emotional instability, and other mood-related disorders. This is because zinc helps stabilize cortisol levels in your body. So with a lack of zinc, you can expect increases in cortisol which can lead to an accumulation of abdominal fat, obesity, and possible metabolic disorder.

This makes maintaining adequate zinc levels important for stress management and weight-related diseases.

The recommended daily allowance of zinc for adults 19 years and older is 11 mg for males and 8 mg for females.

Foods High in Zinc

Zinc is found in both animal and plant sources, though very little zinc is in fruits and vegetables.

The dietary zinc in animal sources is better absorbed by our bodies than plant sources because plants contain phytates that make it harder for us to absorb.

Some of the best sources of zinc include beef, oysters, pumpkin seeds, blue crab, and fortified breakfast cereals.

Zinc Rich Foods

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The health benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish sources have been well-researched over the years. There are also plant-based omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Omega-3 fatty acids help to decrease inflammation, which is imperative during stressful times. In cases of chronic stress where oxidative damage occurs to cells, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrient like omega-3 is useful for initiating tissue repair and recovery.

In addition, some research has been done to see if omega-3 fatty acids have a positive impact on anxiety and depression however, the consensus is mixed. Some studies show no significant effects while others show small but significant decreases in depression.

There is no set daily recommended allowance of omega-3 fatty acids however, most health organizations recommend 250-500 mg of a combination of EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults. The adequate intake of ALA for adults 19 years and above is 1.6 gm for males and 1.1 gm for females.

The American Heart Association has specific omega-3 recommendations as well. That being 1 gram of EPA + DHA per day for individuals with documented coronary heart disease. They also recommend 2-4 grams of EPA + DHA per day (in capsule form) under the supervision of a physician for those needing to reduce triglyceride levels.

Related article: Getting Omega-3’s With Barlean’s (Product Reviews and Recipes)

Foods High In Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There aren’t as many food sources of omega-3 fatty acids as there are for the other nutrients listed. However, there are different forms of omega-3 fatty acids to consider (EPA/DHA versus ALA).

Additionally, the majority of Americans do not consume as much omega-3 as we need, averaging 1.6 gm per day.

All fish contain EPA and DHA. However, the amounts vary based on species, environmental variables, and whether the fish are farm-raised or wild-caught. In general, wild-caught fish will have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than farm-raised.

The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids from animal sources are fatty fish like sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, and tuna.

The best sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids are flax oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybean and canola oils.

foods with omega-3 fatty acids

Eating During Times of Stress

Maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress may seem overwhelming. There are many nutrients you need to make sure you are consuming every day.

If you are like most people, you fall at either one end of the spectrum or the other when it comes to the amount of food you eat when under stress.

When trying to maintain a healthful diet during times of stress, you may find that you:

  1. eat very little due to lack of appetite or interest in food, or
  2. eat more than your body needs due to stress eating

When Appetite Decreases

If you experience a loss of appetite during stressful times, make sure you are consuming nutrient-dense foods often. This means eating the appropriate volume of nutrient-dense foods to maintain health and prevent the loss of muscle and weight.

One suggestion to help promote your appetite is to try some light exercise before meals.

Secondly, it may be beneficial to plan your meals ahead of time, including 6-8 small meals each day. Keep in mind, that you may have to eat when you are not hungry. Every bite counts!

Setting the mood during meal times can also help. This means preparing a pleasant environment with appropriate lighting, including music if you like.

Asking a family member or friend to eat with you is also a good suggestion. Having good company contributes to a great social eating experience.

And of course, preparing foods that you fully enjoy, ones with a pleasant mouthfeel and aroma will almost always lead to more food being consumed.

Try your best not to skip meals and include snacks 2-3 times a day. Try the following meal pattern:

  • Breakfast
  • Snack
  • Lunch
  • Snack
  • Dinner
  • Snack

Stay hydrated throughout the day and drink calorie-dense beverages if needed, especially if you are under periods of prolonged stress or if you’ve noticed weight loss.

Rest is also very beneficial to recharging your body and mind. Getting a good night’s sleep (or nap during the day) will help decrease stress by increasing your ability to cope with stress.

Related article: Why Sleeping Is Important for Health [And How To Get More!]

When Appetite Increases

If you fall into the category of individuals who experience a boost in their appetite during stressful times, you will need to make sure you don’t consume more than you need. If you consume more than what your body needs, you will notice weight gain over time. You must also make sure you are consuming the appropriate amount of nutrients, including the ones listed in this article.

Focus on getting enough protein. Protein-rich foods can be filling. Similarly, fiber-rich foods are also filling.

Try planning meals ahead of time and make sure to balance meals, getting an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables daily. Adding fruits and vegetables will add nutrients without adding many calories.

Stay hydrated, but make sure most of your beverages are low-calorie (think more water over other beverages).

Sit down at meal times, eating slowly and mindfully. Alternate bites of food with sips of water, savoring the smell, taste, and feel of the foods you are eating. Eating too fast may lead to overeating, which may add excess calories, leading to weight gain.

Follow correct serving sizes and read nutrition labels. Whichever foods you choose to eat, even if high calorie, make sure to eat only the recommended serving size listed.

Tips for Reducing Stress Levels

Maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress is helpful, however, there are other things you can do to reduce stress even more.

Try some of the following helpful tips to reduce stress levels:

  • Get some sleep– good sleep quality and quantity brings clearer thinking and lower stress levels.
  • Find good social support– talking with others and being social gives a sense of connection that reduces depression and stress.
  • Change your outlook on life– try to stay positive and find the good in situations.
  • Maintain a healthy diet– aside from the nutrients listed above, including a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives, lean protein, and limit foods higher in sodium, sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
  • Avoid smoking– and avoid being around those who smoke ito avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Limit alcoholic beverages– alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant which slows down your brain.
  • Get regular moderate physical activity– physical activity will release chemicals in your body called endorphins which trigger positive feelings.
  • Participate in relaxing activities– read a good book, meditate, listen to some relaxing music, take a warm bath with lavender essential oils, etc.

Conclusion

I hope you now have a better understanding of how maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress can be obtained. Stress has a major impact on your body as a whole, starting with your brain. And all of the negative effects of stress stem from the inflammatory response.

Therefore, controlling and managing stress levels is incredibly important for maintaining a steady state of health. Making specific lifestyle and dietary changes can help tremendously in preventing future diseases and ensuring full enjoyment of life.

Dietary recommendations include eating a balanced diet including foods high in vitamin C, vitamin B complex, iron, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.

As a registered dietitian, I recommend getting these nutrients from food sources, not supplements for better absorption and to provide your body with other essential nutrients, water, and fiber.

Lifestyle interventions will also help. This includes staying physically active and performing other stress-relieving activities.

Together, these diet and lifestyle interventions will lead to a more nutrient-dense diet, less stress, and less risk of chronic disease.

For more tips on stress management and heart health, see my post “5 Things You Can Do to Support Heart Health NOW!”

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