How to eat your way out of stress

Fears and worries can have us reaching for comfort food, says Anna Coogan, but there are ways of using nutrition to decrease anxiety and stay in top mental shape

Anna Coogan

Diet is one of the key areas which can help address stress and anxiety," says public health nutritionist Gaye Godkin. "I find looking after the body's nutritional requirements is a must for those who want to succeed and remain calm, keep energy levels constant and remain alert," Gaye says.

"This is especially relevant for people under work stress, exam stress, or going through a career change or dealing with financial stress," Gaye says.

Here are Gaye's tips for how a balanced diet can help us eat our way out of stress.

1We need to keep sugar levels balanced around stressful times. Glucose is the fuel of the body, yet blood sugars are in a constant state of flux. The brain has a greater requirement for a steady supply of glucose than any other organ in the body.

It needs a steady supply of glucose in order to maximise concentration, mood and memory. You can achieve this by eating plenty of low-GI foods or complex carbo-hydrates, such as wholegrains and non-refined cereals, brown rice, or porridge, all of which are great for keeping energy levels up and blood-sugar levels constant. They help prevent the sugar highs and lows which affect concentration.

2Essential fats from oily fish help to balance sugars and feed the brain. The brain is made up of 33pc Omega 3, and it's estimated that 89pc of Irish people do not eat sufficient oily fish to get their daily requirement. Omega 3 supplements are always recommended around stressful times.

Other good quality fats are mono-unsaturated fats, such as nuts, olive oil and avocados.

3Protein is key to performing well at stressful times. Protein is converted to glucose slowly in the stomach, and this provides a slow, steady stream of glucose into the blood system. It will help prevent blood-sugar fluctuations. It's important to take protein with each meal and snack in between meals. Good quality protein is found in meat, typically steak, eggs, fish, cheese, nuts, seeds, pulses, beans and lentils.

4 Cut out the caffeine as, while it gives you an instant kick, it will eventually tire you out. Stay away from fizzy caffeinated drinks, tea and coffee. Caffeine stimulates the production of the stress hormones from the adrenal glands. High levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline can even cause people to blank under stress, for example students in exams. These stimulants may also trigger mood disorders.

5 Hydration is essential, as the body is composed of more than 70pc fluid. All cellular functions depend on water, and 1pc dehydration slows brain function down by 10pc. Caffeine products cause diuretic effects and also slow down the thinking process.

Always rehydrate on water, as this also prevents hunger pangs.

6 Fresh air is essential for focus during stressful times, and for reaching our potential. Aim to get out into the fresh air for regular breaks daily.

It's not necessary to engage in excessive exercise; in fact overdoing an exercise regime has been shown to effect the immune system and leave some people immuno-compromised.

Walking swimming, cycling, yoga and all types of exercise done in moderation for fitness and fun will help improve mood and inspiration.

7We are what we eat, drink and, most importantly, what we think. According to the WHO, by 2020 stress will be the second biggest cause of all illnesses worldwide.

Managing stress is very important as prolonged, relentless stress can lead to long-term health issues including both mental and physical health problems.

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