Stress is a normal and common physiological reaction to new experiences or challenging situations. Stress causes both mental and physical responses in the body. One of the most important functional responses is the release of certain substances called stress hormones. These hormones including cortisol and adrenalin stimulate physical changes in the human body, which then help the individual to respond to the stressful experience they are faced with. Although acute stress is a normal part of life, chronic stress can be severely detrimental to health and wellbeing.
How chronic stress can impact eating habits:
When stress becomes chronic in nature this leads to long term activation of the stress response, which can alter the way the body uses the nutrients and calories from the foods that we consume. Chronic stress increases the body’s metabolic needs as well as increasing the use and excretion of various nutrients. If a diet is not nutrient dense and well-balanced, deficiencies can easily occur (2). Furthermore, stress also generates a chain reaction of behaviours that can negatively impact a person’s eating habits including:
Stress causes an increased demand on the body for oxygen, nutrients, and energy. It is common for individuals who are experiencing chronic stress to have cravings for comforting foods like processed foods that contain high levels of fat and calories but are low in essential nutrients (1).
Stress can cause some people to skip or forget meals and may leave people with a lack of enthusiasm or time to prepare meals that are nutritious and well balanced.
Sleep can be severely disrupted by stress especially causing lighter sleep and the potential for frequent waking periods. This leads to daytime fatigue and can also negatively impact the immune system. Research also shows that sleep restriction causes a significant raise in cortisol levels. People often turn to stimulants such as sugar, coffee, or high energy drinks to cope with the fatigue that they feel during the day.
Studies show that when there is an acute stress experience, the hormone adrenaline suppresses the appetite . The opposite occurs with chronic stress as in this case the elevated levels of cortisol can cause cravings for high fat, sugary foods, which can increase the risk for weight gain [1, 3, 4). This is because cortisol lowers levels of the hormone leptin (that promotes satiety) while boosting levels of the hormone ghrelin (that increases appetite) (1).
- Studies show that cortisol promotes the accumulation of fat in the stomach region, termed central adiposity. This accumulation of belly fat is linked with insulin resistance and elevated risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even certain breast cancers.
Diet and stress:
A healthy and balanced diet supports a robust immune system and aids in the repair of damaged cells. Optimal nutritional support provides the additional energy needed to cope with stressful events. Some studies suggest that specific foods including vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids may assist in regulating cortisol levels. In additional, recent research shows that eating a diet that is rich in fresh fruit and vegetables is allied with reduced stress levels. One study revealed people who consumed at least 470 grams of fruit and vegetables daily had 10 per cent lower stress levels than the individuals who ate less than 230 grams (11).
Unique foods to assist in combating stress:
- Chamomile: This daisy like flower is one of the best-known calming and stress relieving herbs. Research in 2016 found that long-term use of chamomile extracts significantly decreased moderate to severe symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder, also known as GAD (5).
- Green Tea: Has been well researched for its anti-stress outcomes. Green tea contains high levels of an amino acid called L-theanine, that has been shown to reduce anxiety. One 2017 study found that when students were given green tea, they experienced consistently reduced levels of stress than compared to students in the placebo group (7). In studies green tea has also shown to help improve focus, due to it containing a combination of the brain boosting substances L-theanine and caffeine (6).
- Kakadu Plum: This super plum has gained global popularity since it was shown that it contained the highest recorded levels of natural Vitamin C content in the world (roughly about 100 times more Vitamin C than oranges.) Studies suggest that vitamin C treatment appears to modify the stress response and may even improve the survival of people experiencing chronic stress. Research has demonstrated that vitamin C decreases the levels of stress hormones in the blood-and also decreases symptoms that are induced by stress including changes to body weight, changes in the size of glands and the spleen (8).
- Siberian ginseng: This popular herbs benefits have been relied on by the Chinese for centuries and was initially studied in the 1950s by Russian scientists. It is believed that as an apoptogenic substance, this herb assists the body to adapt to various stressors whether emotional, physical, or environmental in nature. Siberian ginseng contains unique substances called eleutherosides, which allow ginseng to normalise the way in which the body responds to stress and regulates the release of the adrenal hormones. It is believed that this herb also supports the entire central nervous system, helping to re-establish healthy neurological function after long term stress (9).
- Liquorice Root: Researchers have established that liquorice root may assist the body to regulate the stress hormone cortisol more effectively which in turn relieves and nurtures the adrenal glands (10).
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4. Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite‐related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6‐month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity. 2017 Apr;25(4):713-20. *Multiple authors report funding disclosures.
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8. Science Daily, (1999). Scientists Say Vitamin C May Alleviate The Body's Response To Stress, Amer Chem Society; available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/08/990823072615.htm
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10. Al-Dujaili EA, Kenyon CJ, Nicol MR, Mason JI, (2011). Liquorice and glycyrrhetinic acid increase DHEA and deoxycorticosterone levels in vivo and in vitro by inhibiting adrenal SULT2A1 activity. Mol Cell Endocrinol;336(1-2):102-9.
11. Simone Radavelli-Bagatini et al, (2021). Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan. Clin Nutr; 40 (5).