Stress and Food Part 1 – Is there a connection?

Have you ever found yourself binging Netflix after a particularly hard midterm and mindlessly filling up on chips? How about eating ice cream straight out of the tub after spending all day studying for a final exam? Chances are you’ve noticed a connection between your mood and your food choices. Though the relationship between being stressed and overeating has been thoroughly studied, the impact that what you eat and how that affects your stress levels is less talked about. 

When we’re stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, sometimes called our “fight or flight” hormone. Though the release of some cortisol can help increase our motivation, on-going (chronic) stress it not good for our health. When faced with chronic stress, your “fight or flight” reaction stays on and this increases risk for health conditions including digestive problems, headaches and memory loss and diabetes. Thus, paying attention to what you eat and how it might affect your cortisol levels is important. 

Following these nutrition tips can help you manage stress and provide your body with much needed physical and mental energy and nutrients which will help you cope when life gets stressful.  

Tips to help with stress:

A balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and repair cells which might be damaged by the excess stress. Here are some foods that might help with stress and anxiety:

Magnesium has been shown to help reducing feelings of anxiety. Examples include dark leafy greens such as kale, bok choy, spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (such as brown rice, whole grain bread and pasta, ancient grains, oatmeal, etc). In the dining halls, find spinach on the salad bar and legumes such as beans and lentils in different dishes.

Omega-3 Fats: Some research suggests that foods that contain omega-3 fats and vegetables may help at reducing cortisol levels and thus might help you feel more relaxed.

Example include fatty fish, walnuts, and flax seeds/ground flax. Watch for fish on the dining hall menu rotation, grab a tuna sandwich in the Fresh to Go fridges and find tuna on the daily menu in Lazy Scholar and Location 21!

B Vitamins: Foods rich in B vitamins have been shown to help to reduce stress as they suppress the release of cortisol.

Many foods naturally provide B vitamins including fruits and vegetables, grains such as brown rice, pasta, cereals along with protein foods including meat, beans, nuts, eggs, soy foods and dairy products such as milk and yogurt.

Antioxidants: Some research has shown anxiety to be correlated with low levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables (such as apples, spinach, broccoli, beets, berries),

whole grain (such as bread/pasta/cereal) lentils, nuts and seeds (e.g. walnuts and pecans), vegetable oils, garlic and green tea. In the dining halls, add a salad or steamed vegetables to your meal, choose a soup with vegetables, try a plant based entrée, or grab a fruit for your snacks.

The plate model from Canada’s Food Guide can help you plan your meals to eat a variety of these foods. Learn more here.

For more strategies on managing exam anxiety, visit Student Wellness Services Resources here.

Disclaimer: A balanced diet is not a replacement for a trained therapist. If you are unable to cope with your symptoms, please seek help with a mental health professional. You can find more information on the Student Wellness Services website here


Written by Annie Macgregor, reviewed by Jessica Bertrand, RD.

Annie is a 4th year nursing student at Queen’s University. Previously, she completed an MSc in physical activity epidemiology at Queen’s and a BSc in kinesiology from the University of Guelph. Annie’s interests lie in the fields of nutrition, and health, and hopes to one day work in pediatrics or urgent care

References:

Adan, R. A. H., van der Beek, E. M., Buitelaar, J. K., Cryan, J. F., Hebebrand, J., Higgs, S., Schellekens, H., & Dickson, S. L. (2019). Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(12), 1321–1332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.10.011

Bonaccio, M., Di Castelnuovo, A., Bonanni, A., Costanzo, S., De Lucia, F., Pounis, G., Zito, F., Donati, M. B., de Gaetano, G., & Iacoviello, L. (2013). Adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a better health-related quality of life: A possible role of high dietary antioxidant content. BMJ Open, 3(8), e003003. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003003

Peirce, J. M., & Alviña, K. (2019). The role of inflammation and the gut microbiome in depression and anxiety. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 97(10), 1223–1241. https://doi.org/10.1002/jnr.24476

Phillips, C. M., Shivappa, N., Hébert, J. R., & Perry, I. J. (2018). Dietary inflammatory index and mental health: A cross-sectional analysis of the relationship with depressive symptoms, anxiety and well-being in adults. Clinical Nutrition, 37(5), 1485–1491. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2017.08.029

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