What to Eat When You're Stressed
Your kids are yelling, the dog is barking, the phone is ringing and you’re pushing yourself to finish a project that was due yesterday. Balancing career with family is challenging enough, but when daily stressors are heightened by a serious medical diagnosis, financial hardship, or the added responsibility of caring for aging parents, life can feel unmanageable. While some stress is healthy and stimulating, chronic stress can be debilitating to your body, mind and spirit.
What we eat is critical to our ability to manage stress and poor eating habits only add to the toll stress takes on our bodies. If a stressful situation prompts you to reach for a caffeinated drink or a sugary or starchy snack, resist the urge. The jolts of insulin and cortisol will send your body on a hormone roller coaster ride. The lift you experience will be followed by a crashing drop that will tax your adrenal glands and leave you feeling even more depleted—and likely to make more poor food choices throughout the day and evening. When you consider that stress triggers your adrenals to release cortisol and other hormones to fuel the fight or flight response, eating refined foods only aggravates an already vicious cycle.
Instead, consider food as medicine. Your goal is to normalize the stress response in your body by balancing blood sugar levels throughout the day and to provide your body with the nutrition it requires to self-regulate and heal. Since stress puts increased demands on your body at the cellular level as well, nutritionally dense foods that are easy to digest are most beneficial. Easily digested food allows your body to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients possible. Additionally, to keep your blood sugar levels even, small frequent meals will help steady the release of adrenal hormones and decrease cravings for unhealthy snacks. Here’s what to eat when you’re stressed:
1. Eat protein with every meal. Protein is an important component of every cell in your body and is needed to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals. Choose high-quality protein such as grass-fed beef or other meats, organic poultry and eggs, wild line-caught sustainable fish, and undenatured whey protein. While high-quality protein is more expensive, a small serving is sufficient to deliver the macronutrients your body needs. If you have difficulty with animal protein digestion, try a HCL (hydrochloric acid) supplement at the beginning of a meal.
Healthy Eating Tip: Hard boiled eggs are an easy grab-and-go snack. Top your salad with a few ounces of chicken, beef or salmon from last night’s dinner.
2. Eat high quality fats. Fats provide a concentrated source of energy and provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones. Fats are important carriers for fat soluble vitamins and minerals and they slow down absorption so you can go longer without feeling hungry. Eat real butter from grass-fed, pastured cows, organic coconut oil or coconut butter, cold-pressed organic olive oil, avocados and raw nuts (soaked and dehydrated are easiest to digest). Cook with coconut oil (which has a high heat tolerance) and use olive oil to dress salads.
Healthy Eating Tip: Make your own packets of raw nuts to carry with you. Grab an avocado and add slices to flax seed crackers for a heathy mid-morning or afternoon snack.
3. Eat fermented foods. A healthy digestive tract affects every organ in our body and determines our body’s ability to absorb and utilize the nutrients we eat. Fermented sauerkraut and kimchi contain natural probiotics and make a tasty condiment or side dish. Kombucha tea is a fermented drink with equally beneficial properties.
Healthy Eating Tip: Kombucha tea is readily available at most health food stores. Enjoy at work for a refreshing and health boosting afternoon drink. (However, many brands have too much sugar, so choose selectively, and choose organic.)
4. Drink raw milk. Organic, raw milk from pastured, grass-fed cows provides naturally-occurring hormones and enzymes that are destroyed by pasteurization. Rich in B-vitamins and filled with omega-3 fat, raw milk raises energy levels easily depleted during times of stress and keeps you satiated.
Healthy Eating tip: Make a breakfast smoothie with a cup of raw milk, a raw, organic egg from a pastured chicken, a half cup of blueberries and stevia as a sweetener. This delicious nutrient-dense breakfast can be made in minutes and will keep you satisfied all morning.
5. Eat broccoli and leafy greens. Broccoli and green leafy vegetables are nutrient dense, antioxidant rich, and high in fiber and folate, which produces dopamine, a pleasure inducing brain chemical that helps to keep you calm. Choose organic and serve steamed with grass-fed butter and parmesan cheese, raw in salads or as a wrap.
Healthy Eating Tip: Last night’s steamed broccoli is a healthy addition to a spinach salad with a hard or soft-boiled egg. Pack homemade salad dressing in a vitamin bottle to enjoy at work.
6. Drink pure high-quality water. Dehydration is a common side-effect of adrenal fatigue and is often overlooked when we’re stressed. When insufficient aldosterone is secreted by the adrenal glands, excessive sodium is lost in urine and sweat. It is essential to stay hydrated by drinking water.
Healthy Eating Tip: Drink water upon rising and apart from meals for improved digestion.
7. Switch to Sea Salt. The sodium lost through dehydration needs to be replaced by a healthy salt. Himalayan or (unbleached) grey sea salt is rich in naturally occurring trace minerals which replenish electrolytes and help regulate water in our cells.
While insulin is secreted by the pancreas when blood sugar is too high, cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands when blood sugar gets too low, so eating small frequent meals enables us to maintain level blood sugar throughout the day. The release of cortisol also follows our natural circadian rhythms. Cortisol begins to rise at 6am, reaches a peak at around 8am, then rises and falls throughout the day, tapering off at night.
In order to maintain even levels of blood sugar, here are the best times to eat:
Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up, or by 8am. Eating breakfast within an hour of waking signals the end of your fast.
Eat a small mid-morning snack, around 9 or 10am. A snack can be a few bites of a nutritionally dense food or a handful of almonds.
Eat lunch between 11 and 12 noon. Consider making lunch your main meal of the day. Eating larger meals earlier in the day helps to maintain cortisol levels. Plus, we are generally more active during the day than in the evening, which helps burn the calories we consume.
Eat a mid-afternoon snack. This is a particularly important time to eat something healthy. Avoid the mid-afternoon blood sugar dip that can lead to poor food choices.
Eat a small dinner no later than 6 or 7pm. Consider eating a lunch-sized portion of food at dinner. You’ll find that by eating nutritionally dense foods throughout the day you will be satisfied with smaller portions in the evening.
Eat a light snack an hour before bedtime.
Support your body during times of stress
Making the decision to take an active role in supporting your body during times of stress is an important step toward healing. A healthy diet can give you the physical and mental fortitude to weather challenging life experiences and can help ground you in a routine that will lead you to greater well-being.
- Eating to Support Your Adrenal Glands, Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, NP