7 Nutrients That Can Help Your Body Cope Better With Stress

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Health writer Helen Foster asks the experts how and why certain vitamins and minerals can play a role in lowering our stress levels

It’s officially time to re-think the term, ‘comfort food’. New research by bodies such as Harvard Medical School proves that eating certain foods can help support our body in times of stress and anxiety. But how does this work and which foods should we be adding to our de-stress diet? Health writer Helen Foster asks the experts…

Balancing neurotransmitters in the brain

Stress is caused by all kinds of factors and sadly, there’s no miracle cure. However, certain things make us more disposed to to feelings of anxiety. For example, we’re more prone to stressful thinking if our neurotransmitters (responsible for transmitting the nerve impulses in our brain) are imbalanced. “You may have too many excitory compounds that enhance the stress response or too few inhibitory or mellow-out compounds that calm it,” explains registered dietitian Ali Miller, author of The Anti-Anxiety Diet.

What you eat can help balance this. “Protein is key, as neurotransmitters are made using amino acids in proteins as building blocks,” explains Ali. Try to eat a little protein – meat, fish, tofu, beans, yoghurt – at every mealtime.

Maintaining blood sugar levels

Protein as well as high-fibre foods such as wholegrains, beans, peas and lentils help to balance blood sugar. “It’s important to maintain steady blood sugar levels when you suffer from stress or anxiety, as sudden drops can leave you feeling on edge,” explains Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist and author.

Creating a healthy gut microbiome

Looking after our gut bacteria with probiotic and prebiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, leeks, onions and garlic can also help with stress. “When the gut bacteria is imbalanced, we produce higher amounts of stress chemicals, which can drive anxiety,” says Ali.

So, which foods can help us cope better? Here are seven vitamins and minerals which can help us control how our body handles stress:

1. B vitamins (B6, 9, 12, thiamine and folate)

B vitamins play a role in our mood stability. The body also uses these to turn protein into neurotransmitters. “At times of mental stress and anxiety, more B vitamins are needed for the task,” says Ali.

Find them in:

  • Wholegrains
  • Meat such as beef and turkey
  • Eggs
  • Pulses such as lentils and peas

2. Vitamin C

According to a study by the University of Trier in Germany, ingesting vitamin C before public speaking helped participants feel calmer and lowered their blood pressure during their speech than those without. This could be because vitamin C helps to support healthy adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Find it in:

  • Berries, blackcurrants and citrus fruits
  • Vegetables such as red peppers and broccoli

3. Selenium

Stress can create physical reactions that damage our brain. Specifically, it creates free radicals which damage the neurons (nerve cells), according to Ali. Antioxidant nutrients such as selenium can help to neutralise and reduce oxidative stress to our body and brain.

Find it in:

  • Nuts such as Brazil nuts and cashews
  • Fish such as tuna and sardines
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Garlic

4. Magnesium

According to Rob, one symptom of magnesium deficiency is increased anxiety. Magnesium relaxes the body by limiting levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “We use up more magnesium when we’re stressed, so it’s definitely something to focus on,” he says.

Find it in:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Leafy greens
  • Avocado
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beetroot

5. Vitamin D

When levels of vitamin D drop, so do levels of the stress-fighting neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, says Ali. The problem is, we make most of our vitamin D through exposure to sunlight, so our levels in winter can be particularly low.

Find it in:

  • Oily fish such as mackerel
  • Fortified cereals and dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms

6. Chromium

“To make the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, we need a substance called tryptophan and chromium helps this process,” explains Ali. Chromium also lowers the amount of cortisol we produce when stressed out, and has a role in blood sugar regulation.

Find it in:

  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Prunes
  • Shellfish
  • Cinnamon

7. Zinc

The immune system is negatively affected by prolonged stress – “Zinc is essential for a healthy immune system,” says Rob. Zinc also balances out levels of copper in the body – high levels of which have been linked to chronic anxiety.

Find it in:

  • Oysters
  • Liver
  • Eggs
  • Meat such as pork and turkey
  • Pumpkin and sesame seeds

Which foods and drinks should we cut down on?

According to Ali, it might also be wise to ease up on certain foods and drinks to help ease stress and anxiety.

Firstly, caffeine increases our production of cortisol and raises acid levels in our stomach, which can irritate the gut lining. The body also releases cortisol to balance our blood sugar, so cutting down on foods which are high in sugar could alleviate this added stress.

Lastly, alcohol puts stress on our physiological balance in general ­– from our blood sugar to our gut microbiome. Look to drink low-alcohol drinks where possible.

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