The idea that all types of stress—including psychological stress, physical exertion, lack of sleep, etc.—are the same, or can be relieved by consumption of particular foods, does not have any basis in research. Too many different factors, both physical and psychological, contribute to stress. Unless you know the root cause of the stress, it’s difficult to know what foods and nutrients might be helpful in reducing or preventing it.
We realize that some people try to reduce their stress by overeating, or by eating highly pleasurable treats. Although common sense tells us that our stress will only be made worse by unhealthy eating, we want to emphasize the importance of approaching stress with healthy changes rather than unhealthy ones. When feeling stressed, the best steps a person can usually take do not involve food. They involve physical relaxation and deliberate focus on breathing and on releasing stressful thoughts. Although we don’t try to provide comprehensive lifestyle change information on our website, you might be interested in taking a look at some typical stress reduction steps offered by Susan Lark, MD, at the following website address: http://www.healthy.net/scr/article.asp?ID=1205.
If we look at preventing stress (rather than reducing it once it has already occurred), there are many more potential food-related options. Foods components that act as stimulants, like caffeine, can be problematic in contributing to stress. For this reason, we recommend that caffeine-containing foods like coffee, tea, or chocolate be eaten in limited amounts. Because stress can involve disruption of our blood sugar levels as well as our immune system activity, we also recommend that meal plans be developed in a way that will support blood sugar consistency and immune system balance. Blood sugar consistency requires us to avoid concentrated sugar foods like fruit juice, dried fruit, and all added-sugar foods. It also requires us to consume whole, natural foods that are high in fiber and that provide a minimal amount of protein. Keeping our blood sugar stabilized is one way to help prevent stress.
In the immune system category, avoiding foods that cause adverse reactions is also worthwhile in stress prevention. You can find detailed information on allergy-producing foods in our article on the “Allergy Avoidance Diet.”
One particular set of nutrients—the B-complex vitamins—appear especially important in prevention of stress. We like all of the vegetables, especially the dark green leafy vegetables, as sources of B-complex vitamins. We also like whole grains for this same reason.
The timing of meals is also important in prevention of stress. In general, one of the best guidelines to follow is: eat the most before you do the most, and donï¿½t eat a lot when you are not going to be doing much (physically) afterward. For example, eating a large amount of food within an hour or so before bedtime (more than 250-300 caloriesï¿½ worth of food) is usually problematic, especially if the food is high in protein or fat. The amount of time your body will spend digesting this food is too great and may end up interfering with the quality of your sleep. Similarly, skipping lunch and working out later in the afternoon can be a problem because your body will lack the nutritional support it needs to stay vital throughout the exercise. Timing your meal pattern to match your dayï¿½s activity pattern can help avoid nutritional stressï¿½and some psychological stress as well.
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