The Stress-Less Diet
Your stomach is a major road to a happier headspace. Find out which foods and habits pave the way for bliss.
You're back home from a long-weekend getaway, where you ate whatever you wanted for 72 hours, no judgement. It felt great at the time, but now you're moody, groggy and tense. Is it just the looming reality of Monday that's stealing your mojo?
Science says probably not. You see, your gastrointestinal system (aka gut) and your mind are as in sync as a troop of Beyoncé back-up dancers—with food being the Queen Bey, signalling your body to react.
"Everything we eat is either something our body recognises (and can easily be digested and put to work) or something our body does not recognise (and may invite stomach discomfort)".
Katherine Haysbert Certified Nutrition Consultant
All About Edible Stress
Your brain is the HQ of your emotions and cognitive function—your ability to, say, remember a task from your teacher or boss and complete it. Food affects both, for better or worse. When it hits your gut, it sends messages to your brain that either enhance or aggravate your mental performance and well-being, says Katherine Haysbert, a certified nutrition consultant and certified natural chef in Vancouver, British Columbia.
More specifically, everything we eat is either something our body recognises (and can easily be digested and put to work) or something our body does not recognise (and may invite stomach discomfort), says Haysbert. Cake, white bread, a chocolate-peanut butter "energy bar" or anything significantly processed, really, cause your body to go into detective mode to figure out how to break down their ingredients and ultimately, how to put the foods to good use. This process often invites inflammation, which can put stress on the entire body and trigger your sympathetic nervous system (or "fight or flight" response), says Haysbert, adding up to you feeling like rubbish.
That inflammation also affects communication between your gut and brain, making it harder for either to work at its prime, says Carrie Decker, a naturopathic doctor and gastrointestinal-dysfunction expert in Portland, Oregon.
While these reactive symptoms may sound temporary, if you're eating in a way that consistently triggers internal drama, you could be setting yourself up for chronic stress and inflammation, says Decker. The likely result is a depressed mood, anxiety and irritability, as well as a potentially lowered immune system, she adds. No thank ya.
The Lowdown on Feel-Good Foods
Happily, there's stress-reducing fare, which includes whole or minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods, says Decker. Think foods that you can literally picture growing in nature or living at some point, like fresh fruits and vegetables, real proteins (fish, chicken, meat, beans), whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats) and healthy fats, like nuts.
This group not only skips that inflammatory "new food, who dis?" investigation, it also creates a calm environment within the body for the gut and brain to work harmoniously, says Haysbert. As a result, your stomach doesn't put your mind in a funk, and vice versa.
Eating for Mental Wellness
Got all that? Now let's get to the fun stuff: how to fuel to feel your best, so you can have your occasional cake and eat it too.
1. Eat regularly.
Eating at inconsistent times or going long periods without food can cause erratic spikes in blood sugar that can stimulate your stress response, inviting anxiety and irritability, says Decker. You want to eat balanced meals two to three times per day and snack on healthy foods when you're hungry so that, ideally, you're eating something roughly every four or five hours, she says. Aim for foods that are rich in fibre, healthy fat and protein and include quality carbs. Go-to's: almond butter on a whole-wheat breakfast muffin or unsweetened Greek yogurt with dried cranberries and crispy buckwheat (it's a thing).
2. Go heavy on the fruit and veg.
They're major staples on the food pyramid for a reason. Fruits and vegetables are packed with essentials like antioxidants that can help fight inflammation, allowing for better communication between your gut and brain and ultimately supporting a happier, more stable mood and lower stress level, says Decker. Most of these foods also contain prebiotics, which experts believe can promote the good bacteria that also helps keep down inflammation in your gut.
To add more plants to your diet, you could swap your usual bowl base of rice for leafy greens, mix red peppers into your scrambled eggs or grab a handful of carrots or grapes to snack on instead of vegetable puffs.
3. Avoid added sugars.
That 72-hour splurge that left you feeling like poo? Bet sugar played a starring role. Added sugars, which often show up in processed, packaged foods and drinks (and are different from natural sugars found in real foods, like fruit), have been linked to depressive moods, according to a study in Scientific Reports. That unpleasant spike in blood sugar is a culprit, says Decker, as is the likelihood that sugar also feeds the bad bacteria in your gut.
The solution is simple: Reduce your added sugar intake as much as you can, whether that means skipping it in your coffee or tea or having berries instead of sorbet for dessert. You want to stay well below the daily recommended amount of about 25 grams for women and 36 for men, per the American Heart Association.
4. Make friends with fat.
Your brain is made from nearly 60 percent fat, says Haysbert, so eating healthy sources of this macronutrient can support your cognitive performance and emotional management.
Opt for avocados, nuts, seeds (chia, flax etc.) and cold-water fish, like salmon and sardines, she says. And try to stay away from trans fats and oxidised fats, which are inflammatory and found in fried and highly processed foods.
5. Consider jumping on the adaptogen bandwagon.
Adapto-what? They may be trendy, but adaptogens have actually been around for centuries. They're just natural compounds found in a variety of botanicals and herbs (mostly roots, stems and mushrooms) that are thought to help regulate the body's response to stressors, either by enhancing focus and energy or by calming the body, says Decker.
Adaptogens come in many forms, such as tinctures, powders, tablets and even fancy lattes. You may have heard of some—turmeric, reishi and ashwagandha—but there are also lesser-known ones, like ginseng and rhodiola. Some data has suggested that those who incorporate adaptogens into their diet get a boost in mental well-being and mood, says Decker. Do your research either at your local natural supermarket or online and shop based on the benefits attached to each type. Adaptogens are all-natural and unlikely to cause harm, she adds, but discuss with your doc if you have health concerns.
6. Be patient.
Mind-body health is an individual journey that doesn't happen overnight. You can't choose to change your eating habits one day and expect instant results the next. But if you consistently eat according to the advice above, "over time, you should notice more balanced energy throughout the day and a better mood", says Haysbert.
Set a reminder to check in with yourself after two weeks, a month and six weeks. Have you noticed a little more oomph when you wake up in the morning? More tolerance when something doesn't go your way? Fewer pessimistic thoughts at night or no more Sunday scaries? Haysbert says those changes are all signs that you're making promising progress.
Eventually, your idea of a fun weekend will be full of foods that make you truly feel good … and maybe a side of dessert.
Words: Brooke Slade Illustration: Jon Krause