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Food for Mood: How Nutrition Can Help Manage Stress

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When stress rears its head, we often find ourselves reaching for unhealthy comfort foods like chocolate and crisps. However, a recent study by scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney sheds light on why we tend to gravitate towards such foods when stressed. This research revealed that stress disrupts the brain’s natural satiety response, leading to heightened cravings for sweet and fatty foods. Ironically, these are the very foods that can elevate cortisol levels, our primary stress hormone.

Instead of diving into a biscuit tin during stressful moments, it’s wise to consider other nutritional choices. Essential nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium play pivotal roles in mood regulation. Moreover, diets rich in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids help combat inflammation, which is often linked to stress and anxiety. Additionally, nurturing your gut health is crucial. A study conducted by University College Cork found that daily consumption of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and yogurt, significantly reduced perceived stress among participants.

1. Boost Your B Vitamins

B vitamins, unlike fat-soluble vitamins, are water-soluble and must be sourced from our daily diet. Growing evidence supports the role of B vitamins in stress management, from mood regulation to serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Incorporate foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, lentils, and chickpeas into your diet to ensure an adequate intake of B vitamins.

Recipe Idea: For a B-vitamin-rich lunch, take two large romaine lettuce leaves, spread each with hummus, add a slice of cooked chicken, and include chopped cucumber, red pepper, shredded carrot, or any available salad vegetables. Squeeze some lemon juice, add black pepper, roll up, and cut each in half for a satisfying meal.

2. More Magnesium for Stress Resilience

Stress and magnesium are intrinsically linked, forming a “magnesium and stress vicious circle.” Stress depletes magnesium levels, leading to deficiency, which, in turn, makes the body more vulnerable to stress. Maintain adequate magnesium levels by consuming foods like leafy greens, avocados, bananas, brown rice, almonds, and pumpkin seeds.

Recipe Idea: Create a “magnesium milkshake” for breakfast or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Blend ground almonds and pumpkin seeds into a fine powder, add a ripe banana, a quarter of an avocado, spinach leaves, cinnamon, and semi-skimmed milk. Blend until smooth and enjoy.

3. Increase Omega-3 Intake

A recent study involving midlife adults found that higher omega-3 intake resulted in reduced cortisol and inflammation levels during stress and increased anti-inflammatory activity during recovery. Given the numerous health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, incorporating them into your diet is a wise choice.

Recipe Idea: Opt for tinned sardines as an affordable source of omega-3. Spread them on whole-grain toast, and top with sliced tomato, lemon juice, red chili flakes, chopped parsley, and black pepper for a delicious and nutritious snack.

4. Embrace Fermented Foods

Fermented foods, known as “psychobiotics,” establish a profound connection between a healthy gut and a healthy mind. While not everyone enjoys these foods, consider making a simple kimchi, a spicy cabbage pickle, to explore their benefits.

Recipe Idea: Combine thinly sliced carrot, fennel, and cabbage with caster sugar and salt. After massaging the mixture, let it rest, and prepare a spicy paste with red chili flakes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, and spring onions. Mix the paste with the vegetables, pack it into a sterilized jar, and refrigerate. The kimchi’s flavor will develop over time, offering a tangy and gut-friendly addition to your meals.

5. Craft a Stress-Busting Salsa Verde

Surprisingly, garlic and parsley are two stress-reducing foods rich in antioxidants, the body’s defense against oxidative stress. These ingredients form the foundation of a classic salsa verde, a perfect accompaniment for grilled meat or fish.

Recipe Idea: In a food processor, combine flat-leaf parsley, basil, garlic cloves, anchovy fillets, and capers. Process until finely chopped. While the processor runs, add extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and let it stand for 10 minutes before serving. This salsa verde elevates any dish and keeps well in the fridge.

6. Explore Adaptogens for Stress Management

Adaptogens, encompassing various herbs, roots, and plant compounds, are believed to assist the body in handling stress and recovering afterward. Two notable adaptogens, turmeric, and ashwagandha, have shown promise in stress reduction.

Note: Consult a healthcare professional before incorporating adaptogens into your diet, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Incorporating these stress-fighting nutritional strategies into your daily life can contribute to better resilience and overall well-being in the face of stress.

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