Can what you eat affect your stress levels?

Most of us are well aware of the mind-body connection when it comes to stress, but did you know it works the other way too? In this post I explore the connection between what we eat and our stress and anxiety levels. Click To Tweet


 We have all experienced needing to go to the toilet frequently before an important presentation, an interview or a date. This is our mind switching on our body’s stress response and sending us into fight or flight mode. 


In this state, digestion becomes relegated in favour of our ability to run away quickly or stand up for ourselves. Even though we no longer need these things for most modern-day stressors, our body responds the same. It turns on our ‘emergency’ response, also called the sympathetic nervous system. 


However, the opposite is also the case. What we eat and how we move can directly affect our stress levels and turn on that emergency response system. If we have a poor diet we are putting our bodies in a state of stress. This in turn affects how we think and feel. (Read more ‘The gut-brain axis‘)


How does this work? There are many mechanisms for this and the science gets complex pretty quickly but in this post I will focus on two main aspects. The first is our gut microbiome or gut flora. The second is blood sugar control.


1. Our gut microbiome


In the past ten years scientists have discovered something called the gut-brain axis. This tells us that the gut and brain are in constant communication with one another in both directions. This means that there is a two-way link up between the health of our ‘gut microbiome’ or ‘gut flora’ and our mental state. (Read more ‘Microbiome—The Missing Link in the Gut-Brain Axis‘)


Our gut microbiome is made up of the billions of bacteria that live in our large intestine, help us digest our food and keep us alive. To be healthy, you need a healthy gut microbiome. In short, you need more of the good bacteria than the bad bacteria. Probiotics and fermented foods like kombucha or kefir have become increasingly fashionable to build up those good bacteria in the gut. 


When we regularly eat foods like pastries, bread, pizza, crisps, cakes, chocolate and sweets, it doesn’t just have an impact on our waistline. It seems that it also feeds the bad bacteria and starves the good ones. In layman’s terms, it gives us a dodgy balance in our guts.


On the other hand, going for unprocessed foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, unprocessed fats and simple proteins like fish, unprocessed meat and properly prepared beans and pulses help to keep our gut healthyOne study found that patients following this kind of dietary pattern were four times less likely to be diagnosed with depression. (Read more ‘Association of the Mediterranean dietary pattern with the incidence of depression‘)


One reason suggested for this is that many of these foods are prebiotics, fermentable fibres  that feed the good bacteria and create an environment where they thrivePrebiotics includes foods such as cooked and cooled potatoes, barely-ripe bananas, beans, lentils, oats, asparagus, artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, cabbage, apples and berries. Increase these in your diet and you’ll be doing your microbiome a huge favour


2. Blood sugar balance


The second way in which what you eat can affect stress levels is through your blood sugar control. If you’re blood sugar drops too low it can cause depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, crying spells, forgetfulness, trembling, racing heart and dizziness. Sound familiar? You may have a blood sugar regulation issue.  


As far back as 1966, researchers found that low blood sugar was associated with these symptoms. Their study recommended “a diet high in protein, low in carbohydrate and low in caffeine.”  (Read more ‘Relative Hypoglycemia as a Cause of Neuropsychiatric Illness‘)


A good breakfast can help with day long regulation of healthy blood sugar. Blood sugar is one area where you need to learn what works for you. It’s likely though that passing over the toast and croissants in favour of eggs with spinach or salmon and kale with left-over potatoes will serve you better. 


3. What does this mean for you? 3 key takeaways


  • What you eat on a daily basis can contribute towards reducing stress or it can make stress worse 


  • Pick foods that feed your gut mircobiome, not just your taste buds. 


  • Make it a priority to manage your blood sugar by finding what works for you.