The food you eat and when you eat it can play a major role in helping you reduce stress and alleviate depression and anxiety. Your brain is part of your body, and it must be nourished and exercised similarly if you are to achieve optimal health. Below are just some of the mental and physical elements that are affected by nutrition.
- Energy level
- Thought clarity
- Self esteem
- Physical appearance
This article is a short primer on basic nutrition and is designed to help you start to plan your meals and food choices. It’s not intended to be a substitute for a physician or a registered dietitian.
The old saying “you are what you eat” is true. Eat healthfully and mindfully. Eat food that is good for you and avoid food that is not.
Nutrition and Fad Diets
In the most simple of terms, foods consist of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Humans need all three in order to be healthy. Many fad diets emphasize protein and fat to the detriment of even complex carbohydrates. These diets are ultimately unhealthy and should only be used for an extremely short term in certain people. Proportion and perspective in servings and choices are key aspects to maintaining a healthy diet.
General Dietary Considerations
Eating is as natural as breathing. Too often, though, we have grown to associate food with all sorts of non-nutritional things such as comfort, happiness, and self-medication.
We recommend a fresh start. Realize that you may have some mental baggage associated with your usual food choices, and make a decision to consider your dietary selections in a thoughtful way. Keep in mind that the true goal is to nourish your body and delight your senses, not to make up for the fact that you missed a job opportunity or that you have a broken heart.
Here are some general rules that we’ve found make for a healthier diet.
- Fresh is better than preserved.
- Whole is better than processed.
- Organic is better than hormone- and pesticide-treated
- Local is better than trucked or flown in.
- Good hydration is essential.
- Seasoning and spicing make all the difference.
In a perfect world, we’d all walk next door to the farm and thank the farmer for fresh eggs, milk, butter, and meat. We’d then go home to our own gardens and pick spinach and squash to have along with the dried legumes and rice we put away from the harvest earlier in the year and rustle up a perfectly balanced meal. Yet we live in an imperfect world of corner convenience stores and tempting sugary breakfast cereals. This website is not the forum for a discussion of sustainable agriculture in the 21st century, but it does make nutritional sense to at least consider where our food comes from.
The Beautiful B’s: B Vitamins
We need to take in an assortment and balance of many vitamins in order to be healthy. B vitamins are particularly wonderful for the nervous system, especially true if it is recovering from stress, chemical imbalance from drug therapy, or psychological trauma. The “beautiful B’s” help us stay in balance, thereby reducing stress and banishing depression and anxiety. The B complex is a set of eight water-soluble vitamins. Together they boost your metabolism and facilitate the immune and nervous system.
Refined sugar and white flour products literally starve us of B vitamins, which in turn increases our feelings of anxiety and stress. Stress further depletes the B’s, and suddenly you are in an unhealthy spiral. Try replacing sugar and white flour with whole grains, nuts, green, leafy vegetables, Brewer’s yeast, eggs, and fish. All are good sources of the B complex of vitamins. With your doctor’s OK, you can also take a daily supplement for an added boost of energy.
Water: A Vital Nutrient
One of the more effective things you can do to help your body deal with stress is to drink water. In fact, it’s essential. Water is critical to your immune system, nervous system, metabolism, and cognitive and mechanical abilities. Many consider water to be the single most important element in peak performance, both physical and mental. And for the most part, designer labels aside, potable water is plentiful and free.
It’s estimated that we lose a total of about 10 glasses (80 ounces) of water every 24 hours through breathing, perspiring, and excreting waste. Yet the average American drinks less than 8 ounces (one cup) of water per day! Even when you factor in the fluids we get through other liquids or foods that we eat, this means most of us are walking around in a state of mild to moderate dehydration. Moreover, much of what we drink contains caffeine, which acts as a diuretic, siphoning more water out of our systems than it adds in.
Assuming good health, a person with an average build should drink at least 5 glasses of water per day to maintain a balance. If you are more than 180 pounds, you should drink more water (up to 10 glasses per day). You will feel brighter, your skin will look better, and every part of your body will start to work with greater efficiency.
Energy Sappers: The Seductive Lure of Carbohydrates and Sweets
Carbohydrates are both a boon and a bane to those suffering from anxiety and depression. When we are depressed, we tend to self-medicate with refined carbohydrates. These act as a temporary balm and have been demonstrated to contribute to the release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is manipulated by many of the antidepressant drugs on the market. When the brain releases serotonin, tension is relieved. Carbohydrates also produce tryptophan, which has a calming neurological effect.
But when we self-medicate with sugary, refined flour carbohydrates the effect is short-lived, and we create blood sugar fluxes that actually make us more anxious and depressed in the long run. There are ways that you can ensure that you get the carbohydrates your body needs for energy without sabotaging yourself in the process, such as combining carbohydrates with protein. Protein helps in the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, which in turn makes us more alert and high-functioning. For example, try a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with some leafy green vegetables as a garnish. This will give you tryptophan-rich protein and complex carbohydrates high in B vitamins. Avoid saturated fats, which lead to sluggishness by inhibiting the creation of neurotransmitters. Consume more protein than carbohydrates if you feel tired and wish to be more alert. Consume more carbohydrates than protein if you are agitated and wish to be more relaxed.
Soda: Just Say No
It is best to just stop drinking soda, as it provides no nutritional value at all. Somehow, in the past half century, soda has become the main daily beverage in America, and the effects have been terrible.
More Americans, both children and adults, suffer from obesity than ever before. It is believed that one primary reason for this is the increased and pervasive consumption of soda. Back in 1965, the average person consumed 2 or 3 sodas per week. Today, the rate is around 3 quarts per week, or an astounding 175 quarts 44 gallons)per year! And to add to the problem, in the mid 1980’s, soda manufacturers switched from using cane and beet sugars to high fructose corn syrup. The result: increased incidences of diabetes, esophageal cancer, obesity, and depression.
Eliminating soda from your diet is a huge step toward a healthier life. To aid in the transition, mix a little freshly squeezed fruit juice into a naturally carbonated water, such as Perrier or Panna. You’ll get the sensation of the sweet effervescence without the fructose and refined sugar.
Where We Eat: Dinner at the Table Is Healthier
Eating over the sink should have ended with those college days. Eating is meant to be a celebration with a bit of ritual to it; this is part of the awareness of eating. Today’s hectic life pace encourages us to eat on the run in order to keep the body fueled. This is part of what has led to our obese society. Food is ‘applied’ rather than eaten.
We’d like to suggest that the environment in which you eat plays a part in the overall nourishment you receive. Consider what else you are taking in with your food. Are you staring at the evening news, taking in those stressful images with your nourishment? Are you fighting with someone while you eat? Writing to-do lists and checking email while you chew without tasting? These are not the best environments for consuming proper nutrition.
Many cultures provide that at least one meal per day is a deliberate event, done with purpose and sometimes social interaction. This is a healthy idea. Sit at a table that has a place setting. Keep the conversation positive. Pay attention to the food you are eating. Savor the flavors, textures, and aromas and eat slowly. Honor your appetite, and listen to your satiety when it tells you that you are full.
Adding, subtracting, and modifying a few of your daily food choices, getting more water, and being mindful of when and how you eat are all great steps toward getting better nutrition for a less stressful life.
You can learn more about specific foods to fight stress, including more information about B vitamins and tryptophan, in our slideshow article: “Health Foods That Fight Stress.”