Food can help when dealing with stress

Whether living in the heart of our city or the quieter hub of The Beach, our fast-paced lives create a certain amount of stress – and it is hard to avoid. We all have it to varying degrees. Job demands, parenthood, lack of exercise and poor diet can all contribute to higher stress levels.

These pressures can trigger such ailments as headaches, higher blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance and lowered immunity, just to name a few. In fact, extreme stress is thought to be the primary contributing factor in many diseases. While there are many modalities used to alleviate stress, I believe that diet is one of the most neglected avenues.

Hippocrates said it best when he stated “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food …”

One of the primary culprits with stress is the production of excess cortisol. Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone produced by our adrenal gland that helps our body to deal with stress over a long period of time.

During the day our levels of cortisol naturally rise and fall and should be at the lowest levels when we are about to go to bed. However, cortisol is produced in excess when our body perceives emotional, mental or physical trauma and therefore can remain high throughout the day, interrupting our sleep cycles, bodily functions and mood.

To help support the adrenals and balance excess stress, there are basics that all people can follow such as lowering sugar, caffeine and alcohol consumption, eating more fruits and vegetables and indulging in fewer refined carbohydrates. Making time to relax and adequately sleep is important too, but we can also add some powerful stress balancing foods and herbs into our diet that work synergistically with any lifestyle changes.

Some of the many ancient herbs that can be used to lower and modulate cortisol levels are classified as adaptogens. They regulate and balance the physiology in the body, creating a calming effect.  Some examples are holy basil, ashwagandha and Asian ginseng. They can be consumed in the form of tea, providing a tasty replacement for coffee or caffeinated beverages. Organic India is a brand that makes a superb holy basil tea that comes in many varieties and flavours.

Further supporting the adrenals is good old vitamin C. It is depleted from our tissues in the production of cortisol, and because our bodies cannot make Vitamin C, it must be provided from foods in our diet.   Most citrus fruits provide lots of vitamin C, but bell peppers, broccoli and strawberries are excellent sources and pack a wallop in just one serving.

Magnesium is often called the anti-stress mineral as it acts similar to a natural tranquilizer by supporting the relaxation of muscles in the body.  It also assists with the production and activation of enzymes needed in adrenal function as well as many other important tasks.  There are many sources of magnesium but the power houses include pumpkin seeds, cacao powder; brown rice, flaxseeds, spinach and dark leafy greens.

And let’s not forget the B family of vitamins that are equally important in helping to support the nervous system in times of intense stress.  Some of the many benefits provided include increased energy, metabolism regulation and hormone production. B vitamins can be found in avocado, whole grains, legumes, cauliflower and nutritional yeast.

Real, unprocessed and raw foods will support our bodies and minimize the effects of daily pressures. To make a quick stress-balancing treat try mixing one tablespoon each of raw sesame seeds, cacao, ground flax seeds with two tablespoons of raw unsweetened almond butter and a teaspoon of raw honey. Roll into unsweetened shredded coconut and enjoy.

Life is busy, and realistically some level of stress is inevitable.  We cannot always control life as it unfolds around us, but we do have the power over what we eat, think and drink. And this can make all the difference in balancing stress levels and maintaining good health in our hectic and sometimes crazy lives.


Sheila Ream, CNP, is a Certified Nutritionist in the Beach. She can be reached at

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