September is Irish Heart Month and helping the body de-stress is vital for heart health. Stress finds its way into many of our lives in some shape or form. Working, commuting, running a home, taking care of a family and all else that makes up our daily schedules can sometimes feel overwhelming. Learning how to deal with stress while using food as a tool can help to alleviate the symptoms. When feeling under pressure, it’s easy to reach for the cup of coffee or bar of chocolate to get that quick fix. Fuelling yourself with mood boosting foods can help you get back to that sense of calm. When we get stressed, our bodies release a multitude of hormones that speed up our heart and breathing rates. As the body attempts to deal with the stress, blood is diverted away from the skin, digestive system and other organs and sent to the muscles, gearing us up for the fight or flight response. If the stressful situation carries on for a longer period, the increased circulating levels of adrenaline and cortisol cause blood glucose and blood pressure levels to rise to provide energy and help maintain circulation. If we remain stressed for a prolonged period of time, the body becomes exhausted due to many of its systems being overworked, while vital organs are deprived of the nutrients they need. Prolonged stress can contribute towards serious health problems such as hypertension, glucose intolerance, angina, stroke and heart attack. The immune and digestive systems may also be affected, leading to susceptibility to colds and flus and less than efficient absorption of nutrients from food. It is also common for weight loss to be impaired as high levels of cortisol in the blood tells the body to lay down fat around the waist: not great for our health or our confidence! Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Here are five foods that can be easily added into your diet to soothe and relax the body when going through a stressful period.
Oats are a great source of soluble fibre, which keeps blood sugar levels steady throughout the day. Maintaining even blood sugar levels is imperative to stress management as it prevents energy levels from spiking and dipping, which can lead to feelings of fatigue and a sluggish mind. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s much harder to work well when all you can think about is your bed and that big bar of chocolate? Make oats a little more exciting by sprinkling onto fruit and yoghurt or snacking on small oat bars.
Yes, the rumours are true, dark chocolate is good for you, in small amounts of course. Who knew? The catch is that the cocoa content must be at least 70% to get the benefits. Being a great source of magnesium, it can help to relieve the headaches associated with stress, relax the muscles and encourage sleep. Just half a small bar is all that’s needed to help reduce the level of circulating stress hormones. Nibble on a few squares as an after dinner treat or break a few pieces into a lunchbox with some fruit and natural yoghurt as a midday snack.
Salmon is an oily fish that is rich in the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, which help to regulate mood and brain function. Eating salmon regularly will lift a low mood and lower the levels of stress hormones. Have a fillet for dinner or flake into pasta or risotto dishes.
Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts into serotonin, the “happy” hormone. If feeling extra stressed or going through a low mood, snack on a handful of the seeds with a small piece of fruit, dried or fresh, to get that feel good mood back again. Eating a few hours before bed may also help with a restful sleep.
As well as supporting stable blood sugar levels, brown rice is rich in B vitamins. During stressful periods, the B vitamins are especially important as they support the nervous system and stimulate the production of “happy” hormones. During periods of stress, the B vitamins are depleted and they must be topped up every day as the body is unable to store them. Try in a salad with some seeds and nuts, veggies and a light vinaigrette.
There are a lot of elements to stress management but adding these foods into your diet can start you off on the right road to a world of calm. Give it a go!