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What to eat when you're going through a stressful time

Kate Dimmer (BANT, CNHC) talks us through nutrients and supplements to consume when we're going through periods of stress or anxiety. Kate has a refreshingly balanced attitude towards nutrition, and I'm delighted that she has taken the time to write for you.

We all experience periods of stress and anxiety in our lives. Chronic stress is considered normal and anxiety is the number one mental health condition in the US. At the moment (March 2020), during these strange times whilst we lie low during this COVID-19 virus, feelings of stress and anxiety are understandably on the rise.

As a Registered Nutritional Therapist, I would like to share some nutrition tips that may help you to support your anxiety. This does not replace the advice of your doctor, however.

Eating a nutrient-dense diet is the best way to support general health. This is because every single nutrient has a role to play in the health and function of the body. If certain nutrients are low, the body cleverly adapts but it will not function as well. A nutrient-dense diet means a diet containing foods that are very nutritious and do not contain empty calories or additives. Whilst trying to support our bodies during times of stress, choose whole, natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible. This means simple foods like vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, eggs, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds. However, during these times we do have to do the best we can.

Please do not feel guilty if you need to use processed foods. Just try to include whole foods when you can.

Did you know that when we produce stress hormones, our adrenal glands use up vitamin C? This vitamin is a major antioxidant and is very important for immune support too. Keep your levels high by including plenty of vitamin C rich foods. Examples include sprouts, peppers, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, squash, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, cantaloupe melon, pineapple and berries. It may not be easy for you to access fresh fruit and vegetables at the moment, so you can use frozen produce and you may like to take a vitamin C supplement.

Another essential and relevant nutrient with over 300 functions in the body is the mineral magnesium. This nutrient is essential for immune function, muscle function and nerve function, the latter being important for supporting mental health. There is much research on the role of magnesium in anxiety, depression and sleep. Again, fruit and veg, particularly leafy greens, will provide magnesium in the diet. Nuts, seeds, pulses, meat, fish and dairy foods also contain magnesium. This is another safe nutrient to supplement. You might also enjoy taking a magnesium salts or Epsom salts bath. A warm bath is relaxing, and the body can absorb some of the magnesium through the skin.

The B vitamins are a group of nutrients that have various essential roles in the body and brain and they often work together.

B vitamins are important for supporting mental health, brain function, energy production and more.

Vitamin B12 comes from meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy produce. Other B vitamins are found across a wider range of foods including whole grains, nuts, fruit and vegetables. I like avocados as they are a really good source of folate (folic acid). So, if your diet is varied and includes a broad range of foods, you should get all your B vitamins.

If your diet is limited, you are vegan, or a strict vegetarian, it is advisable to supplement your vitamin B12 particularly or take a quality multivitamin.

Healthy fats are extremely important for brain and mental health as well as supporting hormone production and for absorption and transport of other nutrients. An essential fat is omega 3 which has been well researched for its importance in brain, mental and heart health and its anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources come from oily fish including sardines, anchovies, mackerel and salmon. These fish are economical to buy tinned and last well in the store cupboard. Plant-based sources come from chia seeds, walnuts and sea algae. We need a variety of types of fats in the diet, so I also recommend healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, olive oil, coconut and coconut oil.

Foods to avoid during stress and anxiety

There are foods and drinks which will not help your feelings of anxiety. Stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol may disturb sleep and increase feelings of irritability and tension as they raise cortisol, one of the stress hormones. Coffee and alcohol also reduce magnesium levels, and as discussed earlier, this mineral is important for mental health and well-being.

During stressful times we are more likely to reach for alcohol and caffeine. Try to be mindful about this and notice it. Now and again these drinks can be enjoyed, but if you are particularly anxious, I recommend reducing them.

Ask the people in your home to support you in this. You may need to find other distractions or something else to enjoy drinking. I encourage you to try herb teas for their relaxing therapeutic properties. My favourites are tulsi, lemon balm and night-time blends. There are so many lovely varieties of calming blends for you to try. You can even cool them and add ice for a refreshing cold drink.

To support a balanced mood, I would also suggest limiting your sugar and refined carbohydrates (things baked from white flour). Aside from being low in nutrients such as fibre, these foods cause sugar spikes which give us a burst of energy (and feelings of pleasure and comfort which of course is desirable), yet they soon send our blood glucose crashing down again. This can cause mood swings, energy slumps and may disrupt blood glucose balance more permanently. Instead, try to choose whole grain or complex carbohydrates such as whole oats, brown rice and root vegetables. If you are craving sweet foods, allow yourself a treat now and again, but on an everyday basis, enjoy fresh or dried fruit, which still contains natural sugars, but also contains nutrients and fibre.

In summary, to support your general health with nutrition at times of stress, aim to eat a varied diet containing natural, unprocessed foods wherever possible. If you can, increase fruit and vegetables and reduce sugar, caffeine and alcohol. However, worrying about eating healthily is not supportive of anxiety. So, remember that this is a temporary phase and do not add healthy eating to your list of worries. Try to eat a balance of foods but allow yourself a treat here and there too.

You can find out more about Kate and her work by visiting her website:


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