The connection between what you eat and managing stress

By Awaana Health

Jul 20, 2022

In today’s fast-paced and hectic world, stress, anxiety, and depression have become quite common. If we ask anyone if they have ever felt like being under tremendous stress or have felt depressed, chances are the answer will most likely be a yes. Be it academics or the corporate world, everything and everyone has become highly competitive. We all must have gone through phases where we are not able to sleep a night before an important test or presentation. We all must have felt crippled and sat frozen at our desks at some point in our lives when we are under a tremendous workload. In such a crazy world, feeling overwhelmed sometimes is normal. But what is not normal is not being able to manage the stress, anxiety, and depression that come along with our demanding schedules.

As it is often said, “You are what you eat”, food has a great influence on your mind and the stress, anxiety, and depression levels of your body. What we eat is intertwined with our lives in more ways than we realize. The kind of food we eat is directly linked to the optimal functioning of our physical and mental health and when it comes to stress, food plays a big role. In this article, we will explore how food is connected with stress and how you can use nutrition to reduce stress levels and attain better focus and concentration at work. But before diving into that, it is important to understand how stress affects our bodies. 

Effects Of Stress On Various Systems

  1. Musculoskeletal system: Stress can cause chronic musculoskeletal tension that can lead to conditions such as back pain, migraine, etc.
  1. Respiratory system: Stress can cause the precipitation of respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing, especially in people who already suffer from some respiratory illness. Stress has also been found to be associated with increased asthma attacks in patients.
  1. Cardiovascular system: The cardiovascular system is one of the systems that take the greatest toll from stress. Chronic stress has been proven to increase the risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and even stroke.
  1. Endocrine system: Chronic stress has been known to cause many metabolic and endocrine disorders like diabetes, and obesity, as well as increase the chances of developing immune disorders.
  1. Nervous system: Nervous system is directly linked to stress. Increased stress levels cause the release of many neurotransmitters that can cause harm to the the body in long term by interacting with other systems of the body.
  1. Reproductive system: Stress is associated with decreased libido or sexual desire in both males and females. It has also been found to cause difficulty in conception, infertility, as well as many menstrual disorders.
  1. Gastrointestinal system: Another vital system that is affected by chronic stress is the gastrointestinal system. Stress has been proven to cause many gastrointestinal disorders – heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease, to name a few. 
  1. Overall health: Stress can have devastating effects on our overall health. When our body is under stress, it releases a surge of hormones, particularly cortisol, epinephrine (or adrenaline), and norepinephrine (or noradrenaline). Once the stressor is no longer there, our bodies are flooded with these stress hormones and it is pretty difficult to flush these hormones out once the stressful situation is over. This takes quite a toll on our overall health in general in addition to the specific systems mentioned above.

The Connection Between Food and Stress

Decades of research in the field have led researchers to the conclusion that food and dietary habits have a strong connection with stress and its management. To understand this connection we have to go down to the cellular level, the level where metabolism takes place. Every cell in our body contains hundreds to thousands of tiny structures called mitochondria. A mitochondrion is referred to as the “powerhouse of the cell”. These are the tiny factories that convert the food we eat into energy with the help of oxygen. The energy is produced in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), which is the fuel of the body (just like petrol/diesel is the fuel of a car). The mitochondria are very effective in their job, the only problem being that they are extremely sensitive to damage. This damage can be due to toxins, metabolic wastes, allergens, infection, and stress. However, the most damage done to the mitochondria is by unhealthy food and eating foods that have too many calories without any nutrients (also called empty calories).

Junk food can be considered synonymous with empty calories. They give you a sense of pleasure for a while after you eat them, but over time, they cause irreparable damage to your body at cellular and metabolic levels. This deterioration is called oxidative stress. When you eat too much or consume too many ‘empty calories’ they are metabolized in the mitochondria and waste is produced in the form of free radicals. These free radicals are extremely harmful to our tissues and cause irreparable damage. Free radicals need to be neutralized by antioxidants. However, junk foods that contain sugar, flour, and calories, are devoid of antioxidants that are present in great quantities in green vegetables and colorful fruits. The damage caused to the mitochondria due to oxidative stress causes symptoms like fatigue, pain, loss of memory, constantly low energy levels, faster aging, and increases the chances of all aging-related chronic disorders. According to Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, one of the most renowned doctors in the UK, just like doing things you love helps you to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, good dietary habits are equally important in achieving optimum mental health. It is often said that in order to achieve mental well-being, you need to eat well and take care of your mitochondria.

Another research in this field has shown that childhood trauma and stress in day-to-day life can alter the gut bacterial flora, the lining of the intestine, and the immune function of the gut. These alterations in the gut flora and lining due to stress can hamper the way your body absorbs nutrients from food. In functional medicine, Gut is called the gateway of optimal health. Any imbalance in the gut can become the cause of anxiety, depression, stress and vice ver·sa. From this, we can safely say that anyone who is dealing with stress, anxiety, or any mood disorder needs to make better food choices as the food we eat is directly linked to our health and mental well-being.

Using Food To Manage Stress, Anxiety, Depression, And Other Mental Health Issues

Merely consuming certain specific anti-stress foods and then not changing other aspects of your lifestyle won’t prove productive. It is well known that stress can alter gut bacterial flora and its lining. Hence, if you are already under a lot of stress, even eating healthy food won’t be beneficial as it won’t be absorbed well by the body due to alterations in the gut. As mentioned before,  stress affects the immune system adversely, and high levels of stress or anxiety can hamper your ability to fight diseases. Hence, you need to make many essential changes to your dietary habits and lifestyle that will help you tackle stress and in turn attain optimal health and mental well-being. Some of our recommendations that will improve your gut health and immunity and also let you fight diseases and stress effectively are –

  • Consume less junk food or ‘empty calories. This will protect your mitochondria and tissues from oxidative stress and prevent fast aging and aging-related disorders.
  • Consume more foods that contain antioxidants like vitamin A, C, E, beta-carotene, anthocyanins, etc. This includes green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and colorful fruits like tomatoes, carrots, grapes, berries, oranges, and other citrus fruits. In addition to being antioxidants, these foods also boost your immunity and gut health.
  • Add anti-stress foods to your diet. These foods help you fight stress by reducing the levels of stress hormones in your body and providing essential micronutrients to the body. These include bananas, broccoli, avocados, seafood, and asparagus.
  • Regular detoxification. To get rid of all the hormones that your body is flooded with during stressful situations, it is necessary to detoxify regularly.
  • Employ an inflammation-free lifestyle. An inflammation-free lifestyle not only helps you prevent chronic disorders but also boosts your mental health. You need to address any inflammation in your body and keep it under regular check.
  • Keep hormones in balance. Hormonal imbalance is one of the leading causes of stress and skin, gut, and many other disorders. Eating a regular balanced diet along with regular exercise or yoga can help you fight hormonal imbalance effectively

Mental health is not a single-lane highway. Many factors affect a person’s mental health and nutrition and gut health is one of them. Since stress is closely linked with both the gastrointestinal and the immune systems. Functional medicine understands that our body is an interconnected system and an imbalance in one part affects the whole system. Stress is one of the biggest enemies of our health and so it’s important to keep it under check one must remember that your food choices can help you manage your stress levels and keep it under check in the long run as well as prevent your body from various chronic diseases. This will allow you to truly enjoy your life and live a pleasurable, mindful, and healthy life.

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