woman preparing healthy meal full of vegetables - important when it comes to managing stress with a healthy diet

How to Manage Stress with a Healthy Diet

March 22, 2017

Stress can play havoc with our minds and on our bodies. And it's different for everyone. But the physiological expression of stress is one thing that we all have some control over. And one of the easiest ways to control effects of stress on our bodies is through the food we eat. Today, we're taking a look at how to manage stress with a healthy diet - keeping your blood sugar levels on an even keel. 

Stress and Nutrition

Good nutrition and a healthy diet are so important when it comes to managing stress and its effects on the body. The food we choose to eat daily can help support our bodies and adrenal function as we go through stressful periods in our lives.

Adrenal function is determined in part by blood sugar levels, so stablising blood sugars is key. One major area which causes countless challenges for our body is the constant struggle between Cortisol and Insulin otherwise known as 'Blood Sugar Balance'. 

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands. It's involved in many vital functions including; glucose metabolism, regulating blood pressure, stabilising insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, as well as immune and anti-inflammatory response which are all required for keeping our bodies healthy and happy.

Cortisol Levels

Ideally, cortisol is present in the body at its highest levels in the morning, its lowest at night and should maintain a steady, even release throughout the day. It's often referred to as 'the stress hormone' because it’s secreted in higher levels during the body’s stress response, but this isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted.

In fact, more often than not spikes in cortisol levels are due to our daily lifestyle and food choices.

While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response is activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event.

Cortisol & Diet

A lot of us tend to stick to a Western diet typically high in sugar or caffeine, low in protein, omega 3 fats and fibre. Add in minimal exercise plus a high stress job or lifestyle and it can lead to on-going irregularities and spikes in our cortisol levels.

Consequences of High Cortisol Levels

Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream have been shown to have negative effects. Some of these are as follows:

  • Impaired memory and concentration
  • Increased cravings for sugar and stimulants to get you through the day
  • Suppressed metabolism and weight gain
  • Blood sugar imbalances; energy highs and lows throughout the day
  • Slow bowel transit times
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body such as slowed wound healing, and other health consequences

Abdominal Fat

Any of these sound familiar? The most worrying of all of these is the marked increase in abdominal fat. This is also referred to as 'the fat around the middle'. Increased visceral fat is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body.

Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat include: heart attacks/strokes, the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of 'bad' cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of 'good' cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems. So keeping a healthy weight especially around our middle is key to maintaining optimum health and wellbeing.

How to Manage Stress with a Healthy Diet (and Rest)

Often external stressors can feel out of our control and can lead to us feeling overwhelmed or anxious. However, the good news is, we actively decide what and when we eat. This means we can take our control back in decisions and choices we make throughout the day. So you can in fact manage stress with a healthy diet and good food choices. 

What we choose to eat on a daily basis can help support and nourish our bodies and its adrenal function, as we navigate stressful periods. So we can get on top of it. Here's how to manage stress with a healthy diet and good nutrition.

Low GL diet

A Low GL diet will help us stabilise our blood sugars throughout the day, therefore keeping our energy levels stable throughout the day. This will then help us drastically reduce our need for sugar and stimulants to keep us going. The premise of this lifestyle choice is to eat a balanced meal of protein, good fats, vegetables and complex carbohydrates with every meal.

Eat a rainbow

Focus on eating all the colours and a variety of vegetables to increase your antioxidant intake. Aim for approximately 20 different types of veg a week. This will provide your body with the nutrients and antioxidants it needs in order to fuel and support itself.

Reduce stimulants and sugars

Fast releasing sugars and stimulants such as coffee and fizzy caffeinated drinks spike our blood sugars; causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this spike by turning any sugar it can get its hands on into fat and storing it in the easiest to reach place usually around the middle, leading to weight gain.

Have Protein & fibre with EVERY meal

Increase the amount of protein and fibre you take in at every meal. This will slow down the release of glucose from the food you eat. It will then reduce the perpetual insulin/cortisol spikes, therefore, stabilising your blood sugars and ultimately keeping your energy levels stable throughout the day.

If we focus on keeping our energy stable all day, we can stop ourselves from over-eating, reduce our reliance on sugar and stimulants, improve our metabolism, keep us in a non-stressed nervous response and maintain a healthy weight.

Switch off and sleep

Finally, watching your diet can really help tackle stress, but rest is so important too. Our bodies work hard all day and they deserve the adequate time to rest and repair themselves over night so you can wake up rested and refreshed ready for the day ahead. Aim to get a full night of restorative sleep, anywhere between 6 to 8 hours.

For more info on how to tackle stress, check out some Ways to Relieve Stress Naturally and have a look at the Best Supplements for Stress Relief

Please note, this blog is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice.

It’s always best to consult your doctor before taking any new supplements, treatments or remedies if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication.

Checked and updated: 4 September 2021