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Diet and nutrition to help combat stress


Stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 49% of all work-related ill health in 2022/23 (HSE, 2022). With 17.1 million working days lost (HSE, 2022), it’s an important issue for employers to address (British Heart Foundation, 2013).

Everyone feels stressed from time to time and a moderate level of stress, in the short term, can be positive. It can help us perform better when we go for a job interview or when doing a presentation. However, excessive or prolonged stress can make us ill and lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.

When we feel stressed, our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. As a result, our heart rate speeds up and blood is diverted to the muscles of the arms and legs ready for sudden movement. We breathe faster to take in more oxygen, kidney function and digestion slows and the liver releases fat and sugar into the bloodstream to provide energy. Our body is now well equipped to run away from the stress such as being chased by a bear. Brilliant! Except in today’s world the stress is more likely to come in the form of work-related pressures, family responsibilities or money worries.

When we feel stressed over a prolonged period, the fight-or-flight reaction stays ‘on’ and this can have negative impacts throughout our body. Symptoms include: depression, food cravings, irritable bowel syndrome, loss of appetite, feeling dizzy, chest pains, losing interest in sex, insomnia and weight gain. Less noticeable impacts of stress include: a poor immune system, increased blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels and increased risk of diabetes.

There are a variety of ways to combat stress such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques, physical activity, eating healthily and talking to someone, whether it be a GP or someone you know or trust. Useful resources can be found online from websites such as Mind, the British Heart Foundation and One You.

In times of stress, our body has an increased need for nutrients. Unfortunately, when we feel stressed we often crave foods high in fat and sugar, or even skip meals or forget to eat. A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress. Below are some dietary tips to help protect your body from some of the effects of stress.

Eat regularly and avoid highly refined foods. The stress hormone cortisol can make us crave sugary, fatty foods which will result in a sugar rush and then a dip, which will worsen the symptoms of stress. Small regular meals will help to maintain energy levels and mood, while decreasing tiredness and irritability. Eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, pasta and cereals as well as oats and brown rice will help release the mood-boosting hormone – serotonin which will help you feel more relaxed. Complex carbohydrates provide slow-release energy which can help stabilise blood sugars.

Protein helps to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream. During prolonged stress the body has an increased demand for protein. Include foods such as lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, lentils, nuts or seeds in each meal.

A lack of B vitamins can result in feelings of exhaustion and low mood. Make sure you pack in plenty wholegrains, beans, lean meats, fish, chicken and vegetables such as avocados, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus.

Magnesium is needed for a variety of functions such as muscle and nerve function and heartbeat regulation. Low intakes of magnesium are quite common in the UK. Aim to include green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, brown rice, nuts, wholegrain bread, fish, lean meat and dairy foods to obtain adequate magnesium.

Support your immune system with vitamins A, C, D and E and the minerals zinc, iron and selenium. A healthy and varied diet will provide these nutrients. As the majority of our vitamin D is obtained from sunlight between April and October, try to get outside in the sunshine each day and take a 10 microgram supplement of vitamin D (For more info on vitamin D see my previous article here).

Limit caffeine intakes. Many people use tea or coffee as a pick-me-up as it makes us feel more alert and less tired in the short-term. However, caffeine boosts adrenaline levels which raises blood pressure and speeds up your heart rate. European guidelines advise that caffeine intakes of up to 400mg a day (about 3-4 cups of coffee) shouldn’t cause any problems, as long as you’re not pregnant (EFSA, 2015).

While alcohol may make you feel more relaxed, if you regularly drink more than the Government alcohol limits and unit guidelines, it could exacerbate your stress levels. Both men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

Keep hydrated. Water and fluid help transport nutrients around the body as well as ensure proper functioning of all cells, tissues and organs. The recommendation for fluids is to drink around 6-8 glasses a day.

Dr Laura Wyness has been supporting women with dietary advice for several years. She is Head of Nutrition at Zoë Rose Fitness, the Edinburgh–based health and well-being coaching company that specialises in helping women achieve their fitness and health goals. She also provides workplace wellness talks on nutrition and provides training on nutrition and menopause to fellow health professionals.

Laura is also proud to be one of the Scottish Regional Food Tourism Ambassadors.

Check out the 8 online short courses on Eating Well for Menopause for more information and recipes to support you through the menopause.

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