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When we are under high stress, we can often reach for foods that are “comforting” (like cookies, donuts, cake, pastries, and chocolate bars), but these foods may not be the best choice for feeding your brain under stressful and demanding circumstances. Comfort foods are often calorie-rich but nutrient-poor.

Further, under high stress (and it doesn’t actually matter what has caused the high stress, whether it be a natural disaster like an earthquake or fire, or witnessing something really traumatic), the reactions our body goes through can be quite similar. We release adrenaline. This is part of our natural alarm response system.

Adrenaline is an essential neurotransmitter that is released as part of the fight-flight response. It enables our body to get us to safety, shut down non-essential functions, and make sure the muscles needed for fight or flight get activated. Cortisol, a hormone, is also essential for the alarm system to function optimally.

Unfortunately, over extended periods of time, the alarm system can go into over-drive, and this is one factor that can lead to re-experiencing memories, flashbacks, hypervigilance, being on edge all the time, feeling anxious and panicky when reminded of the traumatic event, struggling with sleeping and having nightmares.

Making neurotransmitters and hormones requires micronutrients, which are numerous kinds of vitamins and minerals. This is a well-established scientific fact. Micronutrients like zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and niacin are all essential for making neurotransmitter chemicals for the brain and the body. If your body is depleted of these nutrients, then either it won’t have sufficient nutrients to make these essential chemicals, or it will redirect all resources to the fight or flight response (as it is so vital for survival) and there won’t be much left for ensuring optimal brain function to do things like concentrate, regulate moods and sleep.

Consequently, as micronutrients get depleted at a high rate during times of stress, we need to replenish them in greater quantity from our food (and perhaps other sources).

Where can we get these micronutrients from?

Answer: Nutrient-dense foods; real food, not ultra-processed foods.
Compare a banana to a cookie; one obtains far more of these micronutrients (like potassium, magnesium, folate) that are required for brain function from a banana. Eating kale chips over potato chips would also provide more nutrients. Reaching for a carrot stick and dipping it in hummus would be better for your brain than gorging down a commercial meat pie (although meat pies can be healthy if they contain lots of vegetables too). Choosing nuts and seeds over pretzels would also give you better brain food.

Overall, to cope well with stress your goal should be to increase intake of plant food and food high in nutrient density while still getting adequate protein, fats and carbs. Fish is a great source of protein and of essential fatty acids, which are also vital for brain function. In eating these types of foods, you would be shifting your diet from a Western type of diet (ultra-processed, high in sugar) to a Mediterranean-style diet (high in fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, healthy fats and low in processed foods).

Therefore, stop counting calories and start focussing on nutrients, especially nutrients that are good for your brain!

Would this be sufficient to sooth the over-activated alarm system in a situation of high and chronic stress? Possibly, although some people might need more nutrients than what they can get out of their diet, even if it is a healthy one. There are many reasons for this, some of which reflect reduced nutrient density in modern foods, some of which are due to our own specific genetic make-up, and some have to do with the health of our microbiome (the millions of helpful bacteria that live inside us, especially in our gut).

If you do need to consume more nutrients than what you can source from your diet, or you are struggling with cooking due to your particular circumstances and the stresses you are experiencing, or you are time poor because of family or work demands, what do you take in terms of a supplement? Research from the Mental Health and Nutrition Lab in Christchurch, NZ found that following the Christchurch earthquakes as well as other research on stressed communities shows that B vitamins, in particular, can be helpful. A recently published meta-analysis confirmed the positive effect of B vitamins on reducing stress. In addition, some may find a reduction of intrusive thoughts require additional minerals as well.

Nutrition resources for psychologists and mental health professionals working with people struggling with anxiety post-trauma:

When working with people struggling with stress/anxiety, research shows that it is essential that their diet includes foods that are nutrient-dense. This means being aware of foods that are high in vitamins and minerals as well as being a good source of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

You can ask some simple questions:

  • How many times a week do you eat fast food meals or snacks?
  • How many regular fizzy drinks do you drink each day?
  • Snacks? Favourite Foods? Problem Foods?
  • Any restrictions? Allergies? Aversions?
  • How many servings of fruit do you eat each day?
  • How many servings of vegetables do you eat each day?
  • How often do you eat red meat (good source of iron, folate)?
  • Do you eat fish? (good to know if they are vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free)

These questions can start the conversation to find out if they are eating nutrient dense foods.

Here are some basic tips:

  1. Start with whole foods diet approach including good fats, nuts, seeds, fish, a modest amount of meat, vegetables, fruit, whole grains
  2. Shifting towards eating “real” as opposed to processed foods naturally eliminates unnecessary food additives such as artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives that do not add nutritional value and may contribute to psychiatric symptoms in some people
  3. Limit sugar intake (sugar is everywhere in processed foods, energy/fizzy drinks – encourage clients to look at labels to spot the hidden sugar)
  4. watch caffeine and alcohol intake doesn’t creep up
  5. Eat a good solid nutrient-dense breakfast: e.g., omelette with vegetables, muesli (oats, nuts, raisins) with milk, yogurt, fresh fruit
  6. If your client is struggling with cooking or a change in diet is not working enough to reduce psychological symptoms, you can consider suggesting supplements as there has been a lot of research on them. If suggesting supplements, stick to the data and published research, the best research is on adding additional B vitamins (like Blackmores or Berocca). For more information please email the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group: mentalhealthnutrition@canterbury.ac.nz

Here are some useful resources:

A recent radio interview about dietary patterns and stress: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights/audio/2018687489/nutrition-during-times-of-stress-and-trauma

Harvard Medical School has put together lots of resources on healthy eating, including the healthy eating plate: www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/healthy-eating-plate

The Helfimed trial was a successful trial that showed the benefit of assisting people suffering from depression to nudge over to a more Mediterranean-based diet. They have lots of recipes on their website: http://helfimed.org/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi

The Mood and Food Centre in Melbourne often blogs on diet-related topics. Check out their website: http://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/

Dr Drew Ramsey has some excellent resources on eating well on a budget: https://drewramseymd.com/uncategorized/brain-food-budget/

There are lots of great resources at this site: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/freedownloads.htm

Books that we have enjoyed reading on nutrition and mental health that do have some scientific basis to their recommendations:

  • Brain Changer – Prof Felice Jacka
  • Finally Focused – Dr James Greenblatt
  • The Mad Diet – Suzanne Lockhart
  • The anti-anxiety food solution –Trudy Scott
  • What the FAT? – Prof Grant Schofield (also includes recipes)

Rachel Kelly has devised a cookbook directly focused on eating foods that will contain nutrients help you feel mentally better:

https://www.rachel-kelly.net/books-apps/

How to eat well on a budget:
From the British Dietetic Association: A healthy diet can be more expensive than a diet made up of more refined foods. Fish, fruit and vegetables can be particularly pricey. However, by cutting down on sugary drinks and snacks, takeaways and alcohol, you can save money to be spent on healthier items. Take care to buy only as much as you know you can use within the next few days to reduce waste. You can also cut your costs by taking advantage of special promotions and by shopping at market stalls which are often cheaper than supermarkets.

If you live alone you could save money by splitting purchases with friends (larger pack sizes are usually cheaper) or by cooking several portions of a dish and freezing some of them. This also saves fuel and saves you the effort of preparing meals every day. Frozen fruit and vegetables are often cheaper than fresh produce and are usually just as good nutritionally (with no wastage). Fresh fruit and vegetables are usually cheapest when they are in season.

Also, research from Australia has shown that a Mediterranean style diet was cheaper than a poor quality diet.

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About the author

Award-winning clinical psychologist Professor Julia Rucklidge, PhD is Director of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Originally from Canada, she specialises in research on the impact of nutrition and nutrients on psychological symptoms and has given a TEDx talk on "The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health".

About Julia Rucklidge, PhD

Award-winning clinical psychologist Professor Julia Rucklidge, PhD is Director of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Originally from Canada, she specialises in research on the impact of nutrition and nutrients on psychological symptoms and has given a TEDx talk on "The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health".


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