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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Stress tends to mess with our eating habits. In times of stress, some people eat more, while others eat less. The type of food people eat also changes: compared to non-stressed individuals, stressed individuals more often eat unhealthy foods.

Laboratory experiments have shown that stress causes people to make unhealthier food choices. In a typical experiment, participants are exposed to an acute stressor, for instance, they are asked to present themselves before strangers, or to solve a very difficult puzzle within an unrealistically short timeframe. Unknown to the participants, the most important part of the experiment takes place during the breaks, when they are offered food and drinks. Secretly, the researchers observe exactly what the participants eat and drink. They look for differences between those who were exposed to stress prior to the break, and those who were not. And indeed, researchers do typically find differences between these groups. For instance, women who were most sensitive to stress (as shown by an exaggerated cortisol response), also ate more calories in response to stress [1]. In a second experiment, participants who had just performed several difficult tasks in front of a judge, especially those who reported being subjected to chronic stress in daily life, ate more chocolate cake and fewer vegetables compared to non-stressed participants [2].

But how do such laboratory experiments relate to real-life? After all, for most of us, giving presentations is not the most influential stressor in our lives, and real-life situations are much more complex. To investigate how real-life stressors affect food choices, one needs so-called epidemiological studies. In such studies, large groups of people are followed over longer periods of time. At multiple time points, they are asked about their stress levels (including daily hassles, work-related stress, academic stress, etc.) as well as about their eating habits. Consistent with experimental studies, epidemiological studies have shown that, on average, diet quality is lower in people who report more stress (e.g. [3] [4]). However, the effects reported in real-life studies are much smaller compared to the effects reported in the lab: in real life, stress is only one among many factors influencing your food choices.

So exactly how big ís the effect of real-life stress on our real-life food choices? We investigated this in over a hundred thousand people from the North of the Netherlands. We found that exposure to stressful life events, such as the loss of a family member or being the victim of a crime, was associated with poorer diet quality; however, the effects of stress were relatively small. For instance: on average, most people reported having dealt with one stressful life event in the past year, and their average diet quality score (on a scale of 0-48) was 23.9 points. People who reported dealing with two instead of one stressful events had an average diet quality of 23.8 points. For comparison, the difference in diet quality between the average man (22.5 points) and the average woman (24.9 points) in our study was 27 times bigger [5].

To summarize, diet quality deteriorates in times of stress. However, in real life situations, with a multitude of other factors determining what, where and when we eat, the effect of stress alone is very small.

Do you want to learn more about brain changes underlying the effect of stress on food choices? Check out this blog: https://newbrainnutrition.com/stress-and-nutrition-hungry-brain/ by Simone Demmel.

REFERENCES:
[1] Epel, E, Lapidus, R & McEwen, B, Brownell, K (2001). Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26(1), 37-49

[2] Tryon, MS, DeCant, R, Laugero, KD (2013). Having your cake and eating it too: a habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress exposure and acute stress-induced cortisol hyperresponsiveness. Physiology and behavior, 114-115, 32-37

[3] Mikolajcyk, RT, Al Ansari, W & Maxwell, AE (2009). Food consumption frequency and perceived stress and depressive symptoms among students in three European countries. Nutrition Journal, 8(1),1-8

[4] O’Connor, D, Jones, F, Conner, M, McMillan, B, Ferguson, E (2008). Effects of daily hassles and eating style on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 27(1 supplement).

[5] Schweren et al., in preparation

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In times of stress, there are mainly two eating patterns in which people react: some tend to eat less, some eat more (Yau & Potenza, 2013). The latter then, unfortunately, develop a desire for more salty, sweet and fatty foods, leading to negative health consequences such as weight gain (Groesz et al., 2012) which in turn may influence their mental health.

But why does this happen? What is the science behind this?

The brain controls our body functions and continuously adapts to new situations. For the survival of humans, it is essential that the brain is sufficiently energized at all times. Under stress, the brain needs more energy than under normal circumstances leading the brain to act in a selfish manner. The selfish brain theory by the German scientist Achim Peters (2011) describes the relationship between the brain’s energy requirement and food intake: according to this concept, the brain is given a priority role in the hierarchy of energy metabolism. Therefore, the brain takes care of itself first and claims the energy it needs from the body. The brain pull mechanism is the underlying instrument to request the energy needed, by limiting glucose flow into muscle and fat tissue, so that glucose is primarily available to the brain. If the body can’t provide the necessary energy immediately, the brain forces us to eat. And this results in eating the above-mentioned food. It delivers quickly available glucose to the brain.

Why do some people react to stress by eating more and others by eating less?

Stress responsiveness is thought to be related to different adaptation processes. Exposure to long term stressors may lead to an increased adaptation, reducing the ability of the brain pull mechanism to draw the energy needed directly from the body, thus producing the need to eat. Not adapting to stress and keeping your stress response high will probably lead to less eating.

Why does the brain eat first?

The privileged role of the brain can be explained by the evolutionary past. In life-threatening situations, highest attention was required to react quickly. So, our body has a mechanism to keep our brain functioning: It is assigned a priority role so it can continuously fill its energy needs in order to protect us from possible dangers. It is proven that during inanition the mass of the brain remains constant compared to other organs, which lose about 40% of their mass.

So, what can help us not to eat in an unfavorable manner under stress?

Since everyday stress can hardly be avoided, it is advisable to eliminate temptations and avoid snacking, such as donuts, pizza or any kind of energy-dense foods. For example, in the office: make sure that healthy food is available and prefer fresh unprocessed food, like moderate portions of berries, bananas, nuts (walnuts, almonds), dried fruits (e.g. figs) or perhaps a non-sweetened granola bar. Nuts contain good omega 3 fatty acids and are good for your nerve cells.  When stressed, 5-6 small meals spread throughout the day help to keep the energy level constant. In the office a good lunch could be a mixed salad with chicken breast stripes. Take a break and eat mindfully. Try not to eat hastily, the loss of time spent eating will be rewarded by being able to concentrate better. Drinking lots of water or green tea and avoiding too much coffee and sugared soft drinks will help to prevent a lack of concentration. Water is a healthy way to regulate thirst and has absolutely no calories.

REFERENCES:
Groesz, L. M., McCoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N. et al. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite, 58(2), 717–721. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.028

Peters, A., Kubera, B., Hubold, C. & Langemann, D. (2011). The selfish brain: Stress and eating behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 5, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2011.00074

Schlieper, C. A. (2010). Grundfragen der Ernährung. Hamburg: Büchner.

Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

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Probably the best known example on how the brain and mental health are linked to nutrition and our gut, and the one that we can all identify ourselves with, is stress. We all know it: studying 24/7 for an important exam, pressure in the job or even a house full of work. We have no time to think and – no – we definitely don’t have time to cook. But at the same time we are constantly hungry, craving for a snack. The fastest solution? The next best, nicest looking, edible piece of food we can find.

But why do we change our dietary habits during stress and what happens in our body? What are the consequences and what can we do to avoid this impulsive eating behavior?

A study from Yau and Potenza in 2013 states that about 20% of the population do not change their eating behavior during stress (good for them), while about 40% decrease and another 40% increase their caloric intake. But besides simply increasing the amount of food we consume, we also tend to choose more pleasurable and palatable food when we’re stressed. This usually leads to the consumption of unhealthy and calorie-dense foods, which unfortunately results in gaining weight (at least for most of us).

Stress can have many different causes, ranging from physical stressors like severe illnesses to emotional stressors such as the loss of a loved one. So far, it is known that acute and severe stressors tend to suppress appetite, which results from our evolutionary conserved ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction (Adams und Epel, 2007). On the other hand, lighter – but therefore often chronic – stressors (occurring on a daily basis) seem to increase our appetite, especially towards energy-dense foods. These two roughly categorized types of stress activate two different systems in our body, causing different stress responses:

  • Acute stressors activate the sympathetic adrenal medullary system
  • Chronic stressors activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis (Torres & Nowson, 2007)

The sympathetic adrenal medullary system induces the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are the ones increasing our heart rate right before we have to give a talk in front of a huge audience, while they, at the same time, reduce our drive to eat or even make us want to throw up… On the opposite side, the HPA-axis, activated by daily stressors, leads to the release of cortisol. And, cortisol can have some unwanted effects.

This hormone is known to stimulate our appetite by affecting our reward system, in a very similar way as alcohol and drugs affect this system. In the case of chronic stress, chocolate or chips can have the same effects as drugs: they make us feel better for a short amount of time. This “positive” feeling, that might reduce our stress level for a few moments, reinforces the consumption of sweets later on, thereby resulting in some kind of dependence. But as in all cases of addictions, this repeated stimulation of the reward system can lead to an adaptation, eventually increasing this compulsive behavior.

Knowing now that in some strange ways it is our body that makes us crave burgers and pizza in times of stress, what can we do to avoid gaining weight?

Well, the first thing is: listen to your body and try to understand what is going on. Ask yourself why you are stressed and if there is anything you can do to reduce it, like taking more breaks during the day. If this is not possible, try to find other ways to compensate: take walks, do more exercise, find something else that makes you feel better at the end of the day, besides that tasty chocolate donut and popcorn. Before snacking, hesitate and ask yourself if you are really hungry or just eating because you feel like it. And if you absolutely can’t resist, try to substitute the chocolate bar with healthier snacks, like dried fruits or nuts.

But finally, keeping all that in mind, don’t forget that food is not always your enemy and there is no problem with eating what you desire as long as it is in moderation.

REFERENCES:
Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

Adam, Tanja C.; Epel, Elissa S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior 91, 449–458. DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Torres, Susan J.; Nowson, Caryl A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition Volume 23, Issues 11–12, Pages 887-894. DOI: 10.1016/j.nut.2007.08.008

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