Whether you're stuck working long hours at the office or running from an attacking Doberman pinscher, your body can't tell the difference between perceived stress and real stress. And whatever the cause, stress is bad for you.
When experiencing stress, your body goes into "fight or flight" mode, says Stephanie Kay, registered nutritionist at Kay Nutrition in Ottawa. When your stress hormones start pumping, your body starts to use up its storage of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats at an accelerated rate.
"When the body goes into stress mode," Kay says, "it's looking for any means to stay refueled." And that often sends us looking for a quick fix rather than a long-term solution.
We tend to keep the "high" going by reaching for caffeine or foods rich in salt, fat and sugar. These "comfort foods" actually cause more stress in the body, keeping you in that "fight or flight" mode.
So, when you feel stressed, try fueling your body with these five food types:
1. Healthy salts
Stress will often dehydrate your body, resulting in a mineral and electrolyte imbalance, Kay says.
You will then start to crave salt. But Kay recommends you try to resist the urge to buy chips or pretzels from the vending machine. Instead, consume natural salts, such as Celtic sea salt, Himalayan salt or naturally salty dishes such as seafood.
2. Healthy Fats
Fried foods are easily accessible. But in times of stress your body craves good-quality, natural fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, avocados and healthy oils.
"Bad fats temporarily numb the neurotransmitters in your brain," Kay says. As a result, you may start forgetting important tasks, which can result in even more stress.
3. Dark chocolate
Most people crave chocolate because it helps to release endorphins, which trigger positive feelings. Chocolate is also a high source of magnesium, an anti-stress mineral that helps us to relax.
But before you rush to the convenience store and pile up on your favourite milk chocolate bar, note that Kay recommends raw, dark chocolate containing at least 75% cocoa.
4. Whole grains
In "fight or flight" mode, the body craves sugary foods such as candy, chocolate bars, baked goods and donuts.
"What you're actually craving in that instance is carbohydrates, which are sugars," Kay says. "Carbohydrates help quickly release serotonin, which is a ‘happy' transmitter."
Loading up on sugary food may make you feel good in the moment, but it's going to lead to a blood-sugar imbalance and you'll eventually crash.
Instead, opt for whole grains such as oatmeal, buckwheat or quinoa, Kay says. They'll help reduce stress because they're high in vitamin B.
5. Green or herbal tea
Many people use caffeinated drinks such as coffee as a crutch during times of stress. But excessive amounts of caffeine stimulate the nervous system and act as liquid cortisol, a stress hormone that shuts down important bodily functions, such as the immune system, during times of stress.
Starting your day with coffee is fine, Kay says, but if you're refilling your cup throughout the day to maintain momentum, you are just adding to your stress. Try swapping your afternoon coffee, latte or espresso for herbal tea or green tea.