Mental Health Awareness: Stress & Nutrition

In acknowledgement of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek this latest KNOWLEDGE BITE from Jenna looks at how your daily life might be enhancing your stress and how you can use nutrition to combat it. 

Stress affects the majority of the UK population in some way or another; whether it be work stress, financial stress, relationship stress, home stress, family stress or emotional or physical stress it’s a word which is used in everyday conversation. Although, stress isn’t always a bad thing and often the stress response created by the body is what drives our ability to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ during stressful situations. During stressful situations the brain inhibits any unnecessary pathways (e.g. digestion, food requirement and reproduction) and concentrates on releasing hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol), increases blood flow and oxygen to the working muscles in order to tackle the situation.

Following an acute stressor, the release of cortisol is inhibited and the brain switches back on our food requirements, digestion and reproduction mechanisms.

Historically this stress response was there to protect us from being attacked in the jungle or running from a wild animal. However, in today’s society many of us are triggering our stress response continuously over issues which happen at work and home and even rude people in the supermarket.

As a result of a chronic stress response we’re significantly increasing our risks of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and even addiction. Furthermore stress may increase the risk of gastrointestinal issues, micronutrient deficiencies, weight gain, headaches, weakened immune function, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

The management of stress is essential and understanding how our daily lives may be contributing to our stress levels is essential:

Too much coffee

    Coffee stimulates cortisol production, cortisol is the stress hormone. For individuals who are slow metabolisers of coffee it is recommended that they witch their caffeine hit from coffee to green tea as this contains a compound called L-theanine which promotes the release of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA exerts calming effects on the brain. Coffee may also impair sleep when consumed after 2pm. Therefore, for particularly stressed individuals I recommend consuming herbal teas rather than coffee in the afternoon and evening.

    Too much HIIT

      HIIT (high intensity interval training) has crept up a lot in the media recently as it has been found to stimulate weight loss. Whilst it may be beneficial in reducing weight it also promotes excess cortisol. For a less stressed individual this isn’t a major issue but for someone with already high cortisol levels this will heighten them further. A prolonged release of excess cortisol will promote abdominal fat storage. Ever wondered why you’re training hard but losing no weight? This might just be the answer. For particularly stressed individuals I recommend swapping your HIIT sessions for yoga, pilates or weight training.

      Too much sugar

        Consuming too much sugar may lead to increased insulin resistance and spiked cortisol levels. Consequently, this may lead to excess weight gain. Be aware that excess sugar consumption is likely to contribute to weight gain aside from stress levels.

        Too little sleep

          Chronic sleep disruption has been associated with an increased risk of stress and higher cortisol awakening levels. Research has suggested that even a few days of sleep deprivation can drive up appetite, caloric intake, blood glucose and insulin response and increase inflammation in young individual. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been shown to increase oxidative stress and free radicals in the body.

          So what can you do to help reduce your perception of stress?

          Eat your oily fish

            Oily fish is rich in omega-3 which helps to reduce inflammation produced as a result of excess cortisol. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna and sardines are great sources. Avocados, nuts and seeds are vegan sources of healthy fats which contribute to a reduction of inflammation and improved brain health.

            Eat your greens (and a few squares of dark chocolate)

              Green leafy vegetables, beans pulses and dark chocolate are great sources of magnesium. Magnesium helps to promote muscle and nerve relaxation to help reduce the effects of stress.

              Eat your carbs

                Carbohydrates play a role in the synthesis of serotonin (the happy hormone), low carbohydrate food intake often lead to mood swings due to low levels of serotonin. Low mood can often impair our ability to deal with stressful situations or life stressors. Serotonin is also required to produce melatonin (the sleep hormone) and may therefore help aid sleep.

                Ensure adequate calcium status

                  Research has shown that excess cortisol may reduce calcium absorption and promote urinary calcium excretion. Ensure you’re consuming a range of nuts seeds, green leafy vegetables and high quality dairy to top up lost calcium.

                  Eat your oranges

                    Cortisol and chronic stress reduces immune function. Ensure you’re consuming a range of fruits and vegetables (not just oranges) to promote optimum immunity.

                    It’s important to note that if you’re experiencing extreme chronic stress please seek more personalised advice.


                    Vargas, I., & Lopez-Duran, N. (2014). Dissecting the impact of sleep and stress on the cortisol awakening response in young adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology40, 10-16.

                    McEwen, B. S., & Karatsoreos, I. N. (2015). Sleep deprivation and circadian disruption: stress, allostasis, and allostatic load. Sleep medicine clinics10(1), 1-10.

                    Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva endocrinologica, 38(3), 255.

                    Nagvanshi, D., & Tiwari, A. (2015). IMPACT OF FOOD IN STRESS BEHAVIOUR. International Education and Research Journal, 1(4), 37-38.

                    Grases, G., Pérez-Castelló, J. A., Sanchis, P., Casero, A., Perelló, J., Isern, B., ... & Grases, F. (2006). Anxiety and stress among science students. Study of calcium and magnesium alterations. Magnesium research19(2), 102-106.