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How Can Nutrition Affect Stress?

By Lauren Wong, Dietitian Intern

It’s that time of year once again … final’s week. As we approach the last week of the semester, one word comes to mind for a lot of us: STRESS. I totally get it. You’re down to the last wire, knowing this exam is a massive part of your final grade, and the palms get sweaty, arms are heavy, mom’s spaghetti or whatever. Sounds stressful … but what is stress really? Stress is our body’s response to a perceived situation requiring “fight or flight.” We often associate stress with a physical reaction - increased heart rate, lack of sleep, tightness in your chest, headaches, and sweating. But you may not think about the emotional responses to stress. This can include agitation, hopelessness, insecurity, racing thoughts, FORGETFULNESS, LACK OF MOTIVATION, and expecting the worst. These are things we do NOT want while taking our final exams.

Our stress response comes from the release of hormones. The brain perceives a threat - this could range from a bear attack because that could totally happen on the Eastern Shore!) to sitting down to take an exam. In return, hormones are secreted in order for the body to respond “correctly” (or what it thinks is correct). However, stress will also trigger the HPA axis, which tells the brain to release more cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that will keep our body energized in an immediately stressful situation. Cortisol’s other functions will help to regulate our cellular metabolism, inflammatory response, and immune function.

However, prolonged high cortisol levels (chronic stress) are related to many poor outcomes, including increased hunger, weight gain (often around the abdominal area), poor sleep, hypertension, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

So how do we combat this stress response? Let’s go over the non-dietary approaches first.

  • Elicit a relaxation response: This can come from yoga, meditation, or even breathing techniques. Here are two free apps (both Apple and Android friendly) for guided meditation below.
    • Smiling Mind - This app has multiple mini guided sessions to help facilitate your inner peace. There are sessions about digital detox, relationships, and studying.
    • Healthy Minds Program - A free app with many different guided sessions ranging from micro sessions (one minute long) to 30-minute meditations for whatever type of schedule you have. 
  • Physical activity: Moving your body is a great way to reduce stress. You can go for a run, lift weights, take that spin class, enjoy a mindful walk, or even dance around your room like no one is watching (make sure the blinds are closed, though!).
  • Social support: Your friends do more than just help you home from a party; they can actually help us relieve stress by keeping us smiling, laughing, and bringing us joy!

Okay, now for the nutrition. Our body requires nutrients to thrive. However, sometimes we don’t eat enough of these nutrients. So let’s break down the top nutrients that we may be lacking that have been linked to high stress.

Magnesium is an essential mineral in our body’s metabolic pathways and biochemical processes. If your magnesium is lower, you may feel more fatigued than usual. An article reviewed multiple studies and concluded that lower magnesium levels have been associated with increased stress. Here are some study snacks to improve your magnesium intake!

  • Yogurt with granola and almonds
  • Trail mix that has either pumpkin seeds, cashews, or almonds in it
  • A smoothie that includes either chia seeds or dairy
  • Oatmeal with raisins and cinnamon (maybe a dash of maple syrup and milk)

B vitamins are a group of vitamins that are essential to our heart health, brain health, and energy metabolism. Studies have shown a positive correlation between cognitive performance and overall vitamin B intake. So how can we increase our B vitamins?

  • Whole-grain foods like oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread, cereal, and pasta
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Protein sources such as beef, poultry, and fish
  • Leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, collard greens
  • Fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, mushrooms, bananas
  • Fortified foods such as cereal and bread

Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are a type of fat we want to eat. They have many different functions in the body. However, most notably in our case, Omega 3’s can help increase the production of anti-inflammatory compounds in our guts. Studies have shown that by reducing inflammation, there is a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Here are some foods that contain higher levels of omega 3’s.

  • Fish and other seafood - salmon, canned tuna, shrimp
  • Nuts and seeds – walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds
  • Fortified foods - certain brands of eggs, yogurt, milk, and soy beverages are fortified with Omega 3s (just look at the packaging).

So many factors play into stress and our stress response. Nutrition is just one component that can help us better manage it. Now that you are armed with some nutritious food options to help combat stress, it’s time to open those textbooks! Good luck studying for finals!

Looking for more nutrition help? Make an appointment with University Dietitian Terry Passano.



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