How Diet Relates to Stress

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • We spend a great deal of our time thinking about food, shopping for it, reading about it, watching people prepare it, and of course eating it. Over the years we've come to understand what is meant to be good for us and what causes problems such as heart disease or diabetes. The focus of much of the research on food has been on our physical wellbeing, but surprisingly little in the way of controlled studies relating food to mood have been undertaken.


    Until the food-to-mood links can be firmly established through a series of randomized controlled studies we are left in the situation where discussions on so-called ‘mood foods' are informed by personal observations and experiences, a few research studies, advice from nutritional experts (some of whom leave something to be desired). Within this mix there are, I believe, some very useful information exists. In this Sharepost I explore how stress and diet may be linked.

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    As many people know, the stress response in humans involves the release of various hormones to prepare us for ‘fight or flight'. One hormone in particular, cortisol, has been the focus of considerable interest and research. In short bursts cortisol has some very beneficial effects. A couple of examples are that it can help to increase the effect of the immune system and lower sensitivity to pain. If we can't switch off, then cortisol remains and increases in the body. In a state of chronic stress cortisol begins to work against us. It can actually reduce the effectiveness of the immune response meaning it takes longer to recover from illness or wound healing. Thyroid function can be affected and a variety of other physical and psychological symptoms become apparent. Cortisol production varies from person to person. Studies have shown that people who secrete more cortisol also tend to eat more high carbohydrate foods.


    Hara Marano, writing in the web publication cites research from the University of California where Dr. Norman Pecoraro works. Pecoraro explains that when cortisol levels increase the body seeks out high-energy foods that are present in high fat and sugary foods, in order to replace its depleting energy levels. Excess calories are directed to the abdomen where they are stored as fat. "By virtue of its location, abdominal fat has privileged access to the liver. This allows it to be quickly mobilized for energy." says Pecoraro. "Those who eat cream puffs and chocolate are trying to give the body what it needs to dampen output from their stress system . . this seems to be the body's way of telling the brain, ‘it's ok, you can relax, you're refueled with high energy food.'"


    Of course the down-side to such diets is that while they may make us feel a bit better for periods of time, they are also very unhealthy. In the UK a nutrition research group surveyed 200 people in terms of foods that seemed to worsen stress and foods that seemed to improve stress. They claim that 90 percent of those surveyed reported significant improvements in mental health. Cutting down or avoiding foods like sugar, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate whilst increasing intake of vegetables, fruit, oil-rich fish and drinking more water, were seen as important. The 'Food and Mood' community project was founded in 1998 by Amanda Geary. It delivered a series of workshops around the UK, aimed at exploring the links between diet and mental and emotional health. The project is now closed but information has been transferred to the Mind website. Mind is the leading mental health charity in England and Wales.


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    I've looked at the report and the subsequent suggestions. Much of it makes a lot of sense, which is why I've included the link, but I draw the line at some of the more extreme statements. In just one example Geary says, ‘chocolate is poisonous'. Maybe she's expressing her emotional view but it clearly is not the case that chocolate is poisonous - unless taken to extreme levels. Chocolate does contains theobromine which is chemically similar to caffeine. In humans, caffeine becomes toxic when it reaches 150 milligrams per kilogram body weight. This means very small children should avoid eating lots of chocolate. I think it's a shame to make statements like this as it detracts from what otherwise appear well observed and useful tips.


    During periods of high stress, the messages so far seem pretty consistent. Reducing stress by means of relaxation or alternative means helps to bring about and maintain balance in the chemistry of the body. Junk foods, while appearing to offer solace, are not good. Turning to food during times of stress is the body's way of asking you to refuel the energy it is burning. Better alternatives to junk foods exist in the shape of chicken, bananas and other fruits, fish, avocados and green vegetables.

Published On: July 30, 2009