Stress is a natural response to the challenges of human life. Like anger, fear, and anxiety, it served an essential purpose within our evolutionary history.
According to the Association for Psychological Science, stress produces “a heightened expectation of and attention to threats in the environment” (2008). You can see why this would be useful in a life-or-death situation. When our ancestors faced down hungry predators, stress helped them survive. Over time, those organisms with an effective stress response tended to live through dangerous encounters more often – conferring a selective advantage to the stress response.
But in the modern world, few of us deal with issues as immediate as a pack of hungry hyenas. So, why are we still stressed? Fact is, the urban environment has twisted a once-healthy response into a condition that can be crippling. A recent American Psychological Association study even found that 25% of Americans rate their stress level at 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
Natural Response, Unnatural Environment
The body’s natural stress response includes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, an increase in blood sugar, and a spike in blood pressure. Together, these reactions constitute the ‘fight or flight’ response. They facilitate quick and forceful action in times of danger – but they’re only meant to provide a short-term burst in energy.
When modern city-dwellers are confronted with tight deadlines and soaring bills, they often experience stress from morning until night. After some time, the adrenal glands involved in regulating adrenaline and cortisol start to fail. Meanwhile, high blood sugar and rising blood pressure give way to diabetes and heart disease.
Stress and Food
One common response to stress is emotional eating. People often turn to their refrigerator to escape the troubles of their lives. In fact, most studies have shown that there is a strong connection between emotional life and weight problems.
At issue are the familiar ‘comfort foods.’ People turn to foods high in carbohydrates and sugars at disproportional rates when they are stressed. Typically these can include ice cream, pizza, baked beans, pasta, and hamburgers. These foods induce a short-term respite from stress – but by inhibiting optimal body/mind performance, they actually increase stress in the long term.
Follow the facts
Luckily, comfort food isn’t the only possible response to stress. By changing your diet, you can effectively lower your stress levels. For example, it’s well-known that serotonin release is accompanied by feelings of happiness and relaxation. It’s also proven that tryptophan – the precursor to serotonin – increases serotonin levels in the brain. Where can one find tryptophan? In red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs – but most especially in pumpkin and squash seeds.
Dopamine is another key neurotransmitter linked to happiness and calm. Its precursor is folate, a B vitamin found in high quantities in green leafy vegetables. Instead of turning towards bread when you’re stressed, opt for a spinach salad instead.
Finally, there’s fish. High in Omega-3 fatty acids, fish such as salmon and tuna support a healthy hormonal system. Specifically, Omega-3s are seen as regulators on stress hormones. A diet rich in these fatty acids tends to result in a stable stress system.
A healthy diet won’t eliminate stress on its own. Things like exercise, community, and meditation are also proven to reduce adrenaline and cortisol levels in the brain. Taken together, these tools offer promise to anyone suffering from a bad case of this peculiarly modern ailment.