We all have been there, high demands at work, family conflicts, breakups, relocation, you name it. Life is notorious for throwing us curve balls and often at the least opportune time, but we can get through these phases with more grace and kindness to ourselves and others.
Stress is one of the most dangerous risks factors to our health; not only is it linked to unhealthy lifestyles and substance abuse, but subsequently shorter life spans as well.
Panic attacks, being over weight, not sleeping enough, skipping physical activity, eating a low nutrient diet, and consuming drugs or alcohol are just some of the harmful effects and habits that people partake in when they are stressed. This is unfortunate because during times of stress the body needs supportive habits more than ever, but being healthy is often the last thing people want to do in those instances.
We’ll circle get back to diet and other lifestyle choices that are shown to lower stress, but first lets look at some mental coping mechanism for stress.
Mental Coping Skills
The first step to coping with stress is to gain a full understanding of what is causing us stress, many times the main cause of our distress is not what we thought it was. Get a piece of paper and write down all the things that are causing you to stress. What is keeping you up at night, having you crying in a public bathroom, or sitting in a parking lot not wanting to leave your car? Then under each topic, write down the triggers that cause you the most stress.
The second step is figuring out the solution, which will typically fall into one of these 3 categories; ways to reduce the stress, deciding to settle into the situation, or planning an escape route.
Example of Issue Breakdown
Category #1: work
Problems: work is high stress, boring, not what I want to be doing, etc
Triggers: when my boss puts more work on my plate, when I am so bored I’m watching the clock, when I know I have to wake up the next day and go to work
Category #2: relationship
Problems: I dont’ feel loved, my partner cheated on me, I’m falling out of love, we fight all the time, they wont commit to me, etc
Triggers: when they put me down, when they don’t call when they say they will, when they dismiss what I say and I don’t feel heard, when they are too busy, remembering past hurts
Example of Solutions
When determining a solution it is important to ask yourself this one question. Is this a short term issue or a long term issue? Can I walk away from this situation right now without having a big impact on my life? Or is it a more complex situation that will take a few months to get out of? Further more, do I want to or need to stay in this situation? Is leaving it more harmful than finding way to fix it? Careers and marriages are examples of situations that typically take people longer to leave and are willing to put more effort into fixing.
Category #1: work
Reduce Solution: Reducing the stress by reducing triggers. I can take 5min stretch breaks every hour, I can put on a song and go dance in my office, I can find ways to get excited about the project I’m working on by seeing the positive outcome of my efforts.
Settle Into Solution (Silver Lining): I put 3 years into this job and I get more good out of it than I get bad, leaving this situation would be more harmful than staying. I choose to settle into the situation by making the best of it. I accept where I am at the moment and will try to focus on the good aspects like a steady income and sense of purpose. When the time is right I will shift to something different, but for now I am content where I am.
Escape Solution: I will start looking for a new job, knowing that I won’t be in this job too much longer will give me an immediate relief.
Category #2: relationship
Reduce Solution: Reducing the stress by reducing triggers. I will stop and count to 10 before knee jerk reaction yelling at my partner, I will ask what he or she meant before assuming the worst, I will communicate my needs better and ask them to work with me on my triggers.
Settle Solution: I put 2 years into this relationship and I still love him/her with all my heart, leaving this situation would be more harmful than staying. I choose to settle into the situation by focusing on his or her positive aspects, improving communication, and not jumping to conclusions.
Escape Solution: I will leave this person as I feel I have tried everything humanly possible to improve this situation and they are not giving me the same effort or respect back.
Reducing Stress with Healthy Living
Diet, gut health, exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, getting sunshine, and sometimes therapy are all important aspects of overcoming stressful times.
Gut Health and Stress
Today scientist refer to the gut as the second brain. This is because the gut is significantly responsible for maintaining brain function and has been proven to influence the risk of psychiatric and neurological disorders such as autism, anxiety, stress, and depression. It can even have a considerable effect on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Gut microbes predominantly interact with the immune system, which in turn interacts with the brain, but bacteria also produce molecules that communicate with the brain through the hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone). The gut talks to the brain through bacterial toxins, metabolites, nutrient scavenging, change of taste receptors, and stirring of the immune system.
An independent study has proven that even two hours of stress can change the composition of the microbiota in the gut. Researchers claim that people who suffer from gastrointestinal disorders are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. In fact, medical conditions such as mood swings, neurocognitive impairments, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome are also related to the gut microbiota. Microbial imbalance such as high levels of lactobacillus is associated with constant mood swings in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Probiotics have been touted as a cure for gut-brain disorders and for good reason; studies probiotics have shown a diminishing effect on the stress hormone cortisol, which thereby decreases depression and anxiety.
Although probiotics are naturally found in a human body, they can be taken through supplements or the consumption of selected food items. Probiotics augment the growth of good bacteria, that take care of the overall well-being of the human body.
Probiotics last a few weeks in the gut, which is why you need to keep taking them. Prebiotics, on the other hand, help to feed the good bacteria already in the gut. Probiotics can be found in yogurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut. Prebiotics are found in leeks, chicory root, apples, asparagus, oats, whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, cocoa, flaxseed, and artichokes. Recently, sugar molecules have been discovered in green leafy vegetables, which has a protective effect on the gut.
An inflamed gut can lead to psychological dysfunction. Therefore, you must maintain your gut health for a fresh, healthy, and happy mind and help reduce stress levels.
Exercise and Stress
We have all heard that exercise is good for stress and mood, but let’s take a look at a few reasons why. Also, keep in mind, that as a general rule it is advised a healthy person get 30-40min of cardio 4-5 times per week and do weights 2 times per week.
Changes your focus
Exercise helps you shift your concentration from that which is stressing you out to your body and the task at hand. When you are doing an intense workout your focus will be on being able to breathe freely and getting through that activity, which makes you lose focus on the things that are stressing you.
Exercise releases endorphins
Endorphins are chemicals that are released during exercise and when we are motivated or happy. These endorphins boost your mood and give you a happy feeling that is satisfying after a workout or exercise.
Exercise activates the touch receptors
The skin is the most active sensory organ in your body. If you have ever had a whole body massage, you will understand that when these receptors are activated, you have a relaxed sensation. Exercise gives you a similar sensation.
Exercise improves cognition and self esteem
This occurs by forming new synaptic connections and new memories. Exercise also boosts your confidence.
A high-intensity workout will naturally increase your breathing rate and depth, as well as your blood circulation, leading to a relaxation effect.
Diet and Stress
Eating a well-balanced diet and consuming goods that increase serotonin is a helpful step in managing stress. Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine) is a monoamine (“mono” meaning one, and “amine” meaning amino group) neurotransmitter that is biochemically derived from tryptophan. Serotonin is primarily found in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets, and the nervous system.
There are a lot of articles on the internet right now that are talking about foods that contain serotonin. That isn’t actually correct. There ARE foods that can boost serotonin, but the chemical is all you, that is, it’s made in your brain. This happens not only when you eat certain foods, but also when you exercise. Many experts believe that the key food nutrient that triggers serotonin is tryptophan and eating foods with high levels of tryptophan are said to provide consistent increases in serotonin levels.
Two of the most common sources of tryptophan:
There’s a reason why people drink warm milk to help get to sleep. Milk can help people fall asleep because it contains two substances which are known to be related to sleep and relaxation: the hormone melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan works to produce that “feel good” chemical in your brain (that’s serotonin) and those chemicals calm your nervous system and help you relax enough to fall asleep.
The second common serotonin-booster is turkey. Yep, there’s a reason why you want to take a nap after Thanksgiving dinner. That turkey is packed full of tryptophan, which increases your serotonin levels, makes you relax and that just might make you want to lie down on the sofa and fall asleep.
Turkey isn’t the only meat that contains tryptophan, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is about the same for other kinds of poultry. Beef, lamb, pork, even wild game like rabbit, all contain tryptophan too. Foods high in protein, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B-6 all tend to contain large amounts of this amino acid.
Grocery list of foods that will help boost your mood:
Sometimes called a “superfood,” eggs contain amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to help the body produce serotonin. In addition, eggs are loaded with high-quality proteins, vitamins, minerals, good fats and various trace nutrients. With only 77 calories, 5 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, and all 9 essential amino acids, this is one tryptophan-boosting food you’ll want high on your list. Eggs are also rich in iron, phosphorous, selenium and vitamins A, B12, B2 and B5.
There are a lot of different kinds of cheeses and some have more tryptophan than others. A serving of 100 grams of mozzarella cheese contains 603 milligrams of tryptophan plus a significant portion of the calcium you need for a day. Cheese is also packed with protein, about 8 grams of protein is found in a single serving of hard cheese. Add to that the vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin K2, phosphorous, sodium, and riboflavin found in it and and it’s easy to see why cheese is high on the list of foods that boost serotonin.
Cheese also contains probiotics, “good” bacteria that can help regulate your gut flora. Maintaining a healthy intestinal environment is essential to good health, and can provide tons of benefits, ranging from digestive, to brain, to heart health.
Salmon, tuna, snapper, sardines, herring, mackerel and halibut are high in tryptophan and have a lot of other benefits as well. According to the Harvard School of Medicine, an analysis of 20 studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants indicates that eating approximately one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish a week reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent.
Basically, any type of meat, from fish to lamb to pork is going to contain tryptophan and ultimately be something that will boost serotonin in the brain. Currently, there are many studies being done to determine if meat that is raised more humanely (that is, without strict confinement) contains more nutrients.
Soy, nuts, seeds
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be happy to know that nuts and seeds rank really high on the list of foods that contain a significant amount of tryptophan. Flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, and cashews all have the potential to increase serotonin in the body. Roasted soybeans and soy products such as tofu are also very good sources for tryptophan. Soybeans are the only vegetable with a complete protein and also a great source of vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, iron and fiber. However, be careful with soy as it can increase your estrogen levels for both men and women.
Foods rich in vitamin B such as brown rice, wheat germ, wholegrain cereals, yeast extracts, and brewers’ yeast work together to help keep serotonin levels high. Go easy on the grain carbs, though. They can help boost tryptophan levels, but depending on the source and quality, you might end up feeling worse as carbs are converted to sugar and low-quality carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates, such as pasta, potatoes, bread, pastries, pretzels, and popcorn, increase insulin levels and allow more tryptophan (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. The calming effect of serotonin can often be felt in thirty minutes or less by eating these foods. This may be one of the reasons simple carbohydrates are so addictive. However, this spike, while it may feel good, is very unhealthy as it causes sugar highs and crashes which can lead to diabetes over time.
Bananas, kiwi, pineapple, plantains, plums, grapefruit, mango, honeydew, and cantaloupe have a high serum concentrations, which makes them very useful in serotonin production in the human body. Tomatoes and avocado are also rich in nutrients necessary for serotonin to develop and reach optimal levels in the brain.
Corn, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables such as spinach are serotonin-boosting. As are baked potatoes with skin (choose organic if possible) and mustard greens. As we’ve already mentioned, any soy products, including soy milk, tofu, and soybeans provide nutrients that help serotonin levels stay stable.
Sea vegetables including kelp, seaweed, and spirulina all contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is necessary for creating serotonin in the brain.
Legumes and Beans
Basically, any kind of bean is going to contain some type of protein and tryptophan, and that includes lentils, mung beans, chickpeas, English peas, kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, navy beans, and pinto beans.
Mushrooms don’t contain serotonin, but the brain needs B vitamins to make neurotransmitters with a calming effect including serotonin. Mushrooms are nutritionally dense, packed with polysaccharides, proteins, minerals, vitamins (B, D), are low in fat and are free of cholesterol. Recent interest in mushrooms is around fungi prebiotics. Mushrooms contain nutrients that support the growth of beneficial bacteria such as Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium. Mushrooms not only boost the immune system, but also balance the microbiome in favor of these beneficial bacteria, resulting in better digestion.
Finally, there’s one food that contains tryptophan that’s bound to make you think about enjoying some for dessert more often: chocolate.
While you’re planning your “feel-good diet,” keep in mind that you will benefit from eliminating processed sugar from your diet as well. If you can’t eliminate it completely (yes, it’s almost impossible to enjoy chocolate without a little sugar in the mix) at least drastically reduce the amount of white sugar you consume each day. If you have low serotonin, you may have intense cravings for sugar. This is your body’s way of trying to increase serotonin because eating sugar produces insulin, which helps tryptophan go into your brain.
Serotonin is something you make for yourself in your body and eating the right foods can help boost this important chemical in your body. There are other ways to boost serotonin such as exercise, sunshine, and SSRI antidepressants.
Deep breathing and meditation
Meditation puts the brain in theta waves, which leads to clearing thinking and a calming effect. You may have noticed that you breathe faster when you are tensed or anxious. Deep breathing exercises and meditation are recommended for people who are fighting stress.
If your stress is too difficult to manage on your own and is causing you anxiety, depression, or sleepless nights, reaching out to a friend, loved one, or therapist for support is necessary. Don’t feel ashamed for needing help, well all go through phases in life.