Improve your health and well-being with nature’s stress-fighting foods

Aug 25, 2023
Opting for a more nutritious and healthier alternative instead can not only reduce stress but also promote better health outcomes. Source: Getty Images.

Stress is an all too common problem for people of all ages, but it can be especially challenging for those over 60. With age comes a variety of health concerns, and high levels of stress can exacerbate these issues and negatively impact overall well-being.

According to Nutritionist and Recipe Developer for The Fast 800, Gabrielle Newman, “various factors can cause stress to increase as you age, including managing chronic illness, injuries, losing loved ones, being a caregiver, helping with grandchildren, adjusting to financial changes, retirement, or separation from friends and family.”

“Along with this there are physiological changes happening in the brain which may result in hormone dysregulation – meaning you may feel more stressed as you age,” Newman explains.

Naturopath, Nutritionist and Registered Nurse Madeline Calfas says that “some of the most common causes of stress in people 60 years and over involve money and health.”

“As we approach retirement age, it is not uncommon for people to really start worrying about their financial situation,” Calfas explains.

“Will they be able to afford the same lifestyle once they are no longer working? Have they ensured they put enough into their superannuation so they will be looked after should their health start to fail? Have they looked after their health enough in their younger years to keep themselves as fit and healthy as possible?

“Other common stressors are facing their mortality (I can’t believe I’m 60! how did that happen?), the loss (or potential loss ) of a loved one and friends, stressors relating to children and grandchildren, particularly for those people with children who have been financially dependent on them.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with stress, many of us find ourselves reaching for the junk food cupboard in order to attain some much-needed relief from such negative feelings. According to CSIRO Total Wellbeing Dietitian Pennie McCoy this is known as “emotional eating” which is “when a person uses food as a resource to control their emotions”.

Although eating that piece of chocolate provides some help in the short term, in the long term it can have detrimental impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing.

“Foods that we tend to go for when we emotionally eat are often foods that are high in fat and salt, or high in sugar – they’re really highly processed,” McCoy said.

“And while this gives us immediate satisfaction when we eat the food, the consequences of long-term exposure to this type of behaviour is not necessarily satisfaction.”

Opting for a more nutritious and healthier alternative instead can not only reduce stress but also promote better health outcomes. In fact, there are certain foods in particular that have been shown to have a calming effect.

In an effort to help get on top of the stress that can accompany modern-day life, Starts at 60 explored the optimal foods that can help reduce stress levels and spoke further with Newman and Calfas who offered tips on incorporating these foods into your diet.

Healthy eating and stress levels.
Source: Getty Images.

What foods help with stress?

Maintaining a healthy diet is crucial in managing stress levels as it provides the body with the necessary nutrients to cope with the pressure that can accompany life.

By making healthy food choices a priority, individuals can better support their body’s natural ability to handle stress.

Calfas explains that “not only does making good food choices help with your body on a health level (and weight level, especially for women who are concerned about post-menopausal weight gain), but incorporating certain foods that are known to have adaptogenic effects (adaptogens are herbs/plant compounds that help you to do exactly what it sounds like – adapt!) can help your body deal with stress as well.”

“We also know that the adrenal function is directly affected by blood-sugar levels, so keeping our blood sugar levels stable is another way that food can help to manage stress. Choosing foods that are low GI are a great way to help maintain a steady blood sugar level,” Calfas says.

Knowing the benefits of healthy food and the benefits it can offer for managing stress levels is one thing but knowing what to eat to achieve such results is another.

Newman suggests incorporating prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet to manage stress levels.

“Prebiotic foods are rich in fibre and act like fertiliser for the gut and help encourage the growth of good gut bacteria,” Newman advises.

“There are a diverse range of fruit and vegetables considered to be prebiotics, and you may not even realise they’re part of your diet; garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks and flaxseed are good sources of prebiotics.”

Newman also highlights that “many people don’t eat enough probiotic foods to provide good gut bacteria.”

“People often spend big on probiotics supplements and overlook cheaper, more readily available and affordable food sources like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso which are all great sources of probiotics,” Newman says.

“You could try a warming miso soup or mix some berries through yoghurt for dessert.”

Calfas extols the importance of “keeping to freshly prepared, unrefined and minimally processed foods” as the “best way to help with stress”.

“By giving your body what it needs, without a whole heap of inflammatory foods to deal with, you are helping your body to be better able to do its job. If you are eating meals that your body can’t break down, your body will be under stress,” Calfas says.

“Prioritise protein. When our body is under stress, there is an increased demand for protein, so be sure to make it an important part of your diet.

“Ideally aim for around 0.7-1.8g/per kg of bodyweight each day. The greater your lean muscle mass, the more protein you will require. Try to keep it lean – yes, bacon is technically a protein, but it also has high levels of saturated fats.”

Calfas advises that people consume food that are high in:

  • Vitamin C (pretty much most fresh fruit and veg). Vitamin C is needed to help make cortisol and is stored in the adrenal cortex
  • Magnesium (dark green leafy veg, wholegrains, nuts and seeds) is chronically depleted during stress. Magnesium deficiency can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and insomnia
  • B vitamins (wholegrains, nuts and seeds, B12 is found in eggs and animal product, folate is in eggs and dark green leafy veg) helps to support adrenal production as well as the activation of essential nutrients in your body. B12 is one of the key nutrients in most biochemical pathways in the body, B6 helps with neurotransmitter production and conversion, B5 helps with adrenal hormone production – you get the picture here as to how important they are.

“Ensuring a diet that is also high in Essential Fatty Acids (tuna, salmon and other fatty fish, seeds and nuts) as well as antioxidants (eat the rainbow, as they say!) will help your body deal with any free radical scavengers that are caused by stress,” Calfas explains.

“Red fruits and veg are high in lycopene, an antioxidant that is excellent at mopping up free radical scavenger mess!”

Source: Getty Images.

How to eat healthy food every day?

Eating healthy food can be challenging, especially when surrounded the tempting unhealthy options that can dominate supermarket shelves. However, by adopting a positive attitude and a few simple and effective strategies, it’s possible to overcome this difficulty.

Start by making a list of healthy options that you enjoy, and keep them readily available in your home. Try to plan your meals in advance and cook at home as much as possible. When eating out, look for healthy options on the menu, or make modifications to dishes to make them healthier.

Another helpful tip is to keep track of your progress and reward yourself for sticking to your healthy eating plan. Remember that making a change to your diet is a journey, and it’s okay to have slip-ups along the way. With persistence and determination, you can successfully adopt healthy eating habits.

When getting started on your healthy eating journey, Calfas suggests reducing “the amount of processed foods you eat and aim for more fresh produce”.

“Be aware that as we age our digestive systems also start to decline, so adding a digestive enzyme to help with hydrochloric acid levels in our stomach as well as pepsin to help break down protein is a great addition for most people. Also ensuring that food such as kale and cabbages are at least lightly cooked to help your digestive system break them down,” she says.

“Increase your water intake. Aim for around 35ml/kg per day to help your kidneys flush out toxins. Drinking water also helps to boost your metabolism and keeps your brain sharper (and your skin clearer).

“Rotate your foods. Don’t just have the same meals every day. You need to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need. It also stops you from getting bored.

“Eat mindfully. Don’t eat standing at the sink. Take the time to prepare your food (the smells and sights of food cooking actually kick start the digestion process), taste your food and CHEW! We are all guilty of inhaling our food but making sure we really chew each bite properly further helps the digestion process.”

Source: Getty Images.

What foods should you avoid when feeling stressed?

To help manage stress levels, it’s important to pay attention to the foods you eat. Certain foods, such as those high in sugar and unhealthy fats, can actually increase feelings of stress and anxiety.

However, by making mindful food choices, you can support your overall well-being and help manage stress more effectively. Knowing what foods can help alleviate the feelings of stress and anxiety is important, but knowing what to foods to avoid so you don’t undo all your hard work is also crucial.

Calfas says “processed, refined foods that are high in sodium, sugars and preservatives create very high levels of inflammation within the body” and are best avoided.

“Inflammation is actually it’s own little stressor to the body, so try to minimise these refined foods to the ‘occasional’ pile, not the ‘everyday’ pile,” Calfas says.

Although processed foods should be limited to avoid stress, Newman concedes that “there’s nothing like a chocolate bar (or three!), especially around Easter time, but it’s important to be mindful with your sugar intake as it will affect your gut microbiome, immunity and mood.”

“You’re also more likely to snack on sugary treats if you’re not eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet,” she says.

In addition to avoiding sugar, Newman suggests that alcohol is another item to scrap from your diet.

“If you’re reaching for a drink at home because of stress, think of other options you can make. Alcohol can disrupt the chemicals and processes in your brain – affecting thoughts, feelings and actions. Instead of having a glass of wine, take a long bath, go for a walk or call a friend,” she says.

If going without a white wine at dinner or forgoing a beer with friends seems impossible then Newman suggests red wine as a “good option” if you still want to “incorporate alcohol into your lifestyle”.

“One to two glasses per week is plenty. Red wine is rich in resveratrol which is an antioxidant that has been recognised to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase insulin sensitivity, and lower blood sugar,” Newman explains.

This article was originally published on February 3, 2023, and has been updated on August 25, 2023.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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