36% of adults have difficulty sleeping due to stress, and if you don’t get enough sleep it increases stress. It’s a vicious cycle where stress, mental health, and sleep affect each other. Here’s what you need to know about the stress cycle and how what you eat can help or hurt.
Second Dr Chris Mohr, adults have reported increased physical and mental stress over the past year. It can present itself as various symptoms or health problems such as headaches, digestive problems, skin rashes, body aches, fatigue, and interrupted sleep. These problems can also lead to lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, altered mood, irritability and anger, lack of concentration and a change in mood. With all of these ongoing issues, it can lead to overall poor behaviors including eating too much or too little, substance abuse, social abstinence, exercising less often, and not sleeping well.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. You release small amounts of cortisol throughout the day when you encounter daily stressors. This is normal and cortisol levels tend to fluctuate throughout the day due to this. If you suffer from chronic stress, it can lead to consistently high cortisol levels over time. Ultimately this can lead to burnout – yes, it’s real!
Stress can be measured by monitoring heart rate variability, which is a validated measure of stress. Examine exact changes over time between successive heartbeats, where changes occur over time. There are also apps and trackers that can do this, like the Oura ring.
The food you eat and the nutrients you take in all play a role in stress. In his lecture at the 2021 Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo, Dr. Mohr explains how Americans are falling below recommended levels of many nutrients that play a role in stress and mood. These nutrients include omega 3, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Below is an overview of these nutrients and how you can make sure you are getting enough.
One in four adults in the United States has reported a mental disorder in the past year. 7% of US adults report at least one depressive episode in the past year. The data is astounding! Science shows a connection between the levels of omega-3 fats you consume and depression. There are several types of omega-3 fats including EPA, DHA, and ALA. The data specifically shows that people who have higher amounts of EPA in their diets show reduced symptoms of depression. Additionally, lower EPA levels have been found in people with moderately severe and severe depression.
The recommendation for omega-3 fats for mental health is between 1,000 and 2,000 mg of EPA + DHA omega-3 fats with at least 1,000 mg of EPA. You can get this amount by eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. You can also choose to take a supplement but read the label carefully to make sure you are getting enough EPA.
Acute stress is associated with an increase in blood magnesium levels, while chronic stress is associated with a lower magnesium level in the body which can also reduce stress tolerance.
The recommended daily dose of magnesium is 420 mg per day. Magnesium is found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, avocados, black beans, tofu, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and bananas. You want to get the recommended daily amount of magnesium through food. If you think you are still short on minerals, talk to your doctor to see if a supplement is warranted.
Many of the B vitamins are associated with stress management, and most Americans don’t get enough of them. These include folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. B vitamins are water soluble and must be consumed and replenished daily. Each B vitamin plays a unique role in helping the body manage stress and nervous system functions. Additionally, B vitamins support brain cell functions and aid energy metabolism by converting food into energy that cells throughout the body can use. Chronic stress can be associated with low levels of vitamin B6, while vitamins B12 and B6 support the production of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) necessary for a healthy mood and mental well-being.
B vitamins are found in a variety of foods. Here are some good food sources of each of the B vitamins mentioned:
Bottom Line: What you eat every day plays a role in stress which can also affect your mental state and sleep.
A balanced diet that includes the foods (and nutrients) listed above is a good start to help manage stress. If you feel stressed or overwhelmed, seek the assistance of a healthcare professional.
* This article was written and / or reviewed by a registered independent dietitian nutritionist.