There are better ways than alcohol, caffeine, or junk food to beat the blues. Reach out for wholesome foods the next time you feel stressed out, says Naini Setalvad
The human body constantly tries to achieve a balance in all its processes, and the main imbalance is caused by stress. Stress is the modern buzzword as every other person is affected by it. To combat this physical and emotional stress, the body has to work overtime. Scientific research has proved that delayed exposure to stress and stressful situations can negatively affect the body’s immune system and cause many ailments like colds, cough, flu, high or low blood pressure, heart diseases, and sometimes, even cancer!
Stress can be caused by many external factors like pollution, workload, and excessive exposure to alcohol and smoke or internal factors like elevated cholesterol or blood pressure, nutrient deficiency and depression. While we may not be able to influence many of the external factors that induce stress, we can at least help our body cope with its internal effects. Most of us reach for coffee, alcohol, or junk food when we are under pressure. Our excuses range from “It takes the edge off” to “It calms my nerves”. But all that these foods do is rob us of nutrients, making us overweight, exhausted, under-slept, and more stressed than we were to begin with.
Good nutrition is extremely important when it comes to dealing with stress. When your body is in a stressful situation, it needs certain extra nutrients. For example, extra B Vitamins for a healthy nervous system, extra Vitamin C and zinc for resistance to infection, and so on. If the body does not have enough of these extra nutrients, then its requirements, obviously, cannot be met. Therefore, it is extremely important to store up on your nutrients so that your body puts them to good use when you are under stress. Some foods can actually stress the mind, while others can calm it.
Try to include foods which are rich in tryptophan and tyrosine like bananas, figs, guavas, and raisins as they can change one's mood while offering many other health benefits which are required for reducing stress and improving health. Get enough local, seasonal, and organic fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet. Some Vitamin C-rich fruits like oranges and sweet lime are also beneficial because these fruits contain chemicals that make you calmer as they lower your blood pressure, thus making you feel less stressed and curb cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in the body.
Your plate should be brimming with vegetables rich in calcium and magnesium, such as fresh dark leafy greens like fenugreek and spinach as these two minerals help relax muscle fibres. Brown rice, legumes, olive and safflower oils, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, and whole grains are healthy additions too. Snack on pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and flax seeds as they are packed with energy and fatty acids which support brain health. These seeds are your miracle when stress bites, so sprinkle them on your soups, salads, and yoghurt or just have a spoonful of them plain. They help in calming your brain cells, preventing cortisol levels from rising out of control, and lowering your blood pressure. They are any day healthier than reaching for a samosa or pakora.
Mainly, aim to add the Fighting Five—vitamin A, C and E, and minerals zinc and selenium, as these can disarm free radicals that are produced if the body is under stress. Overall, these foods contain vital antioxidants. These foods are lemon, amla, tomatoes, guava, oranges, dark green vegetables, carrots, pumpkin, and coconut as well as various seeds.
The next time you feel your nerves going into overdrive, reach for a handful of almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. They are packed with Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that strengthens our immunity. Almonds also have B Vitamins, needed to help your body deal with unpleasant situations and events. Walnuts are packed with Omega-3 essential fatty acids, needed for proper brain functioning. They are also helpful for people with high blood pressure, another stress-aggravated condition. And pistachios have heart-friendly monounsaturated essential fat needed to relax your heart vessels. They are a good source of zinc, which is an energizer.
Limit the intake of refined carbohydrates, oil, butter, white sugar, and white flour in your diet. This means no more fried food like samosas, burgers, french fries, spring rolls, jalebis, mithais, cakes, and pastries. These foods cause your blood sugar levels to swing drastically, which leads to anxiety, irritability, headaches, and other signs of stress. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, smoking and tobacco, processed foods, foods high in sugar, soft drinks, and common table salt as these substances are extremely toxic to the body.
Some tips to help you during stressful times:
Do not skip breakfast. If you are working on an empty stomach, stress can be more difficult to handle.
Have plenty of water. Also, drink masala chai as it is the perfect antidote with all its spices.
Eat small, regular meals.
Eat slowly to aid digestion.
Do not follow yo-yo eating patterns. Changing your eating habits is stressful for the body, especially when it is already under stress.
Eat all fruits, especially those which are rich in Vitamin C (oranges, mangoes, etc.), plums, bananas, kiwis, and berries.
Vegetables, especially bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and all dark leafy vegetables.
Whole grains like jowar, bajra, nachni, wheat, and brown rice.
Switch to rock salt/sea salt.
Cold pressed oils made from sesame, groundnut, sunflower, and olive.
Sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds.
Try herbal infusion teas such as chamomile and peppermint.
Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol totally as they affect mood and sleep patterns besides heightening feelings of depression.
Most importantly, listen to your body and avoid foods that cause discomfort. Almost everyone has a ‘comfort’ food that provides comfort during trying times. Yoghurt works for some while chocolate may work for others. Go with whatever works best for you.
Exercise regularly to lift the mood.
Exercise positive mental talk.
Few of us today have the luxury of being totally worry-free. But unfortunately, some people are more prone to tension than others, and for them, eating right becomes more important. Remember, you can handle whatever life throws at you in a more positive way by eating and sleeping well, coupled with a good exercise regime. Nature has provided us with many foods that help relax, think more clearly, and work more efficiently. Pamper yourself with an aroma massage once in a while and your body will always feel on vacation. Do not forget Vitamin F though—friends and family! Spend lots of time with them.
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