Uplift your spirits with these nutrients
Stress is inevitable in our lives. Often, we think stress is related to negative attributes, but positive events such as a job promotion, moving, relocation, wedding planning and expecting a child, can all trigger stress. Stress can affect our mood and emotions. How we choose to deal with stress, on the other hand, can have profound effects on our mental and physical health. If we have issues with managing stress effectively, we may put ourselves at risk for mood disorders, anxiety and depression.
Physiologically, our body responds to stress by producing and releasing stress-related hormones such as cortisol. As mentioned in the previous feature, cortisol is known to lower our immune function, which makes us more susceptible to the common cold. Moreover, it can elevate our blood pressure, increase our risk for heart diseases and interfere with learning and memory.
Since chronic stress can have adverse effects to our health, we would want to use different strategies to cope with stress and to quell anxiety. From a physiological standpoint, we want to reduce stress by suppressing the levels of stress-related hormones and to increase the levels of happy hormones, such as serotonin in our body. One of the ways to achieve this is through eating foods that contain nutrients that promote the production of serotonin and other relaxation-related chemicals. There are a few nutrients that can help with uplifting our spirits: protein, B vitamins, vitamin D, Omega-3’s, calcium and magnesium.
Protein plays an important role in growth and development, but it also plays a huge part in keeping us at ease. One of the building blocks of protein, tryptophan, is responsible for making serotonin. Because tryptophan is a type of essential amino acid, which the body cannot produce, it has to be obtained through food. It is present in a variety of foods including meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds. Some dark leafy greens such as spinach also contain tryptophan.
Another notable amino acid called tyrosine is used to make dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that promotes the feelings of pleasure, motivation and alertness, and affects memory. While our body is capable of making tyrosine, it is also an amino acid found in meats, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, almonds, banana, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds.
How much protein do you need?
Including protein as part of meals and snacks is key to satiety and to setting the tone of the amount of food we have in one sitting. The amount of protein required varies from individual to individual. To determine how much protein you need, simply take your weight in pounds and divide by two. For example, if you are 120 pounds, you will need 60 grams of protein per day. To keep your food intake sensible and to feel satiated, space the protein throughout the day by including 15 to 30 grams of protein at each meal and snack.
In addition to protein, there are three B vitamins that assist with producing serotonin and other brain chemicals that affect mood: vitamin B6, folate and vitamin B12. Low levels of these B vitamins may be linked to anxiety and depression.
Vitamin B6 is found in vegetables, nuts, avocados, meats, fish, bananas and potatoes.
Folate plays a pivotal role in converting tryptophan to serotonin. It is present in edamame, spinach, broccoli, kale, beans and fortified cereals and breads (a F symbol will be displayed on the food packaging of fortified cereals and breads).
Vitamin B12 is commonly found in protein-rich foods such as meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy products. Do note that vitamin B12 is present only in animal sources, which means if you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you may consume soy-based meat substitutes that are fortified with vitamin B12 to prevent deficiency. To ensure the meat-substitute product contains vitamin B12, read the Nutrition Facts on the food packaging. Alternatively, you may also take a vitamin B12 supplement to prevent deficiency. However, it is best to check with your doctor to see if supplementation is needed.
Like vitamin C, vitamin D levels can be affected by the presence of cortisol. While there are varying amounts of vitamin D in foods, such as cold-water and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, egg yolks and some fortified rice, soy and almond beverages, the most effective and natural way to get vitamin D is exposing your bare skin to sunlight.
Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for reducing our risk for heart diseases, but more emerging evidence shows that a diet rich in omega-3’s, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA), may also help with managing stress and maintaining a healthy mood. Both DHA and EPA can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, and sardines. Therefore, having fish twice a week as part of our meals is not only beneficial for our heart but also for our mood.
Calcium is notorious for being a major player in bone health, but it is also an essential component part of our nervous system. Lacking in calcium may increase the symptoms of anxiety and the risk of depression. While calcium is predominantly found in dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, it is also present in non-dairy sources such as canned salmon and sardines and in vegetables such as kale and spinach.
Magnesium also helps with reducing anxiety. Food sources with magnesium include brazil nuts, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice.
We cannot avoid stress but we can find healthy ways to manage stress. Adopting a nutritious diet and including foods with nutrients that have stress-fighting capabilities is one of them. Be proactive in making positive changes to your diet can uplift your spirits and lead you to a healthier life.