Do you devour a pack of chocolate buttons when you’ve had a bad day? Do you pour yourself a glass (or two, or three) of wine when it all feels a bit much? Does smoking a cigarette take the edge off your nerves? If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may be using food and drink (and even other substances) to help you cope with stress and negative feelings you experience.
Last week, we covered a short-term way to deal with stress – bagging up our worries and throwing them away (how did you find that activity? Do let me know!) In this second post during National Stress Awareness Month, we will be focusing on a longer-term approach to cope with stress: what we eat and drink.
How food and drink can affect how we feel
Everything we consume has an effect on how our bodies function. However, some food, drinks and other substances can affect our mental functioning and wellbeing because they produce a psychoactive effect. That is, some of what we consume can contribute to us feeling happy, sad, calm and anxious.
How does this work? Key to the relationship between what we eat, drink, take and our wellbeing are different chemicals in our bodies:
- Serotonin – this controls how happy we feel
- Dopamine – our reward system, this contributes to us feeling good about ourselves
- Noradrenaline – influences how alert, anxious or calm we are
Different food, alcohol and drugs can affect these chemicals, leading to changes in our mood and wellbeing. Today’s post and activity will explore how what we consume can affect our levels of stress and wellbeing. We will also look at how making small changes to our diets can have a long-lasting impact on our mental health.
Why we use food and drink to cope with stress
Many of us eat, drink, smoke or take drugs to help us cope with stressful situations and negative feelings. There are many reasons for this, but over 90% of our serotonin receptors (the chemical that makes us feel happy) are in our guts. This may be why we associate feeling happy with eating and resort to food and drink when we feel stressed or unhappy.
Over 40% of us overeat or eat junk food and nearly 60% of us drink alcohol to cope with everyday stress. Although these and other substances can provide some temporary relief from stress, they are not a long-term solution:
- Sugar – when the level of sugar in our blood increases quickly (i.e. after eating some chocolate) a chemical called cortisol is released to stabilise it. When our blood sugar is unstable, we can feel frustrated and angry.
- Alcohol – although alcohol can help us relax, in the long term it can make us feel more anxious and depressed, making it harder to deal with stress.
- Caffeine is in chocolate, coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks. It is a stimulant which can make us more alert. In some of us, this increased alertness can actually make us feel anxious and stressed.
What can I eat or drink to help me feel less stressed?
Cutting down on sugar and junk food can increase our resilience. Limiting our alcohol intake can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and reduce the paranoia (and consequent stress) experienced after a big drinking session. Only consuming caffeine in the morning or in smaller doses can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
One thing we can increase in our diets is protein. The amino acids found in protein are used by our brains to protect against low mood and feeling angry. Foods high in protein include fish, meat, beans, lentils and nuts.
This week’s activity requires you to look at your diet and see if you can make any changes to it to reduce your stress levels and improve your wellbeing. The worksheet provides further information on protein, caffeine and alcohol, along with some questions to help you explore whether you can improve your diet and your wellbeing.
Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.
If changing your diet has reduced stress and helped improve your wellbeing, please do get in contact and share your story!
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