Managing Stress with Nutrition | Sal Hanvey

Managing Stress with Nutrition

We can all identify with the ‘wow factor’ of feeling satisfied with certain food, and how it makes us feel physically, mentally and even emotionally.

Some foods that we know aren’t necessarily healthy can make us feel satiated and provide a dopamine hit of satisfaction.  However, how long does that feeling or sensation last; and how good or bad is that for our overall health and wellbeing?

Intuitively, most of us know what is healthy and unhealthy to eat; but which food items or combinations are we choosing to ‘fuel’ us and how well are they living up to their expectations? To use the analogy, we shouldn’t be putting diesel in a petrol car – it may run for a while but what lasting; and sometimes irreversible damage does it do to the engine?

Understanding how your body responds to stress can be key to managing stressful situations and reducing the impact it has on your health. I will explore the effects of stress in more detail, highlighting the crucial link between stress and diet – and how nutrition can be key to dealing with stress.

Let’s take a look at how certain foods impact on mood and how gaining instant gratification from eating certain food isn’t necessarily always the best approach.

What is Stress

It is the body’s (and minds) reaction to feeling under pressure when dealing with various life events. For example:

  • Work
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Finance
  • Education

When we encounter something stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to prepare it for a physical response.

The symptoms we experience when we get stressed – such as increased heart rate and heavy breathing – are best described as physiological responses designed to ensure our survival.

This hard-wired ‘fight or flight’ reaction may have been necessary many years ago when survival meant facing life or death threats, but in the modern world where these types of threats are significantly less, it can have a negative impact on our health.

Other effects that stress can have on the body include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea/dizziness
  • Increased heart rate/palpitations
  • Appetite fluctuations
  • Disturbed sleep/insomnia
  • Increased blood pressure

At times of perceived danger, physiological changes trigger hormones to increase heart rate and blood pressure and deliver more oxygen and glucose to important muscles.

This prioritising of physical functions over less urgent functions such as digestion means our body has the power to face an enemy or flee. Our immune system is activated, breathing is accelerated and the heart moves into overdrive to support the body.

Potential ‘Burn out’

In the modern world where real threats to our survival are rarely present, day-to-day things such as relationship issues, traffic jams, and demanding children can trigger the body’s flight or fight reaction.

The more exposure we have to these stressors, the more intense and frequent our physiological reactions become until we find ourselves feeling constantly on edge.

For those who do not adapt their lifestyles to cope, and ‘burn off’ the effects of their triggered response system, stress can build up and become a health problem.

Emotional Signs of Stress include:

  • Mood swings
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Loss of concentration and focus
  • Feeling tearful
  • Lack of sleep

How do YOU deal with stress?

Negative approaches to stressful situations:

  • Criticising yourself (negative self-talk)
  • Driving fast in a car
  • Chewing your fingernails
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Drinking a lot of coffee
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking a recreational drug
  • Misusing prescription medicine
  • Avoiding friends and family

Caffeine & Stress

A chemical found mostly in tea, coffee and some soft drinks, caffeine reduces our ability to deal with stress. This is because it acts as a stimulant, causing the adrenal glands to release more hormones like cortisol (which are already high due to the strain our bodies are under). High levels of caffeine also contribute to insomnia and nervousness, which are intrinsically linked to stress.

Caffeine consumption can also deplete levels of magnesium (needed for energy production) and metabolism-boosting B vitamins from the body.

Substituting coffees and teas for herbal varieties can help reduce your caffeine consumption, and it helps to be mindful of caffeine content in foods such as chocolate.

Positive ways of managing stress:

  • Listening to music or playing an instrument
  • Playing with a pet
  • Laughing or crying
  • Going out with a friend (shopping, movie, dining)
  • Taking a bath or shower
  • Writing, painting, mindful drawing
  • Exercising or getting outdoors to enjoy nature
  • Discussing situations with a spouse or close friend
  • Gardening or doing home repairs
  • Practicing deep breathing, meditation, or muscle relaxation
  • Seeking counselling if you continue to struggle with stress
  • Making some really delicious & nutritious food

When trying to understand the complex nature of why many people allow themselves to become perpetually distracted while eating food that we know isn’t that good for us, there are a few

theories to consider.  In a study carried out by Harvard’s chief medical editor, Howard LeWine M.D, he found that if people are distracted while eating, they tend to eat more and one example of this was eating in front of the television.

The study concluded that more calories were consumed because it takes about 20 minutes for the body to realise it’s full from the food you eat, hence, being more mindful in the eating process allows you to connect better to what your body is signalling, rather than over riding it with distractions.  The study also showed that our memories can become impaired if we are distracted while eating, to the extent that we can forget exactly what was eaten, which reinforces the disconnect that can occur when we are not truly present with our food.

Some would argue that it is so natural to be mindful in the eating process, and in certain European countries, eating is something to be celebrated and acknowledged.  (I noticed this on a trip to Italy a few years back). Solely partaking in the eating process allows many people to connect with the food on a much deeper level, where you can gain an appreciation for the food you eat and become more mindful in the process as well as aid digestion effectively.

Dr. Mort, a clinical psychologist suggests:

“This is partially a cultural thing…people don’t always combine eating and watching TV. “In some countries food is the event but in America for example, and in many places in the world now, food is more complicated……….People often feel that if they’re enjoying their food, it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’ and they feel bad about it…….Enter TV and other distractions to take our minds off of the actual eating.”

If you were to engage in act of eating only, then the parasympathetic nervous system would take charge and do the job it is meant to do, and instead of attention being diverted to your extremities in the fight or flight mode, the energy is concentrated around the digestive system and its unique ability to take the nutrients from the food you eat and utilise them accordingly in the rest and relaxation mode.

Essentially, what you find is that the communication pathway between the brain and the stomach gets interrupted when you combine such activities as mindlessly scrolling on your phone while you are eating and chewing your food.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can lead to certain stressful symptoms:

A Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk for depression. Low levels of Vitamin D may contribute to poorly regulated mood and behaviour, as a deficiency can impair cognitive function and brain health.

  • Foods sources of vitamin D3
  • Fatty fish
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Beef liver

Iron deficiency symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Brain fog

Food Sources of Iron:

  • Figs
  • Spinach
  • Kidney beans
  • Quinoa
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils

Adrenal Support (stress support)

Get the balance between – EFAA’s – Essential fatty proteins and complex & nutrient dense carbohydrates


  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Oily fish
  • Avocados


  • Meats
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Good Carbs:

  • Multi grain
  • Whole meal
  • Porridge
  • Quinoa

Top Tips:

Here are a few suggestions to help you reconnect with the mindful process of eating.

        1. When eating out try and leave your phone in your pocket and if you want to take a picture- do so, and then put your phone away

        2. Eat a rainbow of natural colours

        3. Eat mindfully, chewing slowly, without distraction

        4. Set the table so you can look forward to the experience

        5. Limit the amount of time you spend watching television while eating- your body and mind will thank you for it.

The Dalai Lama, a monk from the school of Tibetan Buddhism, once said: “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon”. In a sense one could argue that he meant that you should put your all into the experience and enjoy it for what it is without bombardment or distraction.


Sal Hanvey

Sal Hanvey

About Sal Hanvey

Sal Hanvey is an award winning Nutrition Consultant. She has a real passion for finding ingredient substitutes and alternatives for those people with food intolerances, or allergies, without compromising on nutritional value or taste.

Sal writes for various publications around the subjects of nutrition and well-being. Sal offers ‘Stir Crazy’ cook-a-long classes online to help people to connect, or re-connect to the universal language that we all know and love- to enjoy good food. The classes are interactive, live and very much nutrition led.


This series of #FoodFriday is kindly supported by Inspire Wellbeing.
Inspire Wellbeing is an all-island charity and social enterprise and their aim is Wellbeing for all. They work together with people living with mental ill health, intellectual disability, autism and addictions to ensure they live with dignity and realise their full potential.