Nourishing your body when stressed – nutrients to support the stress response and boost your serotonin

Stress. Something that all of us are affected by in our life, to varying degrees. Feeling stressed is a natural response – it is something we are designed to experience when we are in perceived danger – also known as the ‘fight or flight response’. This is when we have increased stress hormones and circulating blood sugar ready to fight the imminent danger, or to run from it.

Although this fight or flight response is completely natural, modern day living means we are experiencing it constantly, without ever really switching off and our bodies simply cannot cope with prolonged periods of this chemical reaction. So what can we do?

Well firstly, its worth mentioning there are two main different types of stress – internal and external stress. External stress is something that is going on outside the body – you are running late for a meeting, you were late taking the children to school, you have an endless amount of work to do. Internal stress is something that is happening inside the body – too much coffee or sugar, lacking key nutrients, blood sugar levels becoming too high or dropping too low, not getting enough sleep are just a few examples. The body can not differentiate between internal and external stress. The body doesn’t know the difference, it simply recognises them as stress and initiates the same chemical reaction. Whilst external stress might be something that is out of your control in many cases, internal stress is something you really can manage and address – and the great news is by reducing your internal stress levels you are bringing down your overall stress.

Here are some simple steps, eating patterns, and key nutrients that you can incorporate in your eating plan which will really help you with both the physical and the emotional impact that stress can have on us. Don’t try to make all these changes at once – this often can be stressful which defeats the object. Even just making one or two changes can start to make a fundamental difference to how you feel.

Reduce your intake of caffeine and stimulants – Coffee is the main culprit, but something that people can find themselves needing to ‘keep going’ throughout the day. The more coffee you have, the more burden you will potentially be putting on your adrenal glands to keep producing the stress hormones. If you drink a lot of coffee, you don’t have to suddenly stop, but instead reduce down your intake slowly. Coffee doesn’t give you energy – coffee gives you a burst of the stress hormones to keep you going. If you want to be bursting with energy, you don’t have to have coffee to feel this way, but you need to reduce your intake to give your body a chance to produce its own energy source.

As well as reducing coffee intake, make sure you are drinking plenty of water – a top tip is that your urine should be clear and odour free – this is a good indication that your body is fully hydrated.

Think about your blood sugar levels

Your blood sugar levels are literally how much sugar you have circulating around your blood to give your body energy. When we are stressed, we can start to get high circulating insulin – this is the hormone to regulate your blood sugar levels. High levels of insulin can contribute to you feeling irritable, hungry, having problems with concentration, and generally having a short fuse. High levels of circulating insulin can also contribute to us gaining weight around our middle. If you eat lots of sugar, white carbohydrates or sugary drinks, you will start to get big spikes and drops in your blood sugar levels which is a huge contributor to internal stress. Instead, reduce your sugar intake, increase your intake of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, have protein with each snack, and make sure you are having a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack.

B Vitamins

B vitamins are a group of vitamins that all work together to help our body produce energy (amongst lots of other really important roles). They are water soluble which means we cant store them in the body so we need to get a really good daily supply of them. When we have lots of stress, B vitamins can very easily become depleted because they are used up by the stress response before the body can use them for energy production (making us feel very tired).  Really focus on boosting your intake of B vitamin rich food to not only support your adrenal glands, but also to really help to improve your energy levels. B Vitamins are found in – all whole grain produce, red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy produce, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetable. If you have a diet high in these already but you are still struggling it might be worth considering taking a B Complex supplement to give your body the extra boost (If you have any health conditions or are on any medication, always check before taking a supplement).


This amazing nutrient is used in the body for over 300 different chemical reactions – from boosting immunity, healthy muscle contractions, nerve function to helping blood glucose levels. Research shows that magnesium can help the brain produce a substance called GABA which helps the brain to relax and increase its production of the feel-good hormone serotonin.

Food sources or magnesium are green leafy vegetables, figs, avocado, banana, raspberries, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, kidney beans, salmon, mackerel and tuna. Again if you want to boost the body you can think about having this in supplement form.

Want to help yourself switch off in the evening? Why not have an Epsom salt bath. Put 2 large scoops of Epsom salts in your bath. This is a great way to help the body absorb magnesium straight into the skin, the help the muscles relax and encourage the body to switch off.


This is an amino acid, a building block of protein. L-tryptophan is used to help with brain signalling and is changed by the brain into a hormone called serotonin. Serotonin helps to lift our mood and makes us feel good. Serotonin is the precursor to make the hormone melatonin – the hormone that helps us to sleep at night. Food sources are all protein foods, but especially salmon, spinach, seeds, nuts and soy.

Gut Health

The health of our gut is gaining increasing research, now looking at what they call the ‘brain-gut-axis’ This is the link between the bacteria in the gut and our brain. The gut bacteria have a direct impact on the hormones that are produced in the brain affecting our mood and stress – including serotonin, the feel-good hormone. How are your bowel movements? Do you suffer from bloating or irregular bowel movements? Do you have a diet high in sugar? Have you had many antibiotics? Is your diet lacking in fibre and vegetables? If you have answered yes to any of these, a great way to support your stress levels, and emotional wellbeing is to balance your gut health – probiotics, prebiotics, aloe vera, FOS, or simply increasing your water and fibre and reducing your sugar intake can start to make a huge difference.

This blog was written by Jennifer Mcdiarmid

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