People are, as the expression goes, what they eat. After all, the muscles in a person’s body, and the blood flowing through their veins, are all supplied by the food that he or she consumes. Understandably, these foods would also have an effect on the way the brain functions.
The foods we eat have measurable effects on the body’s performance, they may prove to have an even more critical influence on how the brain handles its tasks. The idea that the right foods, or the natural neurochemicals they contain, can enhance mental capabilities such as by defusing stress. (Blun 2)
In the 1970’s, Dr. Richard Wurtman of MIT and his graduate student, John Ferstrom, discovered that the nutrient composition of a meal affects the brain’s neurotransmitters, substances that control nerve impulses. They also found in rats, that the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin had great involvement with food intake. Dr. Wurtman’s wife, Judith, later found that the carbohydrate content of a meal might influence dopamine and serotonin synthesis. Dopamine is related with alertness; it is used for fast reflexes, “mental energy,” and to assist in problem solving. Serotonin helps a person deal with stress. “When the brain uses serotonin, feelings of stress and anxiety are replaced by a sense of
tranquillity, often to the extent of somnolence.”(Trankina 2) Serotonin is a composite of tryptophan, an amino acid that is found in food. The most simplistic way to obtain tryptophan is by consuming a high-carbohydrate meal, and avoiding foods containing protein and fat. (1-3)
People in general are better able to cope with stress when their diets are high in complex carbohydrates. Many people misconstrue helpful, complex carbohydrates with sugary, refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates are contained in foods such as white breads, sugar coated cereals, white rice, and other flour-based carbohydrates; these foods are not unhealthy, but they do lack fiber. Even “enriched” versions of these types of food are not as healthy, and stress suppressing as the complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are related to whole-grain breads, potatoes, brown rice, corn tortillas, pasta, and other grain-based foods. “It becomes understandable why Italians are generally not stressed out.”(3) These types of foods are brimming with “energy-boosting, feel-good carbohydrates.” (Blun 3) A simple way to differentiate the two is by placing each in water, because the refined carbohydrate is high in sugar it will dissolve rapidly. This method works the same in a human body; the refined carbohydrate will break down much faster, which also means the food will stay inside the body for a shorter period. Due to the fact that complex carbohydrates
are high in starches, these types of foods take longer to be broken down, allowing them to stay inside the digestive system and blood stream for longer periods. This slow digestion also keeps blood sugar level and the brain energy high for long periods.
Another misconception about carbohydrates is the fat content and the amount of weight gained when these types of foods are consumed; this is, in fact, a misconception. “Despite carbohydrates’ undeserved reputation as being fattening, carbohydrates provide only four calories per gram.” (Edelson 71) Only when these foods are added to other substances, such as oil when being fried to make breading on certain types of food, or eaten in large quantities that the body can not readily use, do they get stored in the body as fat. Overeating usually is not a problem with carbohydrates due to the fact that they tend to be filling, so only small amounts may be eaten in a sitting. In addition, serotonins found in carbohydrates have been proven to suppress appetites.
Dr. Judith Wurtman of MIT found that most fruits and vegetable have no effect on the amount of stress a person might obtain when consumed. She categorizes these types of food as “stress neutrals.”(Matson 1) The reason these foods do not provide stress relief is that they do not produce dopamine or serotonin the way starchy, complex carbohydrates
do. These “stress neutrals” are more useful in the morning because serotonin levels are naturally higher when a person wakes up. “Breakfast is not designed to relieve stress; the goal is to nourish the body.”(1) Carbohydrates are usually not needed for breakfast when these serotonin levels are intense, so Wurtman suggests consuming a grapefruit or banana. (1-2) Although these fruits and vegetables do not reduce stress, they do provide the body with nutrients. Nutrients from vegetables and fruit are needed during stress because when stress occurs, most of these nutrients are eliminated. Due to this elimination of nutrients, the body increases the need for vitamins only found in these “stress neutrals.”
When the body is distressed, it releases several hormones that suppress the body’s immune response, thereby exposing the body to any number of infections. In times of stress, it is advisable to take adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, the B Vitamins, Vitamin C, and the trace minerals, all of which help the body maintain a strong defense system against infection. (Winters 1)
All of these vitamins listed can be found in fruits and vegetables. Not only does Vitamin C help provide nutrients, these citrus fruits “help make up what is lost by smoking.” (Reader’s Digest 161) Smoking gives people antsy feeling which can actually lead to stress.
Finally, the food-type that has the worst effect on stress is food that is high in fat, sugar, and caffeine. “These foods increase the discharge of the stress hormones and produce symptoms of anxiety, including nervousness and restlessness that only aggravate the stress response.” (Somer 1) Caffeine, especially, stimulates a jittery feeling, which may lead to stress and lack of sleep. Instead, substitute caffeinated soft drinks and coffee with herbal tea and noncaffeinated sodas; alcoholic beverages should also be avoided. (1-2)
According to Blun, “a diet that draws heavily on fatty foods may be a major cause of depression and aggression in North America.”(1) These types of foods are hardest to digest and may lead to stress due to lack of nutrient absorption and retention. This struggle for digestion induces heartburn and indigestion, which can cause physical stress. During stress, fatty foods, which are difficult to digest any time, should be avoided. Hot or spicy foods may also cause problems during times of stress. In addition, lack of needed, healthy food leads to nutrient deficiency, which according to Winters, is another form of physical stress. Foods high in fat-content such as certain meats, not only lead to stress, but other health problems such as high blood-pressure, which can result in heart diseases, the number one killer in America.
Untreated stress leads many people to depression, anxiety, headaches, and a host of other complaints making reduction of stress an important factor in improving your total health. (Edelson 41)
Nutrition is a simple and inexpensive way to reduce stress levels without having to go to the doctor and taking unnecessary medication.
A well-nourished body is better equipped to cope with stress than a poorly nourished body. A nutritious diet should be consumed at all times, especially during times of stress.
“Nutrient deficiency is a form of physical stress and it is how well the body is nourished that dictates how stress is handled.” (Winters 1) If a body is not well nourished, it has a hard time handling stress. The best way to achieve a stress-reduced life is by consuming foods containing serotonin. The most simplistic method of obtaining serotonin is by eating foods containing complex carbohydrates. By avoiding sugary, fatty foods, a person decreases their level of stress. In place of these “junk foods,” a diet containing fruits and vegetables will provide nutrients the body needs to fight off infections and replace the amount of vitamins lost during stress. When stress arises, complex carbohydrates give people a greater ability to deal with their problems because they are more alert, and have a better sense of tranquillity.