Can What You Eat Affect Your Stress Levels?

In last week’s article I discussed a simple breathing technique to help you deal with stress in the moment. This is great when you are suddenly anxious but we need strategies to handle stress over the long run. This next series of articles is going to address this issue, the first of which is nutrition.


What we eat matters, not only to our physical health but to our mental health and how we handle stress. Scientific research, in recent years has discovered the importance of the gut microbiome to our mental health and resilience. We have 100 trillion bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract, multiple times more than the human cells we have. Now, there are good bacteria and bad bacteria and these have a direct impact on our overall health, our thinking, our mental health and how we handle stress.

We can influence the type of bacteria that reside in our gut by what we eat. If our diet is focused on inflammatory foods, such as sugar, dairy, gluten and others, then we will be promoting the bad bacteria, which will cause gut inflammation, which will spread into our blood stream and affect all the organs in our body, including our brain. This will directly impact how we handle stress.

On the other hand, if we eat nutrient dense foods, we will promote the good bacteria, which will help our overall physical health, brain and mental health and hence our ability to deal with stress when it confronts us. The question then arises, what should we be eating? There are countless books written on nutrition and it can become very confusing. There is no right nutritional prescription that can universally apply to everyone, however, there are a few general principles that everyone should follow.

The first principle is that you need to hydrate first thing in the morning and throughout the day. I recommend drinking filtered water with some sea salt and a squeeze of lemon to add electrolytes and sip this throughout the day. Avoid hydrating with coffee and fruit juices because the former has caffeine, which is a diuretic and the later has too much sugar, which your body does not need.

The second principle is that there are foods that are known to be inflammatory the should be avoided at all costs. These are sugar, dairy, gluten containing grains, corn, soy and peanuts. Corn and soy are inflammatory because they are mostly genetically modified and not in their natural state. These foods should be avoided at all costs.

The third principle is that our nutrition should be plant-based. This does not mean that we need to be vegetarian or vegan but that the majority of our sustenance should be from vegetables and fruits. The reason is that these foods are nutrient and antioxidant dense and provide the most benefit of anything we can eat. These foods should be incorporated into all of our meals on a daily basis and should include green vegetables, root vegetables and low glycemic index fruits, such as berries. Some people may need to avoid night shade vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, okra and peppers, because they can also be inflammatory but everyone needs experiment individually with these foods to see their effects.

The fourth principle is that we need to incorporate healthy fats into our diet to support our brain function, which depends on these fats. Healthy fats come from many sources including nuts, such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and almonds to name some, avocados, coconuts and certain fish, such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still get your health fats as I have mentioned above.

The fifth principle is that if you eat meat, it should be a condiment and should not incorporate a major part of your diet. All meat should be well sourced and for land animals, they should be free range and grass fed. For seafood, it should all be wild caught and free of toxins. The way to avoid toxins in seafood is to eat the smaller fish I have already mentioned above. The larger and predatorily fish, such as tuna, swordfish and sharks are higher in the food chain and are more likely to have toxins such as mercury, so avoid them.

​​​​​​​These are all the nutrition principles you need to support a healthy gut microbiome and improve your overall physical health, including your brain health. This will help you manage stress in your life more effectively than you would be able to otherwise. Now, it may seem difficult to stick to the nutritional recommendations I have made above, but once you see the benefits in your overall health and wellbeing, you’ll never look back.

​​​​​​​If you are skeptical then just give yourself two to three weeks to follow the above rules and just see what happens!

Dr. Nauman Naeem


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