Stress – Effects on Food and Mood

Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

April 26, 2019

I’ve finished preparing my talk for the Library in Bray on the topic of Stress, and how stress affects our food choices and our mental well-being. April is Stress Awareness month and being aware of what stress actually is and how it works in our bodies is the first step to actually deal with it better.

The possible health implications of too much stress can result in:

  • Fat deposition, especially Visceral fat around the middle (metabolic active)
  • Inability to lose fat, despite low calorie diets and exercise
  • Muscle loss
  • Immune suppressant
  • Damage to the brain (Hippocampus, involved in memory)
  • Lowers Stomach Acid
  • Digestive issues
  • Autoimmune conditions,
  • Anxiety, Depression,
  • Diabetes, Obesity,
  • Alzheimer’s,
  • High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol

So, basically, that is nearly everything and possibly even more. Some research suggests that cancer might also be a long-term result of a suppressed immune response due to too much stress. But why is it such a problem and why can’t our bodies deal with it properly?

It is important to realise that our bodies have not evolved since cavemen times and that our response to a stressful situation is exactly the same as it was back then. Most of you might have heard of fight or flight syndrome. When stressed, our bodies prepare to fight or run away from danger, with the necessary response: get all the blood to the extremities such arms and legs, increase blood pressure and heart rate etc. We are in a sympathetic mode. And if we are relaxed we are in a parasympathetic mode, which means there is plenty of blood to support our digestive system, we are ready for procreation, we are relaxed. In cavemen times, once the danger was over, there was plenty of time to relax. Or as we still see it in animals, once the danger is over, they just go back to grazing as if nothing has happened.

However, we humans are constantly in a sympathetic state nowadays and get little time to relax. We constantly worry after a stressful event. And we worry when we are stuck in traffic. And we worry when we hear bad news of another terrorist attack. And so on and so on.

Every time, there is a stressful situation, our adrenals release adrenalin first, and then it is followed by cortisol. There is a natural path that cortisol takes during the day. It should be high in the morning, and then gradually lower during the day. So, if you can’t get out of bed in the morning, you might have too low cortisol. And if you can’t sleep at night, you might have too much in the evening. Neither scenario is good and shows that your body is under stress.

But our bodies are amazing and can live a very long time on high cortisol release levels, 15-20 years!!! Which is why many people keep pushing the boat until they collapse. The collapse happens when the adrenals are so exhausted from years of releasing cortisol (and without a getting a break). Cortisol is important, but in the right amounts and at the right time.

A sign of too much cortisol is that you are gaining weight around the middle that you can’t get rid off regardless of what diet you follow and regardless of how much you exercise. High cortisol is also responsible for sleep disturbances, irritability, cravings mainly for sweet foods, especially in the afternoon and afternoon slumps.

Signs of too little cortisol (due to exhausted adrenal glands) is being tired all the time, low blood sugar, waking up unrefreshed even after a long sleep, cravings for salty or sugary foods, poor concentration.

Too much cortisol leads to weight gain, by increasing our blood sugar – to get the body ready to run away – and too much sugar in the blood needs to be removed by insulin. So, every time you are in a stressful situation can be compared to you eating sugar – sort of. Insulin not only has the function to remove sugar from the blood, but it also helps convert excess sugar into fat, especially around the middle where it is close to the liver and where it can easily be converted back into sugar when required. However, the fat around the middle is the one that is dangerous and linked to all modern disease. This kind of fat is “metabolically active” and produces its own hormones that basically mess up your metabolism and mess around with your hunger and satiety hormones as well.

Too much stress also can often feel us completely overwhelmed and we can’t think clearly anymore. It also depletes our brain from our “Happy Hormones”. And guess what can replace our “Happy Hormones”? Sugar! That is why you are so much more likely to crave sugar when you are stressed, and not only sugar, all sorts of carbohydrates, comfort food such as pasta, bread and pizza etc.

Too much cortisol can also impact your thyroid hormones. Your body feels under threat and needs to avoid overheating. In times of starvation and dangerous situations, it might actually be of benefit to slow down. And it’s as if your body pulls the handbrake by slowing down your metabolism by reducing the output of your thyroid hormones. However, a slower metabolism means that you need to eat less if you don’t want to put on extra weight. Or the other way round, you might still eat the same, without actually realising that your metabolism has slowed down – and you gain weight for no apparent reason. Your GP might only test for TSH, and might not realise that some of your thyroid hormones are out of balance. You should ask your GP to do a full thyroid panel if you suspect a slow thyroid, but any good Nutritional Therapist can do this test for you as well.

One of the stressors that many of us don’t realise actually comes from the food we eat. Again, one of the first things a Nutritional Therapist would look at is how well is a person’s blood sugar in or out of balance. Eating a lot of sugary foods and starchy, simple carbohydrates causes a huge insulin release which in turn often causes blood sugar to dip too low about 1 hour or so later. This causes your body to think it is starving = stress and causes a cortisol release combined with sugar cravings. If this happens a lot of times during the day, your body is constantly in a stressful state. This means that you are adding more stress to your already stressed body.

Or reverse it: By balancing your blood sugar, you are already removing a lot of stress and this means you can deal better with other stressful situations that you have no control over.

It is the same when you eat a lot of processed foods with additives or other chemicals that your body is not used to dealing with. It puts not only your liver under pressure but your whole body. Removing toxins and artificial foods have therefore already a positive effect on your body.

And this is exactly what we Nutritional Therapists see over and over again. Once we balance the blood sugar and encourage clients to eat more natural real foods, we see that their whole outlook in life can improve and that they feel overall calmer, have more energy and sleep better. It is simply by removing the stress that is induced by the food they are eating.

As mentioned above, we need to become aware of our daily stressors in life to actually deal with them. Below are just some examples of daily mini-stressors that

  • Constant checking the phone, emails, social media, etc (Did we get enough LIKES???),
  • Getting stressed in the morning to get to work, gym, etc on time.
  • Not finding your keys, socks, something you’re looking for – and therefore running late.
  • Being stuck in traffic.
  • Worrying about things that might never happen.
  • Worrying about past things.
  • Reading terrible news or looking at horrific images on TV (Your body does not know that these are not real threats!).
  • A mess in the house, a messy drawer, wardrobe (Trying to find things is stressful).
  • The computer always gets stuck when you only quickly wanted to send out this email.
  • Do we have to do everything ourselves?
    • We used to go to travel agencies, not we search the internet for best bargains ourselves and get stressed when RyanAir increased the price when we come back to the site
  • We are trying to figure out everything ourselves by searching endless internet sites if there’s an issue with our computer or phone, etc
  • Shopping: Have we missed a bargain? Shopping around? Too much choice makes us unhappy and stressed
  • Do we need to reply to everything immediately?

Two things are going on in our brain:

  1. We want to belong to a tribe and we fear to be expelled by this tribe. Our desire to be liked and appreciated is quite big and in some people more than in others. We are putting ourselves under pressure to be liked by our boss so that we won’t lose our job. We want to be liked by our families and friends to belong. And sometimes the two clash!
  2. We are hard-wired to react to negative news quicker and more responsive because knowing about a dangerous situation is what made us survive or not.

While the zebra goes back to grazing once the danger is over, we play the dangerous situation over and over in our brain. “Was there something wrong we did to provoke the tiger’s attack” “Did he not like our stripes that we are wearing?” “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to this place” “There could be another couple of tigers hiding behind this bush”

Some solutions:

Re-frame your mind

You can’t change the situation, but you can always change the way you look at the situation. If you perceive a situation as stressful, it most likely will feel stressful. You can look at cooking from scratch as another chore and stress, or you can view it as treating yourself to something your body deserves. You can view a broken lift as a stressor because you will have to take the stairs or you can view it as a training opportunity to get fit. You can get annoyed at being stuck in traffic or you can be thankful for the opportunity to listen to the radio programme.


If you are in a parasympathetic or relaxed state, your body feels safe and does not feel the need to store extra fat in case there might be a famine coming up. You will have less insulin and cortisol release and your hormones can be in better balance. In a parasympathetic state, your body is also better able to digest your food and to actually absorb the nutrients you are feeding your body.


There are plenty of breathing exercise techniques you can try. My favourite is breathing in for a count of 1-2-3-4, holding the breath for a count of 1-2-3-4, breathing out for a count of 7 (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Then holding again for a count of 4. Breathing out for longer than your inbreath, is bringing you into the para-sympathetic state and you will feel instantly more relaxed. Alternate nostril breathing from yoga is also a great relaxer. Simply watching your breath and counting to 10, 1 at breathing in, 2 at breathing out, etc. until 10, then starting again, is also giving you more focus and lets you feel more relaxed.

Give yourself screen-free time

Limit your time at your smartphone and laptop/tablet as much as possible, there are plenty of options available now where you can limit this directly on your phone. Turn notifications off so that you don’t feel the need to reply to everything straight away. Unsubscribe from emails you are never reading. Switch off phone 90min before bedtime. Never use any equipment while eating.

Create some “me” time

I know this is so hard to do, especially when you have a busy schedule. But as the Dalai Lama said, “When you don’t have the time to meditate, this is the time when you need it most!” By taking just a few moments out of your hectic schedule, you can bring your body into the parasympathetic state of mind, and become more efficient and focused in what you do afterwards. So you are actually gaining time! Me-time should be doing absolutely nothing, not on any screen or in front of the TV. Have a coffee in a cafe and just watch people. Get a massage or a facial or whatever you like. Or just watch your breathing for 5 minutes. There are many breathing techniques available as well to calm you down, or meditation apps such as Headspace or Kalms.

And most important: Do not feel guilty for taking “me”-time!

Gratitude Journal

To many people, this may sound like a bit of a “hippie” thing to do, but it really works. Try it. Buy yourself a nice notebook and every evening go through your day and write down the things you are grateful for. It switches your mind off from the negative chatter that is often going on.

Reclaim the dining table

Eating with family and friends is so important and a great social way to catch up with everyone. It makes you focus on your food, rather than on a TV or anything in the background. It sets time aside to make sure you eat well, rather than just grazing here and there. It can bring families together again. There is plenty of evidence that social connectedness is just as important for health as eating well and exercising.

Make sure your blood sugar is balanced

Unbalanced blood sugar can be a huge stress factor for your body and simply balancing your blood sugar can already greatly reduce your stress levels and help you deal better with stressful situations. It would be too much to discuss in detail what and how to eat to have balanced blood sugar, but the basic tips are:

  • Avoid white flour and refined foods, such as white rice, white toast, white pasta, etc, and substitute with wholemeal flour, brown rice, wholemeal or pasta substitutes (courgetti, cauliflower mash or rice, etc)
  • Avoid sugary foods, and anything obvious with sugar in it such as biscuits, cakes, sweets, etc and substitute with fresh fruit, nuts & seeds and other healthier snack options
  • Avoid sugary fizzy drinks and fruit juices and substitute with herbal teas, flavoured water (with lemon or fruit, or mint, cucumber etc)
  • Have some protein and good fats with every meal as this keeps you fuller for longer and slows down the sugar-breakdown and insulin response.
  • Avoid going too long without food, but also try to avoid constant snacking and grazing.
  • Seek help from a professional Nutritional Therapist to coach you on blood sugar balancing. It is the number one issue that when addressed can improve many health issues already. And it helps reduce your stress!

Avoid processed foods, additives and toxins where possible

Your body and especially your liver needs to deal with any “toxins” that you put into your body. We are already exposed to many toxins on which we have no influence simply through the environment, water, air, etc. But we can influence what we eat and what skincare and household products we use. The goal should be to go for foods that contain the least list of ingredients, especially ingredients that you don’t recognise or wouldn’t have in your cupboard. All those things add up and if your liver can’t deal with all at once and needs to “put” them away until there is space again, so toxins are stored in your adipose (fat) tissue. When you lose fat, you will often release those toxins again and this is what can make you feel a bit nauseous or what can give you headaches. Give your body a break and eat “clean” food where possible. This will reduce the burden on the body and will make you feel less stressed.

Eat nutrient dense food and possibly supplement

All functions in the brain require certain nutrients to work properly. While we associate food with physical health and weight, we rarely make the connection that our mental wellbeing is also influenced by nutrients. We accept that certain medication can influence depression or anxiety, but so can the right nutrients and some herbs. Our gut health is directly connected with how we feel. And our gut also needs the right nutrients, especially fibre and so-called prebiotics. Again, this is a chapter on its own but simply keep in mind that you need to nourish your body well, and you will feel well. All vitamins and minerals in food stage are the best as they have the right balance, however, it can be often too difficult to actually get the required amounts of nutrients into you even if you eat well. One of the reasons is that our soil is often depleted of minerals today, and the other is that often we can’t physically eat so much. In those cases, I would recommend a supplement.

Magnesium gets depleted when stressed, so supplementing with Magnesium is highly recommended. Make sure it’s a good quality brand, and well absorbed by the body. Your Nutritional Therapist can help you figure out which form might be best for you.

B-Vitamins are also depleted in times of stress and are vital for nerve function. A B-Komplex or good Multivitamin is your best option, and best absorbed are B-vitamins in their methylated form.

Herbs such as Ashwaghanda, Siberian Ginger and Rhodiola are excellent as well, however, it is best to discuss the best option for you with a health practitioner, as some are better with high and others for people with low cortisol. A Nutritional Therapist will ask the right questions and will be able to do a Functional Saliva Stress Test that is suited for you.

Herbal teas such as chamomile or herbal mixtures “calming”, “relaxing”, “nite time” teas are excellent to wind down.

Coffee and caffeine

Many people say coffee doesn’t affect their sleep and many studies show health benefits for coffee. However, coffee is a stimulant and if you depend on coffee to get going in the morning, you might be low in cortisol and should look at your overall stress levels. Coffee reduces the ability of the body to build up the hormone Adenosin which is gradually building up during the day to make you sleepy at night. If this hormone is disrupted, it can lead to poorer sleep quality and feeling less rested the following day. If clients highly depend on coffee, I like to slowly wean them off this addiction and see if they feel better and if their blood sugar is balanced better. Cutting out coffee from one day to the next is often coupled with side effects such as headaches and most people wouldn’t be happy to do so. Substituting coffee with green tea and drinking plenty of water is the best option. The first coffees to give up are the one closest to going to bed. Ideally, coffee should be drunk before noon.

If the pure thought of giving up coffee is something that terrifies you or if you totally object and say that is the one thing you’d never give up – then you should really challenge yourself!!! You are most likely addicted and most likely stressed. Find a good time. It doesn’t mean giving up coffee for life, but just bringing your body back into balance.


Observational studies found that you are at a 30% higher risk of weight gain and diabetes if you regularly sleep less than 6 hours. So, why not sleep yourself slim? Prioritise sleep whenever possible. Sleep helps your body recover and heal. It brings your body into a safe place, and similar to relaxation, your body needs to feel safe to have a healthy metabolism. If your body feels threatened, it is more likely to store fat.

Create a bedtime routine that prepares your body for wind-down and sleep. Avoid all screens, phones, TV, laptop etc about 2-3hours before going to sleep. Don’t watch scary thrillers or news, don’t discuss financial issues or personal problems just before going to bed, don’t create a commotion before going to bed. Go for a walk before going to bed or read a good book. Do something pleasant and relaxing. Don’t do any vigorous exercise.


I deliberately, don’t call it “exercise” as this for many people already causes stress! Movement is different, movement is walking, cycling, taking the stairs instead of the lift, squatting to get something out of a cupboard, dancing, and so on.

Find something that you like doing, something that you find enjoyable where you move. Movement is so important for your overall wellbeing and it helps so much to relax, especially when it is enjoyable and out in nature.

Be careful not to over-exercise as this can also be a stressor in itself. Very few people actually do over-exercise, but these would be typical symptoms to look out for:

  • If it takes a long time to recover
  • If you dread going to the gym or to exercise
  • If you are more tired afterwards
  • If you keep constantly experiencing pain
  • If it’s very competitive or if you are very competitive
  • If you need coffee to keep you going
  • If you measure your heart rate variability and it’s constantly low

I would like to acknowledge that I got most of the information for this blog from Dr. Rangan Chatterjee’s book “The 4 Pillar Plan” and “the Stress Solution”. Both of which I would highly recommend if you want to learn more about the connection between stress and health.

Being aware of the daily stressors and how our bodies react is the first step to taking action. The next step is taking the first steps to make a positive change. Just like with nutrition, don’t try to do everything at once and get frustrated. Chose one of the above-mentioned things that resonate most with you and start there. Then gradually introduce more. And just like with nutrition, knowing what to do is one thing, but most of us need support and proper coaching. This is where I can help you. If you are struggling to implement changes in your food or lifestyle, it is no shame to look out for help. Why do most people go to a gym? Because they wouldn’t do anything on their own and because they need support. You won’t get fit in one session, and you won’t be able to change your diet and lifestyle from reading one article, attending one talk or seeing a nutritionist once. Like all good things, it takes time: You need to change old, long-established habits and create new ones.

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