Nourishing Your Mind and Body in Stressful Times

It is more important than ever to create systems, tools, habits, and behaviors that will help nourish the body and brain.

Katherine Andrew Headshot

By Katherine Andrew, MPH, LD, RDN

Between several VERY LONG months of juggling multiple jobs (mom, employee, teacher, cleaner, chef, waitress, technology support, soccer coach, dance instructor …) and the hard, but important, issues being addressed in our world, most of us are flat out exhausted.  Not only is there so much unknown about life to come in the age of Coronavirus, but there is also still so much work to be done especially when it comes to moving towards change in our communities.  


While it all still feels a bit strange, what we do know is that this new life is not a passing phase, but rather a new reality – one that impacts our mental health, our sleep, our hormones, and our digestion in profound ways.  So with this new reality comes an even more important need to create systems, tools, habits, and behaviors that will help nourish your body and brain.  


Most of us are familiar with how we eat differently during periods of higher stress. Many of these habits – skipping meals, eating too frequently, under-eating, and/or skimping on certain macronutrients – can lead to increased stress on the body and further contribute to higher levels of anxiety. These patterns not only impact mental health but also have very real and measurable effects on our physical health.  In turn, we end up dealing with both emotional and physical stress.  *And please remember, as I refer to stress, I mean perceived stress for YOU – no one else.  Despite our desire to constantly compare, how your body and brain perceive stress has nothing to do with how your friend, neighbor, or a random person on Instagram deal with their own situations.  


On the flip side, have you ever thought that HOW and WHAT you eat might actually help you better react to emotional stress and minimize physical stress?  Eating well can help stabilize blood sugar, improve digestion, support serotonin production, enhance nutrient absorption, and reduce anxiety, among other benefits.    


Of course, eating well does not look the same for each of us and includes not just WHAT we are eating but also HOW we are eating. While it can be most helpful to work with a practitioner to identify how to best nourish and support your health during times of higher stress, I have outlined a few tips that I recommend for everyone below.

Most of us are familiar with how we eat differently during periods of higher stress. Many of these habits - skipping meals, eating too frequently, under-eating, and/or skimping on certain macronutrients - can lead to increased stress on the body and further contribute to higher levels of anxiety.

First Steps Towards Eating to Minimize Stress:

  • Slow down and breathe.  Most of my clients know that mealtimes are one of the most important, and often overlooked, times in the day to prioritize stress management.  

Due to the strong connection between our brain and gut, our body drastically minimizes digestive function during times of high stress, including reducing blood flow, slowing the rhythmic contractions that move food through, and minimizing digestive enzyme secretion.  Supporting your body in moving out of “Fight or Flight” and towards a parasympathetic state of “Rest and Digest,” can support your body effectively digest and absorb nutrients.  As well, our brains are much better at assessing hunger and satisfaction when we are actually paying attention to flavors, textures, and more from our food.  

As crazy as it sounds, I often recommend first learning how to breathe (check out my friend @SarahSmithStrength for an awesome tutorial on this), and then practicing this before every meal.  Learn to protect mealtimes, sit down to eat, change locations, go outside, and, in turn, practice supporting your mental and digestive health all in the same few moments.

  • Chew.   Anyone else feel like there is an inverse relationship between chewing and busyness?  I often feel like I skip straight to inhaling when life gets crazy.  When we multitask and eat, not only do we often skip breathing, we also skip chewing.  


Chewing is not just a sensory activity but actually the first step of digestion.  Chewing helps break down food and mix it with saliva, which is critical for breaking down starches.  Skipping this step means your stomach has to work harder, and often leads to a number of downstream digestive effects.  I’ve seen clients improve a number of symptoms simply by working on chewing.  In the end, more chewing means less stress on your digestive system and, therefore, less stress on your brain.  


  • (Loosely) Schedule your meals.  Whether you are someone who tends to skip meals when you are busy or someone who nibbles all day long, setting a loose schedule for mealtimes can be incredibly helpful.  Regular mealtimes contribute to better blood sugar management, fewer anxiety spikes, and less energy crashes throughout the day. Try to set a general window for meals each day and commit to sticking within that window as best you can for at least one week.  Pay attention to which foods and which combination of foods help you stay full longer.   


Once you have regular meal times in place, I often encourage clients to work next on minimizing snacking and nibbling.  Not only do we tend to eat better foods when we eat meals we also end up overtaxing our digestive system (leading to more stress) when we constantly nibble throughout the day.   Your MMC (Migrating Motor Complex) is the cyclical pattern that moves things through your digestive track between meals.  However, this rhythmic and cleansing wave is turned off when you are chewing.  In other words, your digestive system needs you to take a break from eating in order to do the rest of its job.  If you do need to snack (I often do based on meal timing!), treat your snacks like a meal – put it on a plate, sit down, breathe, chew, and enjoy. 


  • Try to get fat, fiber, and protein every time you eat.  The combination of fat, fiber, and protein supports insulin regulation and so helps prevent blood sugar highs and lows. This, in turn, helps support your mental health and capacity to handle stressful days and weeks.  What’s more, this combination helps you feel satisfied and satiated, allowing you to go longer between meals, and it supports your body with optimal nutrient absorption.   


Start observing your go-to meals and notice which ones tend to lean heavily to one food group or another.  Moving towards getting fat, fiber, and protein with every meal does not have to be complicated and typically involves simply adding something to your current meals.  Some examples of how you could add to your meals include the following:  

    • Fruit alongside your eggs and sausage
    • Chopped nuts or seeds atop your oatmeal and fruit
    • A piece of whole grain toast, legumes, or roasted sweet potatoes with your green salad and salmon
    • Guacamole or pesto on your grilled chicken breast with rice and broccoli
    • Extra romaine, a salad, or a side of green beans with your tacos 


  • Lastly, please don’t be afraid of carbs. Eating whole, unprocessed carbs is not something to be feared, despite the last few years of health messaging.  In fact, carbohydrates are directly linked to boosting serotonin, one of your feel-good neurotransmitters, that helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep, and digestion. Carbs are also helpful for sex hormone production, thyroid and adrenal function, and even digestion.  


Of course, not everyone needs the same amount of carbohydrates –  some people thrive on lower-carb diets, and the quality and type of carbohydrate matter significantly.  Please also do not read this as permission to eat anything that leaves you feeling bad or might be causing physical stress.  I simply want people to recognize that carbs might actually be helpful in your health goals.   I do find that for many people, especially women, eating too few carbohydrates can lead to a host of issues including higher levels of anxiety and depression, impaired cognitive function, decreased sex hormone production, and insomnia.  


How much and what type of carbs you include will depend on a variety of factors, including stress levels, blood sugar regulation, hormone status, and, most importantly, activity levels.  It’s best to work with a professional to figure out exactly what you need. Still, simply including one to two small handfuls of whole, non-processed carbohydrates (think starchy veggies, whole grains, fruit, or legumes) to your meals can be a great start to keep your body and brain nourished.

Katherine is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist with a Master’s Degree in Public Health with over 15 years of experience in Community Public Health and Private Nutrition Counseling. Her work experience includes individual and group health counseling, interactive workshops, food systems consulting, non-profit program development and management, and safe skin care advocacy and promotion.

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