Tue, 04 Mar 2003

Foods that help fight stress

Melissa Southern-Garcia Dietitian Jakarta SouthernDietitian@yahoo.com

Long working hours, the hectic pace of life and poor eating habits all go hand in hand. In times of stress, the human body actually needs more nutrients and the body becomes caught in a vicious cycle.

While a bag of chips and a Coca-Cola may be a quick and easy lunch for people in a hurry, stress is draining the body of essential vitamin and mineral stores. It is no wonder that stress is linked to an overall increase in illness.

Common symptoms of stress include fatigue, headaches, irritability and stomach discomfort. Longer periods of stress can lead to a decrease in the functioning of the immune system, reducing resistance to colds and infections. Although it may be impossible to eliminate stress, it is possible to control some of its effects on the body by making smart nutritional choices.

Eating foods that are packed with four essential stress- fighting nutrients: magnesium, beta-carotene, vitamin C and the B vitamins can help the body when nutrient needs are at their highest.

One of the key players in the body's fight against stress is mineral magnesium. According to the American College of Nutrition, magnesium is necessary for the production and transport of energy. In times of stress the body's reserves decrease rapidly and its levels of stress-hormones rise. To maintain magnesium at healthy levels in the body a diet should included plenty of green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, soy products such as tofu, milk and bananas.

Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin C are also key to a healthy body and immune system. Cells involved in resisting infections contain high levels of vitamin C, but these levels drop quickly in stressful situations. Vitamin C is easily found in a variety of fruits and vegetables such as oranges, lemons and green and red peppers.

Many commercial vitamin C preparations are available as well. However, some studies have shown that antioxidants in the form of supplements may not be as effective as in the food form. Choosing a fresh fruit or vegetable provides the added benefit of a combination of nutrients such as potassium and folic acid, and also provides fiber that is helpful for proper digestion.

The antioxidant beta-carotene is found not only in carrots as the name indicates, but also in fruits and vegetables that are orange, yellow or red in color. There is strong evidence indicating that beta-carotene enhances the function of the immune system, and it should be included in a stress-fighting diet.

The B vitamins, essential for the functioning of the nervous system, play a vital role in times of stress. These vitamins are necessary for the body to convert foods high in fats and carbohydrates -- such as snack foods that are so often consumed by stressed people in a hurry -- into energy. A deficiency of B vitamins can occur rather easily and can cause irritability and fatigue. Eating plenty of green, leafy vegetables, grains and meat products can help ensure an adequate intake of B vitamins.

Avoiding alcohol, which stresses the body and depletes B vitamin reserves, is also necessary.

It is important to remember that every bite counts in times of stress. Planning ahead so that healthy choices are readily available and unhealthy snacks can be avoided is the first step.

One way to always be prepared is to have "stress-fighting foods" at hand. Three excellent choices are avocado, broccoli and papaya, since each contains a mix of several of the essential stress-fighting nutrients. Overcoming stress may be difficult to do, but giving the body the right foods it needs to fight back is a big step in the right direction.