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What’s stress got to do with it?

Our bodies respond to stress by releasing a cascade of brain chemicals and hormones that may stimulate appetite. During high stress, our body’s need for certain nutrients increases as it excretes more and the need for the vitamins and minerals increases.

When we are under stress our nutrition suffers. We tend to grab food on the run and eat meals that are unbalanced. We are likely to skip meals and indulge in comfort foods. Eating the right foods ensures that we have the ammunition we need to fight the energy-draining effects of stress.

Tips for managing stress through what you eat:

Limit caffeine. Caffeine may aggravate stress. A cup or two of a caffeinated beverage can escalate feelings of anxiety. Caffeine directly affects the brain and central nervous system, producing changes in heart rate, respiration and muscle coordination. Coffee also can decrease absorption of certain minerals, like iron and stress-fighting magnesium.

Eat breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day. You’ve just awakened from a long period of fasting and your brain needs glucose to function.

Choose “healthy” carbs. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are healthier carbs. Simple carbohydrates, such as candy and sodas, provide little nutrients. Diets high in sugar may increase the loss of calming minerals, such as magnesium and chromium.

The following foods are known as calming carbs:

• Whole-wheat pasta

• Oatmeal

• Popcorn

• Bagels

• Tortillas

• Rice cakes

• Dry cereal without milk

Research shows that when we eat meals with a high carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, we increase the amount of tryptophan available to our brain. Tryptophan is an amino acid required to manufacture serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming influence. Higher-carbohydrate meals also help keep levels of the stress hormone cortisol under control, while high-protein diets may increase cortisol levels, aggravating feelings of stress. High cortisol levels can also lead to overeating because the hormone affects appetite control chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.

Choose healthy fats. Focus on healthy fats, such as the monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oil and omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as salmon and mackerel. Saturated fats and trans fatty acids can suppress your immune system and raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Fats should make up only 30 percent or less of your total calories.

Eating a balanced diet and sticking to a regular meal times are strategies to help win the war against stress.

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