Health & Wellness: Combating Stress with Nutrition

March 1, 2020
Dana Harrison, the creator of a nutrition-education program designed specifically for firefighters, discusses how to relieve stress through diet.

Stress is completely normal. In fact, stress is necessary. It’s our body’s capability to respond to physical and mental demand, with the ultimate goal being self-care, preservation and survival. Within seconds, our body can switch from rest/digest mode to fight/flight/fright mode. This response helps us to flee from danger or fight off a predator, but it’s the same response that your body triggers when it’s influenced by various external factors in today’s high-stress culture—from the day’s negative news story, to getting stuck in traffic, to your cellphone battery being low.

We all are stressed in different ways, at home and at work, but we know that, as a community, there’s an extra stress load that comes with being part of the fire service that’s based on what the job entails.

Issues arise when our bodies are in a constant state of stress that goes unmanaged. As a result, cortisol (a stress hormone that’s associated with important roles, such as fight-or-flight response, blood sugar, counteracting inflammation and promoting immunity) adds up and lingers. Over time, stress can take a toll on the mind and body, and it can affect our health in extreme ways, such as weight, mood changes, muscle tightness and frequent sickness. There also becomes an increased risk for chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and digestive health conditions, to name a few. Bottom line: When stress adds up, we see problems.

A menu for reducing stress

If you’re struggling with managing your stress load, examining your diet is one way to help reduce and/or control stress. A healthy, balanced (variety) and adequate (enough nutrients and calories) diet puts less stress on the body as a whole, which prepares you to better deal with the stress that comes along the way. The goal is to aim for a diet that’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich, blood-sugar-stabilizing and immunity-promoting. This is going to look different on everyone, but a general focus is on 1) eating real, whole foods that are nutrient dense and 2) limiting foods that increase stress on the body (which also tend to be the foods that the body craves when we are under stress).

The brighter- or darker-colored that fruits and vegetables are, the more nutrient-dense they are. Nutrient density also can be found in healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. A dense supply of nutrients also can be gleaned from minimally processed animal and plant protein and from complex carbohydrates, which are found in beans, lentils, starchy vegetables and whole grains.

Items that can increase stress that you should limit in your diet include processed foods, from convenience foods (typically a complete meal that’s been pre-prepared commercially and, thus, requires little cooking by the consumer), to refined flours, to highly processed oils. Alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars also should be limited for this reason.

During or after stressful events (for example, exercise or a stressful call), the focus should be on recovery, calming, hydrating and anti-inflammatory food options. Key nutrients—along with some food sources in which they’re found—that help to balance the stress response, particularly if diet isn’t balanced and adequate, include:

  • B complex vitamins (nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs);
  • antioxidants that reduce free radical damage, such as vitamins A, C and E (brighter-colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, bell peppers, broccoli, dark greens), because they protect against oxidative stress;
  • zinc (whole grains, red meat, legumes);
  • magnesium (a relaxation mineral that’s found in dark, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, cocoa powder);
  • potassium (mushrooms, bananas, dates, potatoes); and
  • omega 3 fatty acids (fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds).

Healthy stress management techniques can start with implementing true self-care rituals, such as positive healthy changes to your diet. Make it an even more well-rounded lifestyle approach by adding other coping skills, such as adequate sleep patterns, a sound exercise routine and mindfulness approaches (for example, purposeful breathing and meditation).

Moving forward, in order to manage our stress levels, we need to understand what our stressors are and how they affect us and proactively implement actions to lessen the damage of stress, particularly the stress that isn’t resolved in a timely manner. Instead of allowing it to become a problem, how do we figure out healthy ways to cope with the stress that comes our way as part of life and actually deal with it? 

About the Author

Dana Harrison

Dana Harrison, MS, is a nutritionist and educator who is based in Massachusetts. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Vassar College and a master’s degree in nutrition science (community nutrition concentration) from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Harrison is the founder of The Cultural Shift Method, which is a nutrition education program that makes nutrition, health and wellness easy, individualized and attainable. She presents simple, realistic, sustainable and dynamic plans for positive health and wellness behaviors, which allow for changes to occur on a cultural level. For more information, visit or contact her at [email protected].

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