We’re always on the look out for top tips and great advice to help improve our overall health and wellbeing for both mind and body. We were lucky enough to chat to the wonderful Amy Wright AKA @wellnesswithAmy – whose passion is to help others lead happy, healthy and fulfilled lives – free from stress. Amy’s personal goal to help others comes from overcoming her own life challenges.
All of us experience stress or anxiety at some point in our lives – and in this digital age it can be even harder to take a step back and take care of yourself – not just of your physical fitness but also the mind. Amy share’s her amazing insight garnered from her experience as a certified Integrative Nutrition and Wellness Coach with us especially for you all in The Stle Files. You can find out more about Wellness with Amy over on her website.
The Happy Pantry…
We’re all familiar with the concept that food is fuel, right? A more exciting revelation is the emerging research linking the effects of food on our mood and mental wellbeing.
Food and mood is a topic I’m personally very passionate about. In my early 20s (prior to my career as an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach) I struggled with anxiety, panic attacks and mild depression. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 28% of women (between ages 18-24) feel anxious all of most of the time, so sadly my struggle is a common one. Undertaking counselling and coaching were crucial back then, but nutrition and lifestyle changes have been ongoing aspects of my recovery.
Leading up to the onset of these issues, my idea of health was all about low-fat, low-calorie diets, the weight on the scale and an on-off relationship with the gym. Following a long history of antibiotics, abusing weight loss pills, yoyo dieting, binge drinking and stress, my gut was a mess too. Throughout counselling we examined many of my stress-inducing behaviours to cultivate a healthier mindset. Naturally, this led me to reconsider my relationship with my health and specifically, my relationship with food. In the past, food had been either a source of stress or a means of control. What began as curiosity soon turned into a fully-fledged exploration into how food could enhance my self-compassion and mental wellbeing.
Having restricted so many foods in the past, I focused on what I could ADD into my diet, rather than what I was removing from it. I ate more regular meals inspired by a Mediterranean diet and focused on having as many colours, nutrients food groups on the plate. As I integrated more protein, whole foods, micronutrients and variety, the refined sugars, processed foods, caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol were gradually ‘crowded out’. It was not long before I noticed major shifts in my mood, energy and general zest for life. My panic attacks became far less frequent, I was sleeping better and most importantly I began to feel happy again. I regularly support my clients to ‘crowd out’ stress-induced behaviours with healthy activities that inspire and empower them. Whether the issue is related to food, exercise or managing stress – restriction is never the answer.
Food is fuel for your brain
Our brains are largely made up of essential fatty acids, water and nutrients, derived from the food we consume. The brain uses about 30% of your daily calories, despite its comparatively small size.
Our brains are the control centre of our physical body, so naturally the quality of the ‘fuel’ we consume will directly impact how we feel and function. Nutrient dense foods (premium fuel) nourish the brain and protect it from stress. Excessive consumption of processed foods and refined sugars are proven to have the opposite effect. Restrictive diets, which cut out major food groups, chronic stress and over-exercising can also starve the body and brain of essential micronutrients, crucial for health, mood and energy.
Stress and food
Consuming too much refined sugar is associated with impaired brain function – yet sugar-laden foods are often the ‘comfort’ foods we reach for to cope with stress and anxiety. In a study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation (UK), in the past year 74% of people felt so stressed that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope. In the same study, 46% of participants reported they ate unhealthily due to stress, while 29% reported that stress caused them to begin drinking or increase their drinking (alcohol). These self-soothing mechanisms can be temporarily comforting, yet detrimental to our long-term wellbeing and vitality. Processed comfort foods are typically higher in refined sugar, carbohydrates or trans fats, all of which can cause blood sugar spikes and energy slumps. Alcohol may encourage a ‘good time, but is also a known depressant, while caffeine and sugar can deplete nutrients and zap energy. If you work or live in a stressful environment, it can be a vicious cycle that negatively impacts your energy, mood, weight, sleep and ability to handle further stress.
Mind over matter
We cannot always control or reduce the stress in our environment. However we can support our wellbeing by consciously choosing how we respond, what we consume and how we choose to live. I’ve listed my favourite healthy strategies below for managing stress and balancing your mood naturally.
Talking about the gut
Unacknowledged chronic stress puts the body into a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode and can often manifest as a physical illness or gut issue. Mood instability, pervasive fatigue and stress-related anxiety are some of the biggest issues I observe amongst my London-based clientele. Most of my coaching clients also work closely with Registered Nutritionists in order to tackle their chronically overworked stress system with nutritional intervention. By contrast, the coaching and positive psychology tools I offer can be beneficial in getting to the root cause of the issues. Food sensitivities and poor gut health are often exacerbated in highly stressed individuals and may even heighten the stress response, which can lead to increased anxiety, depression, fatigue and imbalanced emotions. Foods such as natural yogurt or a quality probiotic supplement can be beneficial for gut health, in addition to a varied diet full of prebiotic foods (such as asparagus, leeks, garlic, bananas, mushrooms). However I do advise that you seek advice from a qualified nutritionist if you have a specific issue. More importantly, acknowledging and talking about the emotional stressors which affect our health is a key aspect in cultivating health from the inside out.
Make friends with Omega-3 fats
I’m sure by now you’ve heard about healthy fats, but the fats to focus on are the omega-3 essential fatty acids. These fats are essential, yet they cannot be synthesised in the body and therefore must be acquired through food or supplementation. Omega-3 is known for its anti-inflammatory properties; its role in brain development/functioning and its role in the production of “feel good” neurotransmitters, dopamine and seratonin. Including healthy fats in the diet can also positively affect our skin, hair and nail health, which are often compromised by chronic stress.
My favourite healthy fat sources are avocado, wild salmon, mackerel, walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds. Avocado is rich in many vitamins, nutrients and heart-healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids. They are also full of fibre, potassium, magnesium, vitamin E, B-vitamins and folic acids, all of which are essential for hormonal balance and subsequently, mood. Some studies have suggested folic acid may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are also an optimum source of protein, which will help to regulate blood sugar and balance energy throughout the day. Salmon contains tons of vitamin B12, which helps the brain to produce chemicals, which affect mood (B12 deficiency has been associated with low mood).
Quality over quantity
Our society is overfed and undernourished. Spend less time counting calories and focus instead on the integrity of the ingredients on your plate – it is better to eat an apple than it is an artificially-sweetened processed protein bar with the same calories. A great rule to follow is that if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, your body probably won’t recognise it either. Carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet and shouldn’t be excluded, but you can swap the refined carbs (breads, pastries, cookies and pastas) for healthier whole grains (brown rice, oats, millet, spelt), quinoa or potatoes, which are grown from the earth and have numerous nutritional benefits. Although refined sugar can be harmful, artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame) are no better and may even be associated with depression and poor gut health. It’s best to avoid them and opt for naturally sweet foods or moderate consumption of the occasional sweet treat to satisfy your cravings.
Sleep like a king
Sleep is a cornerstone of longevity, health and happiness and its importance is often underestimated. Sleep has an influence over everything from energy, to weight, to metabolism to likelihood of chronic disease. When it comes to stress, getting a good night’s sleep optimises energy, mood and focus, which can improve resilience in stressful environments. When you are well rested you have the energy to show up as your happiest, high-performing self, rather than feeling depleted and fatigued.
Eat the rainbow, especially green
A diet rich in colour signifies a diet rich in goodness! Different coloured vegetables and fruits contain various kinds of polyphenols, which are responsible for everything from protecting the body from chronic disease to enhancing overall health.
Spinach, chard and other dark leafy greens contain magnesium, which is essential for seratonin production, energy, adrenal health, blood sugar control and the nervous system. Daily stress can not only affect our mood but also deplete magnesium in the body. Leafy greens also contain a ton of micronutrients, which recent psychological studies suggest can have a positive impact in mental health intervention.
Some people harp on about the sugar in fruit, but fruits are a rich source of mood-enhancing goodness. Blueberries are high in antioxidants and flavanoids, which are associated with enhanced cognition, less cellular ageing and positive mood. Strawberries are high in manganese and vitamin A, which boosts happy chemicals. They are also high in Vitamin C, which may reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Bananas are also a great source of mood-friendly potassium.
Nuts, seeds and legumes (such as almonds, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and beans) are great sources of healthy fats, protein and magnesium. Many nuts and seeds are packed with micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin E, zinc, antioxidants and folate, all of which contribute to brain health and mood. A small handful of almonds or seeds a day is a healthy dietary addition and may assist with blood sugar control.
Meditation is a brilliant, simple way of enhancing your physical, mental and emotional health. Meditation is commonly used to treat mental health disorders, addiction and common stress, as well as promoting better sleep and healing for physical conditions. I encourage all of my clients to take 5 minutes a day for this practice with a focus on deep breathing and exhalation. The deep exhalation helps the nervous system to switch out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and back into the ‘rest and digest’ zone. I also recommend taking time each day to cultivate a practice of gratitude, whether it is during your meditation time or afterwards, by writing down three things you are grateful for each day. New research is emerging which suggests gratitude can have lasting positive impact on mental wellbeing and overall health.
Amy Wright is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Speaker based in London. She works with one-to-one clients and companies to support people to live healthily, happily and free from stress.