Welcome to Day 4 of HuffPost Healthy Living's 14-Day Stress-Less Challenge! In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, our goal is to use the next two weeks to focus on becoming less stressed and more calm. Today's expert is Drew Ramsey, M.D. an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and author of "The Happiness Diet" and the forthcoming "50 Shades of Kale," who will be focusing on the connection between food, eating behaviors and stress. Read through today's challenge, then tell us -- either in the comments, on Facebook or @HealthyLiving -- how it's going. Just joining us? Catch up on what you've missed here and sign up to receive newsletters for the rest of the challenge here.
At the beginning of this week, Lloyd Sederer taught us how to start a worry journal. But what will we write in its soothing pages? One important point of evaluation is food: what you eat and how you eat it. Today, we'll focus on how food can increase our stress and how it can promote relaxation and well-being.
"Stress and the wrong food choices can shrink the brain via their influence on BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), the hormone that makes your brain grow," says Ramsay. "The connection between the gut and brain is huge -- called the 'gut-brain axis' -- and lots of interesting data supports the idea that the gut is a major mediator of the stress response. After all, stress is a brain and immune system mediated phenomena, and your gut is the largest organ in your immune system."
While we all know about the foods that damage our physical health by contributing to weight gain, insulin resistance problems and other metabolic syndrome symptoms, what is less well-known is the connection between the foods we eat and the emotional damage that they can cause.
"When people get stressed out, they eat," Ramsey says. "And that can be fine, but one problem is that when you are stressed, you’re going to pick whatever is near you."
Some foods can actually contribute to the risk of depression, according to Ramsey. Research shows that industrial fats (trans fats), refined carbs and large quantities of sugar -- three types of ingredients that damage our bodies -- are also associated with increased risk of depression. And THAT can stress you out.
"As clinicians, stress almost always increases risk of depression," he says. "And depression decreases ability to deal with life stressors. When you’re depressed, you have a lessened ability to deal with stressors: You don’t feel as optimistic and don’t sleep as well."
Here are a few tips for eating to avoid increased stress:
Pay Attention To Blood Sugar: "Stress is all perception and your brain is at the center of how you decode the environment around you. Nothing is more stressful to the brain than running out of fuel -- signaled by low blood sugar. Sadly, the basis of the American diet are foods that promote spikes and drops in blood sugar, namely sugar and refined carbohydrates."
Don't Buy It: "Here's a strategy I’ve developed from the substance abuse world: if there’s no cake in your house, you won’t eat it at 2 a.m.," Ramsey says.
Cut The White Stuff: "Straight sugar has nothing in it that your body actually needs," Ramsey says. And when we're stressed, we should be focused on foods that have nutrient density: antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Avoid 'Bad' Fats: "People eat comfort foods when they're stressed out and those usually have high saturated fat," Ramsey says. "The idea is to replace those bad fats with some good ones: Why not an avocado or an egg?"
Stress-Less Fact Of The Day: Your gut is always communicating with your brain. When you eat, think about what message it's going to send.