By Kirsten Serrano
I bet if I say stress eating, you think of a pint of ice cream or your favorite nachos. Stress can certainly drive you to make less than ideal food choices, but you can also eat to counteract its effects.
Magnesium is the magic mineral we are so often not eating enough of (about ¾ of us) that has the power to help us overcome life’s challenges. Stress is a complex foe, and it takes a multi-pronged strategy to overcome the effects, but what you eat is an important stress busting tool.
Health care workers lead stressful lives under the best circumstances, and this past year plus has been some of the worst circumstances. Think of magnesium as the relaxation mineral. It is the reason an Epsom salt soak can calm your nerves and relieve your aches and pains. Magnesium plays a huge role in your stress response. Magnesium helps you cope with stress, but stress depletes it. Low magnesium levels trigger cortisol production, and cortisol is your main stress hormone. Magnesium supplementation lowers cortisol levels and calms the body’s stress response.
Unless you intervene and get your body the magnesium you need, stress can really drag you under. It is hard to tell how much of your stress response is triggered by stressors themselves and how much is from missing magnesium. Many of the symptoms of stress are the symptoms of magnesium deficiency. A clenched jaw, insomnia, headaches, fatigue and body aches are all signs of magnesium deficiency and chronic stress. Low magnesium is also linked with depression, anxiety and suicidality.
Small changes can make big differences. You can use food for stress relief by being intentional about eating magnesium-rich foods. Nuts, seeds and legumes like pumpkin seeds, almonds, lima beans and cashews are high in magnesium. Dark leafy greens like spinach and chard are also great choices. Brown rice, oats, avocados, salmon and potatoes are magnesium winners too. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for an adult is 420 mg (remember, stress increases your need). A handful or pumpkin seeds or a cup of cooked spinach provides about 40% of the RDA.
If chard and pumpkin seeds do not excite you, know this: chocolate is magnesium rich! Choose a high-quality dark chocolate (the darker, the better) to get the maximum benefit without all the health-tanking sugar and additives. The next time you are feeling stressed out, try some prescriptive dark chocolate. One ounce of 85% dark chocolate provides 15% of the recommended daily value.
Eating magnesium rich foods is a great way to practice real self-care. Eating your magnesium is truly crucial for combating stress, but it is also vital for overall health. Magnesium is necessary for over 300 enzyme reactions in your body. You cannot make cellular energy without it. Pretty important stuff! You need it to move your muscles, make your heart beat, send nerve signals, have strong bones and so much more.
If stress has its grip on you, I urge you to eat more magnesium and consider talking with a health professional about supplementing with magnesium. Sometimes food alone is just not enough when there is a serious deficiency (and serious stress.) Magnesium can be taken orally, in an IV or transdermally. Try an Epsom salt soak the next time you need to relax.
Enjoy that dark chocolate.
Kirsten Serrano is a nutrition consultant, chef, farmer, food literacy educator and the best-selling author of “Eat to Your Advantage.” You can find out more about her work at SmallWonderFood.com.