Nourishing your Stressed-Out Brain
These nutritional tips can help you think more clearly and make better decisions as you navigate your divorce.
By Trish Krause, Certified Holistic Nutritionist
February 02, 2015
There are hundreds of studies that show the effects of stress on our bodies and our brains. Humans are innately capable of handling a single stressful incident without much residual effect on long-term health – but what about the chronic stress that comes as part of the lead-up to and aftermath of a divorce?
A Yale University research team has proven that stressful life events can change the shape and size of critical regions in the brain that help us navigate emotional situations, make decisions, and retain important information. You can see how that could be a problem when you’re in the midst of maneuvering through a breakup.
But the good news is that the brain is elastic, and even a stressed-out brain can re-form and re-shape itself if given the right raw materials – meaning nutrient-dense foods that feed these critical brain cells.
That’s why taking time to plan and include the right foods in your diet during this taxing time can make such a critical difference in your coping skills today and your ability to thrive post-divorce.
First, a little brain anatomy: your brain, which weighs about three pounds, is nearly 60% fat. Your brain can actually continue to grow neurons throughout your life in response to the right stimulation – including what you feed it. Your brain’s favorite food? Glucose.
Glucose? Isn’t that Sugar?
Your brain is a sugar-hog and demands a steady stream of carbohydrates (which metabolize into glucose) in order to keep it running smoothly. But that doesn’t mean that gobbling candy bars on the run between meetings or while chauffeuring kids to soccer practice will give you what you need to stay sharp. When levels of sugar in the blood fluctuate, the brain doesn’t get its steady fuel supply, and behavior and decision-making becomes more erratic. Your brain performs best without the highs and lows, and that means choosing the right carbohydrates to avoid those spikes and crashes.
To ensure sustained release, never skip a meal. Eating something small every three hours is critical. Choose carbs from whole foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and legumes, or fiber-rich grains found in oats or quinoa. Whole-wheat products can be a good choice, but read the labels carefully to ensure that it’s 100% whole wheat and not a product that’s mostly made of refined wheat flour. The more refined a grain is, the less fiber it will have in it, and the faster it will spike your blood sugar – something you want to avoid to keep your brain healthy.
Tip: An apple dipped in some nut butter is a portable on-the-go snack that will help level your blood sugar. So is a handful of almonds, a cup of yogurt, or some raw veggies with hummus.
Is Fish Really Brain Food?
Mom was right: eating fish can make you smarter! Feeding your brain with the right fats can strengthen the synapses related to memory as well as nourish the membranes of the brain cells, keeping them supple and strong so they can keep out toxins. This is crucial during the divorce process, when you need to make so many decisions that will affect the rest of your life in such a short period of time.
Fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, cod, or halibut are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that people with high levels of omega-3s reduce their risk of dementia and slow mental decline, so plan to eat fish at least three times a week for optimal brain health.
You can also find omega-3s in walnuts and flax seeds; use the oils as salad dressing or stir-ins to yogurt or smoothies, or grind the flax seeds and include them in baked goods, meatloaf, or oatmeal. Both cauliflower and Brussels sprouts also contain very good levels of omega-3s.
Tip: Just a quarter-cup of raw walnuts a day will give you your daily requirement of omega-3s.
The Building Blocks of Calm
Staying calm through the process of working out divorce details can be a challenge. Proteins in your diet can greatly affect your ability to stay even-keeled because they’re made up of amino acids from which neurotransmitters are made. These neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that carry signals from one part of the brain to another – for cognition, reasoning, creativity, problem solving, etc. The more you nourish these neurotransmitters, the better your judgment will be when it comes to analysing the financial data and facts about your divorce.
One particular amino acid – tryptophan – is especially critical. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, the hormone that helps keep us calm, balanced, and happy. Given the emotionally-charged scenario of most divorce negotiations, staying calm under pressure is imperative if you want to make the best decisions for your future.
Turkey, chicken, salmon, yogurt, eggs, and cacao are all good sources of tryptophan. For those who prefer to eat a plant-strong diet, dark leafy greens – such as kale, spinach, and chard – as well as mushrooms, pumpkin or sunflower seeds will also feed your neurotransmitters.
Tip: Chocolate can indeed help to calm a stressed-out brain. It contains a compound called theobromine, which increases blood flow – exactly what a hard-working brain needs. So enjoy your daily bite of dark chocolate as long as it’s made from raw cacao and is at least 70-85% cacao.
Snack Smart when Under Pressure
Don’t let stressful times drive you to the chips and chocolate cupboard and derail your health. If you’re searching for a snack, this one is fast, easy and will satisfy you whether you have a sweet tooth, or a salty or crispy craving.
Sweet and Salty Chickpea “Popcorn”
Makes 2 cups, 4 servings
1 (19 fl oz) can organic chickpeas, drained, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp coconut oil (melted)
1/2 tsp sea salt (you can use regular salt if you can’t find this)
1/2 tsp coconut sugar
Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Mix the cinnamon, salt and sugar in a bowl.
Toss the chickpeas in the melted coconut oil and add the seasonings. Toss to coat evenly.
Spread the chickpeas out evenly on the baking sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes, stirring / shaking the pan once halfway through to avoid burning.
When ready, the chickpeas should be golden and mostly crisp. Note: you may need to bake a little longer as some chickpeas are more moist than others.
Keep in a paper bag no more than two days – they start to soften. However, you can re-crisp them under a low broiler for 1-2 minutes.
Trish Krause (CNP, NNCP) is a certified holistic nutritionist. She specializes in teaching busy, stressed-out people how to navigate their nutrition journey while juggling the demands of families, work, and life. At Bite Out of Life Nutrition & Lifestyle Coaching, Trish works both face-to-face and remotely with her clients. Compassionate and approachable, she offers expert lifestyle guidance and fact-based holistic nutrition expertise to help her clients make healthy, long-lasting choices.
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