How To Eat Well Under Pressure

Stress is part of everyday life. According to NHS Choices stress becomes an issue when pressure becomes too great and creates feelings of being unable to cope. Stress can be related to work, personally or both.

When we are stressed adrenalin and cortisol are released – which are helpful in the short term – making us more alert, giving us more energy, and making us more able to focus on work deadlines. It’s when stress becomes a significant part of everyday life that these two hormones become more of a problem. When we are chronically stressed, blood sugar levels alter, immune system becomes depressed, digestive problems occur, sleep and reproductive system start to alter. Work stress starts to affect our personal life, and personal stress starts to encroach on working hours.

In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases, and 45% of all lost working days due to ill health – particularly in education, health, social care, public administration and defence.  In most cases the stress is a result of workload pressures, tight deadlines, too great responsibility, and insufficient management support.[ii] According to data, more than half of Americans (56%) have reported feeling stressed in the past six months, with younger generations reporting higher stress levels than older ones.

Chronic stress has also been linked to depression and anxiety as adrenalin and cortisol affect areas of the brain responsible for maintaining emotional equilibrium [iii].

The brain relies on certain nutrients for its structure, performance, and for hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis – including how we respond to stress. When stressed, a biochemical cascade occurs in the body – commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response – which involves certain parts of the brain (hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal (HPA) axis). Certain nutrients are involved in the stress response to create the hormones adrenalin and cortisol – namely B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. Interestingly the same nutrients are also required to make serotonin (which is the calming neurotransmitter). Chronic stress can deplete many of these nutrients if they are not consumed regularly though the diet, and thereby reduce our ability to make these hormones and neurotransmitters, and also de-stress!.i  The following are used in the creation of adrenalin and cortisol:

  • B vitamin food sources include: lentils, tuna, chicken, salmon, turkey, beef [iv]
  • The highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body are found in the brain and adrenal glands. Food sources of vitamin C include: peppers, strawberries, broccoli, oranges, grapefruitiii
  • Magnesium food sources include: oat bran, brown rice, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, spinachiii
  • Zinc food sources include: oysters, beef, crab, turkey, chicken, pork, baked beans, cashewsiii
  • Essential Fatty Acids (omega 3 and 6) are involved in the release of neurotransmitters, and although not directly linked to the stress response they are still of crucial importance. Omega 3 and omega 6 are known as ‘essential’ fatty acids as we cannot create them – they need to be consumed in our diet. The brain is approximately 60% fat at dry weight , and of this 60% it is estimated 20% is made up of these essential fatty acids and unfortunately over the last few decades our consumption of omega 3 has decreased.i Food sources of omega 3 include: sardines, mackerel, kippers, salmon, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, linseed/flaxseed.

As part of the fight and slight response to stress, blood sugar rises as cortisol is making cells more resistant to insulin. In the longer term this is Diabetes.  So one general way to balance the pressure is to reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates (cakes, biscuits, sweets, fizzy drinks) eaten during meetings, provided during working lunches and available in vending machines. Instead choose low Glycaemic Index/Glycaemic Load foods which have a more stable effect on blood sugar.

Here are some examples of healthy alternatives which can be bought or taken into work. Try swapping:

  • Coffee, tea for green tea, Rooibos (red bush tea)
  • White bread, bagels for granary, seeded bread
  • White rice, pasta for brown rice, pasta
  • White potatoes for sweet potatoes
  • Bananas, grapes, raisins, mango for apple, pear, berries
  • Fizzy drinks for sparkling water
  • Biscuits for a handful of nuts, seeds, piece fruit
  • Low fat yogurt for full fat yogurt

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There is a general guideline – each time you eat something try to makes sure there is protein, fibre, or good fat in the same meal. This slows down the speed of glucose release into the blood from the food. An example would be to eat a handful of nuts when eating a banana.

Stimulants are not your friend when you are stressed. Grabbing a coffee is a great way to take a break and catch-up with colleagues but the more caffeine you have, the more you need to have the desired effect of increased energy and motivation. It takes approximately a week to recover energy levels when you quit stimulants but it does happen. If you would like to reduce coffee/tea/fizzy drinks consider reducing the quantity starting from the latest one during the day and work backwards.

Alcohol is often an ice breaker during work social events, and meeting up outside of work with colleagues over a drink can help to build positive working relationships and broaden networks. Alcohol may also appear to assist you in de-stressing as initially it is relaxing because it switches off adrenalin by increasing GABA (calming neurotransmitter), but longer term and in greater quantity it will effect your sleep cycle making you more tired and irritable. You may achieve the same number of hours sleep but the quality deep sleep is limited.

Lastly two general tips. If you are about to embark on a meeting make sure you have eaten before the start of the meeting to boost and maintain blood sugar levels, improve your energy, focus and moods. If you can, always try take a break – take a walk outside or stand by a window looking outside. We need natural daylight to help maintain our sleep cycles. Sleep (both quantity and quality) is of vital importance to assist in helping you balance the stress response.

[ii] Health & Safety Executive. Work related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain 2016.

[iii] McCabe D, Colbeck M 2015 The effectiveness of essential fatty acid, B vitamin, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc supplementation for managing stress in women: a systematic review protocol. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep Aug 14;13(7): 104-18

[iv] Higdon J 2003 An evidence based approach to vitamins and minerals.

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Image by Oluwaseun Duncan via

About the author:

Anjanette Fraser is a Director of The Natural Alternative Health & Wellbeing Ltd educating companies and their employees on the importance of nutrition in health – both corporate and personal. Since the company inception over 10 years ago its national coverage has been hugely beneficial working with large and small organisations over multiple locations. Anjanette is currently studying a MSc in Nutritional Medicine ensuring the information clients receive is scientific, current, and user friendly. For more information please visit