The more we know about health and wellness, the more obvious it becomes that chronic stress can undermine even the healthiest of diets and exercise plans. Ironically, many people become even more stressed just thinking about how they can possibly manage their stress – the pressure to manage stress can often become something else to check off the to-do list.
I want to offer another lens in which to view stress: the very diet and lifestyle changes you are taking or considering, are the exact same strategies that are actually best for de-stressing. Follow my strategy to eat a higher fat, higher quality diet and you’ll be baking two keto cakes with one batter, and making your body healthier on a physiological, mental, emotional and spiritual level as you do it! If you’re still unsure, learn more about what to expect in the first 30 days of keto.
First, let’s gain a little more understanding of exactly how stress works. A well-constructed ketogenic diet can naturally decrease stress, and yet conversely, high levels of chronic stress can counteract the benefits of a keto diet.
One of the most important communication loops in your body is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis. This axis communicates top-down: your brain talks to your hypothalamus, which sends a chemical signal to your pituitary (P), which releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to turn on the cortisol (and adrenaline) output from your adrenals so that your adrenals release stress hormones.1 When cortisol reaches high enough levels, it suppresses H and P to help regulate your fight or flight response. Many people are familiar with the term, “adrenal fatigue” as the state of burnout. It’s not that your adrenals aren’t working, but rather that after a chronic stimulation of stress hormones, the communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands break down.2,3
Keep in mind that your stress response has evolved to outwit predators and avoid starvation, and not necessarily to handle the pressures from managing a work: life balance or long hours in traffic per se. Modern living swells with sources of stress unrelated to life-or-death situations: Sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, social interactions, anemia, and other health conditions, over-exercising, existential anxieties, job stresses, parental duties, financial concerns, political concerns, having a new baby, moving to a new home… this list could easily continue for pages. We need periods of stress and relaxation, feast and famine, movement and rest to be healthy and in this modern life so many of us are challenged to have this balance.4
The keto and stress connection is interesting because it can work both ways. High levels of stress can make it difficult to initially become keto-adapted, and keto can potentially be too much stress on an already overstressed person. For example, if you’re new to a keto diet and having trouble transitioning to becoming a fat burner and experiencing keto-flu symptoms, this could be because cortisol levels are high. Cortisol increases blood sugar, which increases insulin and decreases ketones.5,6 In fact, it’s this exact same reason that if you know you’re under a lot of stress, it might be worth looking at ways to lower your stress before going full force into a ketogenic diet.
In my experience, there are three main types of stress that we regularly encounter in our daily lives. The ones I touched on above all fit into one of these categories but breaking them down like this has always been helpful for me to see where I can most feasibly make changes.
These are the types of stressors you most often think of and could be a wide range of factors such as a birth or death, wedding, a dysfunctional relationship, long work hours or financial worry.3,7,8
These stressors could include a recent or past surgery or injury, over-exercise (or lack of movement too), over or under-eating, lack of sleep or dehydration, lack of touch and connection.9,10,11,12
This category involves the toxins our bodies are exposed to on a daily basis, including those found in foods, beverages, the environment (air and water), and personal hygiene and home care products.13,14,15 The key to managing stress is taking a realistic look at what you can and cannot change.16 Perhaps this is saying “no” to certain social events, asking your partner or other friends or family for help, seeing if you can cut down on work hours or responsibilities or carving out 30 minutes several times per week for exercise and/or deep breathing and meditation.17 Another major factor that is often easier to control is our diet. The act of cutting out inflammatory, processed foods, and refined carbs18 and replacing them with organic, whole foods can seriously decrease stress in and of itself, which is exactly what you’re doing when choosing a keto lifestyle.
Simply put: a diet high in carbs and sugar makes you stressed, and it does so in a few ways. One is the increase of cortisol discussed above, the body’s main stress hormone. While refined grains like white flour, bread, pasta, and cookies certainly put more of stress on your body than complex carbs like whole grains and beans, all dietary carbohydrates are broken down into sugar. This means that ultimately all types of carbohydrates have a far higher blood-sugar spiking effect than fat and protein.2,3 Chronically elevated blood sugar causes inflammation and cellular stress, which then puts even more demand on your adrenals to pump out more stress hormones. It is a vicious cycle that eventually ends in insulin resistance and sometimes, type 2 diabetes.1,19
Adopting a keto diet has just the opposite effect. Instead of taking you on a blood sugar rollercoaster, it results in sustained blood sugar, balanced hormones, lower levels of cortisol and all-around homeostasis by eating a wide variety of mouth-watering fats.20 However, if you are dealing with adrenal fatigue or HPA dysfunction, you might benefit from a period of including plenty of nutritious starchy veggies, as these can play an important role in healing the body from stress. If you feel you need a little complex carbohydrate during your adaptation period I suggest following my strategy outlined in Glow15 to eat fats first and carbs last.
Here are my top twelve keto-friendly foods that provide specific nutrients to help you lower stress. These foods can’t do the massive job of stress management by themselves, but they can be an incredible tool alongside a regular self-care practice that I hope you can implement into your diet immediately.
Loaded with fiber and magnesium, which is an “anti-stress” nutrient that allows your muscles and nerves to relax.21,22
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids shown to combat mood swings, depression, and improve cognitive performance. If wild salmon isn’t accessible due to price or location, try a high-quality fish oil.23,24,25.26
High in potassium, which helps to protect the normal function of muscle and nerve activity.27,28,29,30
High in both magnesium and molybdenum, a mineral that helps to regulate breathing and heartbeat.31,32,33,34
Sprinkle on salads or any other dish. It is high in B Vitamins, which are essential for your nervous system, heart palpitations, and depression.35,36,37
Rich in pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5), which improves your ability to respond to stress by supporting your adrenal glands.38,39
High in Vitamin C, which helps protect cells from free radical damage and helps prevent colds and infections. Papaya is not necessarily keto-friendly, but one to include if you are taking a cyclic keto approach, for example. This advanced keto approach can be helpful for many once you are well keto-adapted. If you are following a more classic keto approach, try bell peppers or kiwi for a lower carb source of Vitamin C.40,41,42,43
High in B-Vitamins and mood-stabilizing nutrients zinc and iron.44,45
High in anti-oxidants, which protect against free radicals and high in Vitamin C as well.46,47,48,49
Keto-friendly, veggie-based fermented foods like raw sauerkraut and kimchi are an excellent way to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Imbalances of gut bacteria have been linked with anxiety and other mood and mental disorders.50,51,52
I was excited to find research that high quality, 70% or higher dark chocolate can reduce cortisol and other stress hormones. Don’t go overboard, keep in mind that a serving is one ounce.53,54
High in tryptophan, an amino acid that can help with sleep and elevating mood.55,56,57,58,59
Armed with these foods to de-stress alongside a healthy dose of self-care and learning how to press your pause button, your keto diet and lifestyle can be the perfect approach to health and healing. It certainly has been for me, and I’m confident it can be for you too!