Good Food & Bad Moods - A Guide to the Human Stress Response

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Good Food & Bad Moods - A Guide to the Human Stress Response

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From an evolutionary perspective, we were meant to be stressed. We were meant to be out, hunting, foraging, bypassing predators and coping with the environmental damage from the wind and sun. We have genetic switches that are activated by stress and intended to be used by our bodies, though now, so often, they remain dormant and underused.

The truth of today is that we live in an obesogenic environment: one which encourages lesser use of our primal and evolutionarily acquired mechanisms that allow us to survive. We’re not hunting and foraging and eluding predators; we are ordering noodles from the couch.

In the alternate environment for which our bodies were actually designed we experience ‘hormesis’. This is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from intensive exposure to low doses of an agent that is toxic or lethal in higher doses. Exercise is a perfect example of this: studies show that where we are exposed to high levels of oxidative stress over short periods of time through intensive exercise, we experience lower levels of oxidative stress long-term.

In life, practice makes perfect, and without your stress response mechanisms regularly gaining this practice not only are they less effective overall, but they are far less responsive to the triggers that switch them on in the first place.

A traditional setting for our bodies as organisms require fast cerebral metabolism and response to our environment on both a mental and physical level. Way back when, we would need to be taking both a pragmatic and highly physical approach to acquiring food through foraging and hunting, whilst staying alert and coping with the threats of the process, either from predators or obstacles presented by the landscape. Aside from the risk of a lost Deliveroo driver, or perhaps tripping over the dog on the way to answer the door, these risk factors simply no longer apply.

Without emulating these kind of situations in some part of our modern daily life, our stress response mechanisms remain unpracticed and we leave ourselves more susceptible to the impact of low-grade, chronic stress in exactly the same way that lack of intensive exercise leaves our bodies more susceptible to injury and poor physical health. Normal wear and tear on the body, combined with low grade chronic stress and its physical consequences, is known as your ‘allostatic load’.

Chronic stress can lead not only to mood imbalances, like depression or anxiety, but also to chronic inflammation, which is associated with diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimers, autoimmune disease and Parkinson’s. Recent studies on Parkinson’s show that those diagnosed with mental illness are more than twice as likely to eventually develop Parkinson’s, and the more severe your depression, the stronger the link to Parkinson’s becomes.

This concept can also be looked at from a nutritional standpoint. Basic taste qualities like sour, salty, sweet bitter and umami serve specific functions in identifying food components found in the diet of humans and animals, and are recognised by proteins in the oral cavity. In humans, bitter-taste perception is mediated by 25 G-Protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which identify toxic plant metabolites to protect us from ingestion of poisonous food compounds.

Intake of pungent, bitter-tasting foods such as garlic, mustard, wasabi, ginger, chillies, bitter herbs and cruciferous vegetables (like kale, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower and broccoli) containing smaller amounts of toxic compounds is recognised by our body as an intensive stress factor and therefore exercises the stress response. Unsurprisingly we find in turn that regular intake of these kinds of foods is strongly linked with long-term health benefits and lower levels of inflammation. For example, clinical studies in humans show that small daily doses of powerful antioxidant sulphoraphane can have a profound effect on brain function, improving autistic scores and reducing symptoms of mental health issues like schizophrenia and alleviating depression. More on this topic can be found on some fascinating podcasts and publications by Dr. Rhonda Patrick.

In scenarios where the subject has not been directly suffering from mental health issues, compounds such as sulphoraphane have been seen to improve general mood of the individual and to have a profound effect on inflammation via a metabolic reaction called the ‘Nrf2-antioxidant response’.  There is an indisputable, long standing connection between low grade chronic mental health issues and chronic inflammation. Furthermore, a well documented connection between inflammation control and dietary intake. Needless to say, it is well worth taking into account the impact of dietary choices on mood and cognition when considering your own mental health.

Another key factor in regulating mood and physical health is the body’s efficiency at healing post impact of encounters with stress. Just like we require rest periods from exercise to rebuild damaged tissues, we need a certain period of time to enable us to recover our optimal brain chemistry after a period of mental stress. Good nutrition provides us with the tools and building materials to do this. Without the correct materials to replenish what has been lost the body enters a catabolic state, a stress response that compensates for lack of replenishing nutrients by breaking down lean muscle tissue to be internally recycled.

So what nutrients does the body most need repair tissues after stress? The best place to start is to eat little and often, regulating blood sugar levels and minimising dramatic fluctuations in energy, which can add to your allostatic load. Other foods that can add to low level chronic stress loads include caffeine, sugar, alcohol, salt and nicotine, in addition to anything particularly acid-forming like red meat, poultry, packaged foods, processed fats and carbonated drinks.

On the other hand, vitamin and mineral-rich fresh fruits and vegetables, along with sufficient (predominantly plant-based) proteins (lentils, beans, peas, okra, eggplant and high quality protein powders like Monkey Nutrition Herbivore), and Omega-3 fats (from oily fish, algae, walnuts, sprouts and flaxseed) can help nourish your body to heal sufficiently from the impact of all kinds of stress, encouraging the body to enter an anabolic (healing) state.

Many vitamins and minerals (particularly vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamin K and protein) are involved with maintaining good tissue quality, healing and repair, so it’s important to maintain a well balanced diet comprised predominantly of natural, unprocessed foods, as well as adequate supplementation. Monkey Nutrition has preformulated supplements and complexes in the ideal quantities, many with a specific focus on limiting the impact of low level, chronic stress and supporting the body’s natural anabolic processes. Here are my top Monkey picks for mood support:


Monkey Nutrition’s mood enhancing formula has been designed specifically for this purpose, 'regulating neurotransmitters and hormones which allow the body to manage stress and manufacture more anabolic hormones necessary for recovery’. Ingredients such as B-vitamins, calcium and magnesium, which we mentioned above, along with additional supplements such as 5-HTP, chamomile and particularly ashwagandha, which has been proven to reduce stress on the brain by 80% and cortisol levels by 26% on average, and is also a key player in elevation of GABA (calming neurotransmitters that have complementary effects to acetylcholine), amongst others. This supplement will not only improve brain function and healing but promote a sense of wellbeing, good sleep patterns, muscle growth and fat loss.


There are three essential Omega-3’s: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA/DHA are also the nutrients most used by our bodies, contributing to the structure of the brain,  proper functioning of the neuroendocrine system, reducing inflammation and preventing cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Fish oil consumption also helps to support serotonin levels in the body, which is also known as the ‘feel good’ hormone. By supplementing with fish oil, you will naturally support your own serotonin production, which will help contribute to a healthy stress response.


Green tea contains two compounds particularly useful for brain health and mental wellbeing. EGCG is a polyphenol is the most bioactive compound in green tea that acts as a powerful antioxidant, neutralising oxidative damage caused by free radicles, thus preventing disease, and reducing inflammation. It is also linked to better mood, memory and cognitive function. Additionally green tea is a source of the amino acid L-Theanine, known for its relaxing, non-sedative effect. It is renowned for focus and concentration, whilst reducing stress and anxiety, as well as raising circulating serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, improving recall, learning, motivation, and positivity.


Monkey Nutrition’s IQ is a cognitive enhancement formula containing cutting edge ingredients including: St John’s wort, Huperzine-A, and vinpocetine. This supplement is specifically designed to improve memory function, neurotransmission, and mental acuity by improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, also supporting athletic performance and reaction time, supporting muscle growth and improving recovery.

Article by Phoebe Wynn-Jones. [IM]Pressed Health

In 2011, hit by a moderately-sized truck travelling at a less-than-moderate speed, Phoebe was told she wouldn't walk again. Using holistic nutrition, yoga and boxing as a means of recovery, she went on to complete her education in Biochemistry and became a qualified nutritionist in 2012. Phoebe has since consulted on, opened and developed multiple locations within the food and fitness industry in Los Angeles, New Jersey, London and New York. She is now working out of her own fight gym MBOX in East London's Forest Gate as a nutrition coach and industry consultant, specialising in nutrition for combat sports competitors and endurance athletes.


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