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Keep calm this Christmas

Focus on self-care this Christmas and keep your stress in check, says Louise Murray

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Stressed? Exhausted? You’re not alone. This year has been extremely hard for all of us, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’re heading into a festive season that will be quite unlike any other. What with working from home and social distancing, trying to hold an enjoyable family Christmas is going to be quite a challenge in 2020 and is likely to take its toll on our mental as well as our physical health.

What you eat has the power to influence your hormones and your neurotransmitters, which control how you feel and has the power to help ease your stress or increase it. When you eat things like refined sugar and coffee it increases inflammation and stress hormone production. Other foods have the power to help induce calmness. There really is such a thing as mood food … sometimes we’re in a bad mood for no explicable reason; we might feel tired, sluggish, uninspired, down on ourselves and sad. Other times we feel light and easy. Your mood is really affected by what you put into your body – by the foods you choose to eat or not eat.

Life happens, and there will always be things that are stressful, but you can give yourself the best possible chance of remaining in a positive mood by changing how you nourish your body. So let’s look at how we can use food to nourish your mind this festive season!

Some things to reduce


Caffeine blocks your production of GABA – nature’s Valium – which is responsible for our feelings of calmness and happiness. Caffeine is also a stressor that can cause the hormone adrenaline to spike. As the levels of adrenaline lower, this causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to spike. Caffeine basically exaggerates your stress response and reactions. So, if you want to try and minimise anxiety, stress, feeling down or negative thoughts then try swapping out coffee with alternative energy-boosting drinks like a turmeric latte.

Refined sugar

Unprocessed sugar (natural, unrefined, raw honey, fruits, veg) contains vitamins, enzymes, proteins and minerals. Refined sugar is very different. It lacks vitamins, minerals and fibre and thus requires extra effort from the body to digest. It also enters swiftly into the bloodstream and wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels, first pushing them sky-high – causing excitability, nervous tension, and hyperactivity – and then dropping them extremely low, causing fatigue, depression, weariness, and exhaustion. Health-conscious people are aware that their blood sugar levels fluctuate wildly on a sugar-induced high, but they often don’t realise the emotional rollercoaster ride that accompanies this high. We feel happy and energetic for a while, and then, suddenly, inexplicably, we find ourselves arguing with a friend or having less patience with the kids – we crash in energy and mood and ability to deal with stress and stressful situations.

Natural stress-relievers


Nature’s chill pill, magnesium suppresses stress hormones and also blocks the entrance of stress hormones to the brain.

The problem is that many of us don’t get enough of it in our diets and, on top of this, our lifestyles deplete what little we do get; stress, alcohol, caffeine, soft drinks, and antibiotics all deplete magnesium. Boost your magnesium levels by packing your diet with plenty of leafy greens, nuts and seeds (especially cashews, brazil nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds), cacao, avocado, banana, quinoa, brown rice and oats.


Adaptogens are really magical as they work to bring your body back into balance. Rather than the fake energy surges of caffeine or sugar, adaptogens improve the health of the adrenal system, the system in charge of managing your body’s response to stress. Adaptogens help your body to cope better with stress by modulating the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. If you feel overwhelmed and anxious they can calm you and ground you. If you feel run down and worn out, they can give you energy to get you back on your feet and feel able to tackle your day again. When it feels like life is coming at you at 200 miles an hour they can be the trick up your sleeve to help regulate cortisol, and help keep you level-headed and calm when under pressure. They also help you rest and sleep better. My favourites for regulating stress are ashwagandha, maca, rhodiola and reishi.


Stress can ratchet up levels of anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like salmon, chia seeds and flax) have anti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones.

Fermented foods

Since up to 90 per cent of your body’s serotonin, your happy hormone, is produced in your gut, a healthy gut may correspond to a good mood. Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut are rich in probiotics that support gut health and mood. In addition, the gut microbiome plays a role in brain health. Research is beginning to show a connection between healthy gut bacteria and lower rates of depression.


Remember to breathe!

Stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. These precious seconds may be the difference between losing your cool and responding calmly; between feeling overwhelmed and staying focused. If you’re not breathing optimally, you’re robbing yourself of energy. The way you breathe may be causing you to feel tired, fatigued, foggy, and uninspired. This is because proper, controlled breathing ensures an optimal oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange. This is vital for high energy and mental alertness levels.

The following exercise focuses on deep, diaphragmatic breathing. This means we’re not using our chest or upper body to breathe. On the inhale, your lower belly should rise outwardly. On the exhale, the lower belly moves inwardly, towards the navel. These movements draw air into the lungs, and not just the upper lungs, as in chest breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing fills every part your lungs, including the lower parts. Do this simple breathing exercise twice a day or whenever you feel your stress levels rising:


Learn to say no!

It’s okay to say no sometimes, and to not take on extra work when you don’t think you can manage it or it will stress you out. Remember to look after yourself as much as you look after others around you, or you could be in danger of burning out. ‘No’ is such a small word, yet so hard to say! You can say no and still be a good friend, colleague, sister and person. Sometimes you’ve just got to take care of you. Here are a few ways you can say no:

Louise Murray is a Mindfulness Coach and an Integrated Health Coach with the qualification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. She looks at nourishing people on and off the plate by coaching them with nutrition advice as well as coaching around 12 different aspects of one’s life to take a truly holistic approach to wellness. Visit and @live_well_with_lou

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