Stress is at an all-time high among Americans, and one lingering side effect of the pandemic is shaping up to be a national mental health crisis. How does that affect you? When stressed your brain chemical cortisol spikes, causing you to reach for all the wrong foods like sugary or salty snacks. If you can break the cycle of stress-to-stress eating you can not only lower your stress but also eat to be heart healthier, have more energy, keep blood sugar low and steady and even lose weight.

The study about stress points out that it's running especially high among younger Americans, according to a new study by the American Psychological Association (APA) who are facing uncertainty just as they are reaching adulthood. Feelings of anxiety and stress are creating serious health manifestations, including low energy, poor diet choices, weight gain, and an increase in lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

When stressed, the brain chemical cortisol spikes, and it tells us to act. Oftentimes that takes the form of sending us into a search to feel better, and if you can't go for a hike or do something soothing, your brain sends you signals that get interpreted as cravings for sugar or chips, to try to feel better, but reaching for unhealthy foods is the opposite of what is going to relieve our stress. There is one thing we can do to curtail stress and its symptoms: Eat healthier, says one doctor who is a nutrition expert and wants to help Americans dial back our risk of heart disease. The most powerful tool we have to fight stress and end cravings, to have more energy, and to lower our risk of heart disease?  Eat high-fiber foods.

"The same foods that are effective in fighting stress also benefit your heart," explains Dr. Steven Masley, a nutrition and health expert and author of the upcoming book: Your 30 Day Heart Tune-Up. "It's been proven that there is a gut-brain connection. What you eat affects your gut bacteria and your gut health rules your brain health and your heart health," Dr. Masley says. And the best way to shift the entire system, and stop giving into stress-related cravings, is to eat a healthier diet, low in sugar and high in fiber, which only exists in plant-based foods. "If you want to lower stress, you have to ditch sugar, flour, and animal fat and focus your diet around high fiber foods, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds," Masley tells us. Once you give up added sugar and refined flour–which cause surges in blood sugar, and leads to cravings–you'll be able to stop making poor dietary decisions. If this sounds like a vicious cycle, that's because it is, Masley explains.

"Blood sugar spikes cause chaos in the body, and lead to your cortisol to go up," Masley explains. To end the unhealthy cycle and help your mood and energy, avoid sugar and flour, he explains. And to lower your risk of heart disease, stay away from red meat, which can add to the problem by causing the gut bacteria to produce TMAO, which leads to hardening of the arteries and eventually heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Cutting out red meat lowers your heart attack risk by 62 percent, he says, citing a study published in JAMA.

"The gut rules the brain; 80 percent of neurotransmitters are created in the gut, although they act on the brain," Masley explains. "While neurotransmitters like serotonin and cortisol affect the brain, they are produced in the gut, so what you eat has a direct impact on your brain chemistry." He wants to educate Americans on how to take control of their diet, their mental health, and their heart health, simply by choosing foods high in fiber and low in added sugar and processed flour. "The Mediterranean diet is a start, but it's healthier to do it without all the flour in pizza or pasta and bread," he adds. We interviewed Dr. Masley on exactly what to eat, and what else you can do in your daily life to lower your daily stress and keep your mind, heart, and body healthier now and later.

Young Americans Are Even More Stressed Than Other Generations

Stress is rampant and it's making us feel sick, exhausted, and reach for the wrong foods to feel better, according to the latest research. All ages of Americans have been "profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic," reports a recent APA survey. The current stress levels Americans are feeling are causing "real consequences on our minds and bodies," the report states: "We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come, the APA report concludes.

Nearly 3 in 4 Americans are suffering stress due to the uncertain future, an all-time high for this survey. The hardest hit, Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) are experiencing a pivotal time in their adulthood when the future looks uncertain, the report found. Older Americans are more likely to be able to tell themselves: This too shall pass.

 When faced with stress, we eat the wrong foods

Americans reach for processed foods and sugar when stressed, exactly what not to eat to lower your daily stress levels, says Dr. Masley. We caught up with Dr. Masley on his sailboat in the Grenadines, in the Caribbean, where he is controlling stress by working and writing from a beautiful location with a view of vast expanses of sapphire blue water and dotted hillsides in the distance. The location made us even more confident that the advice Dr. Masley has to give will lead us to calmer waters, conquer cravings and feel better, no matter where we live and work.

"Eating healthier is a proven way to improve your circulation, your mood and your life," Dr. Masley told us. "Heart disease today is still the number one killer of American men and women and what's amazing is that we can prevent 90 percent of it."

Stress is a contributing factor, he explains, because it leads us to reach for all the wrong foods, and eat an unhealthy diet of animal fat, added sugar, and processed foods to try to soothe our anxious brains. This ends up having the exact opposite effect. Here's what to eat to feel better, and help our heart and mental health.

Stress eating of unhealthy food causes inflammation, heart disease, and low energy

"What happens if we don’t manage stress? It sends our hormones into chaos. The result is a rise in adrenaline and cortisone levels, brain shrinkage, and extra weight around your waistline. The worst part is you lose control," Dr. Masly writes on his website. If we can tame our stress by exercising, finding joy in our daily lives, expressing love, and eating a healthy diet of high fiber foods, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds, we can lower our daily stress.

"Everything gets better when you improve your diet: Your circulation, your sex life, and your stress," he says. When you eat healthy plant-based foods high in fiber and minimally processed (vegetables, fruit, and nuts) the gut releases healthy bacteria which allows the body to operate calmly, without inflammation, so your blood circulation improves, oxygen and energy flows better to your cells, and you have more energy and feel calmer. This healthy gut bacteria not only protects us from heart disease but other conditions like high blood pressure and weight gain.

What to eat to keep blood sugar steady and your stress in check

1. Food: First what to avoid: Eating sugar and processed flour is the number one cause for heart disease, memory loss, and stress. You think you are eating to feel better but these foods actually drive up cravings and upset our cortisol and hormone balance. It sends them into this cycle of improper eating.

Aim for the Mediterranean Diet but with less flour, less sugar, so cut out the pasta and pizza and refined flour bread. The low-glycemic Mediterranean diet is the goal, high in fiber-foods like vegetables and fruit, to stabilize your blood sugar, appetite, and cortisol. The key to eating healthy is to experience fewer surges of blood sugar. That causes chaos. The best diet to follow is one that is high in nutrients and low in sugar.  If you cut out processed flour and added sugar, you cut out food sources that make your blood sugar go up.

2. Cut out animal fat and choose plant-based protein. We are now certain of the gut connection to your brain. Your brain function is dependant on your gut. If you treat the gut right, by eating high fiber foods and low glycemic foods, the brain neurotransmitters like serotonin react positively,. These neurotransmitters are 80 percent produced in your gut. The brain-gut connection has been well studied. Studies have shown a connection between gut bacteria and Alzheimer's and memory, sharpness, and brain health. The gut regulates heart health as well: If you eat red meat, your gut creates TMAO, which is one of the leading causes of heart disease. If you lower your TMAO, you also lower your risk factors for heart disease.

If you want to go vegan or plant-based or just cut out all animal fat (in meat and dairy), you can lower your risk of heart disease. By eating the right foods and improving your gut microbiome, you improve your risk of ever suffering a heart attack by 62 percent.

3. Eat delicious foods from plant sources. Let's focus on the foods we should add Plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, spices, essentially all sources of fiber that don't include ground-up or processed flour. So eat more colorful plant-based pigments, all types of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and even a small amount of dark chocolate. By doing this you can keep your cortisol and stress in check. That also means you avoid cravings.

Specifically, eat green leafy vegetables every day such as spinach, kale, and salad greens. The fiber will help the gut bacteria by shifting from bad bacteria to healthy bacteria. Add in legumes and spices and healthy fat from avocado or extra virgin olive oil

Add fuit for the rich array of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber, especially cherries, which are so great for you. And citrus for vitamin C and fiber, to lower blood sugar

Use spices such as turmeric and chili pepper to lower inflammation

Eat beans and legumes, for protein which provide fiber, protein and keep you full.

Focus on heart-healthy fat from nuts, avocado, and dark chocolate.

What is a day of eating for heart health and to de-stress, and what is a healthy snack

Breakfast: Make a smoothie, with fruit, but no sugar, and add some protein powder. I use all kinds of berries and cherries. Cherries provide texture, and they are great for you.

Lunch: Salad: Stir-fried with protein or salad with protein, with as many vegetables as possible

Snack: A handful of mixed nuts. Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamia nuts. These are full of healthy fats which improve blood pressure and keep blood sugar steady. Just 2 ounces of nuts a day can decrease the lifetime risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating a small serving of nuts before dinner raises your satiety. I recommend eating plant-based fiber and healthy fats from nuts, olive oil, avocado, and a small amount of dark chocolate.

Dinner: Half my plate is vegetables, either steamed or lightly stir-fried. I will add herbs and spices and olive oil or lemon juice. I like to make sure I always eat a diverse diet that includes: Asparagus, green beans, sauteed spinach, and beans as a protein source.

What else can you do to imrove your stress and feel better, more energized

To feel better and control stress, there are other steps you can take, Masley says:

Activity: Get Exercise Daily, including cardio and strength training. Figure out what you love to do and move an hour a day, even if it's just going for long walks.

Get Enough Sleep, which will set the body up for eating healthier and having the energy to move more.

Find someone to love, which is essential to the human condition. essential to love people and have fun. We have to love others. Sharing our emotions is soothing and therapeutic.

Have to have fun in life. get calm and relax, Having fun is critical to managing stress and managing depression. It does not need to be on a sailboat. It can be going to the store. It can be playing with the dog. Optimism has been linked in studies to lowering mortality.

So to reduce stress: Eat more high-fiber foods, stay away from added sugar, processed flour and red meat and animal fat, and try to exercise daily. Then have fun, sharing your life with those you love, Dr. Masley says. And tell yourself: This too shall pass.

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