How Carbs Affect Stress Levels (Plus What to Eat to Keep Calm)

October 23, 2020


Tamar Samuels

Are you scared to eat carbs? With the popularity of low-carb and keto diets, more people feel completely confused and maybe even guilty about eating carbohydrates. While these diets may be helpful for some chronic diseases like epilepsy, they are not beneficial for everyone and can even be harmful. In part, this is because poor nutrition and anxiety are closely linked. Want to learn about nutrition and anxiety? Here’s how to embrace a balanced relationship with carbs to help you feel less stressed.


How does stress impact your health?

First, let’s start with a basic understanding of the body’s stress response. The stress response is a complex group of hormones and neurotransmitters that are controlled by the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis connects the nervous and endocrine systems to regulate stress hormone production.

Acute stressors like running from a life-threatening situation and chronic stressors like worry and fear both activate the HPA axis. This triggers the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (noradrenaline), epinephrine (adrenaline), and cortisol.

These neurotransmitters and hormones produce physiological changes in the body, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. During fight-or-flight, our heartbeat, blood pressure, and pulse rate increase to provide more blood to the muscles, brain, and vital organs. Breathing becomes more rapid, and the airways in the lungs open, allowing us to take up as much oxygen as possible to send to our brain and muscles. Blood sugar (or glucose) and fats also flow into the bloodstream to supply energy to our tissues. As a result, our senses become sharper, and we are more alert when the stress response is activated.

These physiological changes occur so quickly that we’re often unaware they are even happening. This helps us to respond to danger almost without thinking. The stress response was adapted to help us survive life-threatening situations, but it can also be activated by chronic, non-life-threatening stressors like sleep deprivation, traffic, a stressful boss, and even Instagram!

In these situations, the stress response can have some negative consequences. Chronic stress can cause long-term glucocorticoid (like cortisol) secretion, increasing fat mass, insulin resistance, and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

What is the link between nutrition, anxiety, and carbs?

Glucose, or blood sugar, is the breakdown product of carbohydrates and is also the body’s primary fuel source. The body works really hard to maintain a steady level of glucose in the blood so that we have enough energy.

When our blood sugar gets too low, it triggers the stress response, releasing glucocorticoids. It’s your body’s way of alerting you that you need glucose fast! Instead of waiting for you to eat, the body self-regulates (this is called homeostasis) and mobilizes glucose from the liver and muscles, bringing blood sugar levels back to normal.

Eaten alone, refined carbohydrates and sweets can disrupt your blood sugar homeostasis by causing a sharp spike in blood sugar, followed by a plummet in blood sugar. This big drop in blood sugar triggers the stress response and can even result in symptoms that resemble anxiety.

Low-carb diets, especially low-carb and low-fat diets, can also trigger the stress response because the body isn’t as efficient at getting energy from protein and fat as it is from getting glucose from carbs. This results in an increase in cortisol and a sensation of anxiety.


What are the best types of carbs to eat for anxiety and stress?

Which carbs are good? Which carbs are bad? Labeling foods as good or bad is a slippery slope to disordered eating, so instead, let’s think about optimizing your carb intake for the outcome you want– less anxiety! You can embrace carbohydrates and learn how to use them to support your stress hormones and calm anxiety.
First, let’s talk about the best carbs to eat to keep your blood sugar steady.
Complex carbohydrates like whole grains take the longest to digest and produce a steady stream of glucose to support balanced blood sugar levels. As you now know, this is one key to managing anxiety because it calms the stress response.
The carbohydrates listed below are optimal for managing this hypoglycemia-initiated stress response:

Root Vegetables:

Black beans
Cannellini beans

Whole Grains
Black or Wild Rice

Are refined carbs like white bread and sweets like candies and cookies completely off-limits? Nope, you can still enjoy them as part of a balanced diet, but they should make up a smaller portion of the total carbohydrates you consume. It’s especially important to have refined carbs and sweets with other foods, particularly protein and/or fat, to help slow their absorption and minimize their impact on your stress hormones.


How many carbs should you eat?

This depends on the person, and factors like age, health, and physical activity level can greatly impact how many carbohydrates an individual should eat. Generally speaking – roughly 45-65% of your total calories should come from carbohydrates, and most of those should be complex, like the ones listed above! You don’t have to count calories or track macros to find the right amount of carbs for your body. You can simply hit these goals by increasing your intake of nutrient-dense carbs.

When is the best time to eat carbs?

Adding complex carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes to meals and snacks is a great way to stabilize your blood sugar and, ultimately, your cortisol levels.  Eating every 2 – 4 hours will also help prevent your blood sugar from dipping too low. For best blood sugar control, add a source of protein and fat to your carb intake. If you have a medical condition like diabetes, we recommend working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to determine the best carbohydrate timing and portion size for you.

The bottom line

Growing evidence shows a link between nutrition and anxiety. If you have anxiety or experience chronic stress, you may find that balancing your blood sugar with complex carbs can bring some relief. Reaching out to a mental health professional is also a great idea and something we always support here at Culina Health.

Have more questions about carbohydrates and stress? At Culina Health, we provide personalized nutrition care with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that’s covered by insurance. Schedule a free intro call to get started!

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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