Workplace Wellness Series #2: 7 Foods to Tackle Stress

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Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels

Stress is that one buzzword that simply keeps coming up in everyday life – at work, at home, at school, in traffic…. or even at birthday parties and gyms! Not all stress is bad news, some of it is good stress too – in fact, stress is a necessary part of life and all the decisions that we take to exist and thrive. However, in the most colloquial sense, stress is defined as the degree to which one feels overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of unmanageable pressures.

Although there are many ways in which stress can be managed, food and nutrition can play a very important role. Eating healthy and on time is a good start, but every now & then when those deadlines begin to loom and the pressure begins to mount, our food often takes a back seat. Fluctuating blood sugars affect our mood as well as our emotional response. This in turn, sadly, starts to cause strain in interpersonal relationships and energy drain.

Here are my top 7 stress buster foods that can help to manage just those down days and some ideas on how to incorporate them into your plan as well:

Oatmeal: Carbohydrates are not just an important source of energy, they also are a great source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter extremely important for regulating mood and feelings of happiness and wellness. Simple carbohydrates from sugary cereal bars and cookies can cause a unwanted spikes and drops in blood sugar. Instead, a complex carb like oatmeal is a good way to get the serotonin and at the same time go easy on the blood sugar.

Berries: These gorgeously colorful fruits are rich in antioxidants and flavonoids. While antioxidants help in fighting the stress effects of free radicals, flavonoids have been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce depressive tendencies and improve mood. Blueberries have been shown to increase natural killer cells that are vital in immunity and critical for stress defense. Raspberries, red currants, grapes, blackberries, strawberries (watch out of pesticide levels). The Indian seasonal berries are even better, jamuns(Indian blackberry), amla (Indian gooseberry), shahtoot (Indian mulberry) are a better option to keep your diet fresh and local (for my Indian audience).

Green leafy vegetables: Yes! You can’t get through many healthy lists without this group! In this list, it’s the folate, a water soluble B vitamin, that is required for healthy cell growth and metabolism and is necessary for the proper biosynthesis of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter and a mood regulator. If you want to keep your mood and stress levels in a good place, make sure you get your daily servings of green leafies. Throw in some baby spinach into a sandwich or salad and you’re done! No cooking even!

Nuts & Seeds: Power packed with nutrients, calories, good fats and stress-busting goodness. There are so many reasons to have these handy babies around – better still mix them together with some dried fruits for your own trail mix. Nuts like cashews are super rich in Zinc as well as Iron, Magnesium and Vitamin B6 and many other minerals that support the nervous system as well as influence mood. An interesting nut to add is the elegant pistachio. Research has shown that the snapping sound along with the repetitive action of working the pistachios has a calming effect on fraying nerves. They’re also rich in phytonutrients that support cardiovascular health. Seeds like flaxseed, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are another good source of omega 3s, especially for vegetarians, and can help to alleviate depression, fatigue, irritability as well as symptoms of PMS.

Bananas: My mother will particularly be pleased with this entry, bananas being her favorite fruit. Maybe that’s why she’s one of the calmest people I know! 🙂 Bananas are not just rich in Potassium, they’re also a great source of Vitamin B6 which help in optimizing nervous function and decrease stress effects and fatigue. Better news still is that bananas are a good source of serotonin – that feel good & mood elevator.

Protein: Now I know this is a macronutrient and not necessarily a food, but proteins like poultry, fish, cheeses, tofu, lentils, beans and eggs all contain an essential amino acid, essential in the creation of serotonin in the body.

And finally….

Chocolate: I had to save the best for the last! Eating 40 gm of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) has been shown to reduce stress by lowering cortisol and epinephrine levels – both notorious stress hormones. Antioxidants in the chocolate have been shown to relax the walls of blood vessels and lower blood pressure as well as improve circulation. Serotonin and other compounds in chocolate show an improvement in PMS symptoms. Lastly, the presence of anandamide (named after the Sanskrit term, ‘ananda‘ meaning ‘bliss’), a neurotransmitter that creates a sense of euphoria and bliss – similar to the feeling of being in love.

First published on LinkedIn here.

#WorkplaceWellnessWithLuvena

Workplace Wellness Series #1: Eating Well At Work

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Diet is the number one factor that impacts health status (Journal of the American Medical Association) & that healthier diets could save one in five lives every year! Even more than tobacco and high blood pressure. Workplace stress is an often cited cause for a lot of modern and urban lifestyle diseases and disorders. Poor diet and eating patterns are one of the largest contributors to increasing stress. Interestingly, while corporate wellbeing programs take into account employee physical and physiological health, nutrition and diet usually miss the spotlight. Beyond satisfying the taste buds food, nutrition plays an integral part not only in managing energy levels during working hours and ensuring optimized productivity but also towards general health markers overall.

Here are some tips to make eating well a part of your working experience:

  • Start with a good breakfast – Skipping breakfast or eating a sugary snack-bar on the run does very little to sustain energy levels during the day. A nutritious and balanced breakfast can go a long way to in managing them. Not all body constitution types would find it necessary to have a big breakfast. If you find yourself running low on fuel even before lunch hour strikes, then chances are a breakfast of slow-releasing energy would be a better option that a snack bar or sugary cereal that would create a sugar spike and crash.
  • Pack your own lunch – It’s a usual trend to and a very tempting one to just go out for lunch with your team mates or just order in something quick (and relatively unhealthy). Planning and packing in a quick lunch can be healthier where you can ensure that your daily requirements of carbs, protein, healthy fats and other nutrients are taken care of. There is also the opportunity to bond with team mates in the office itself! Which brings me to the next pointer…
  • Head to the office dining area! – Eating at your desk may be a tempting idea especially if you would be looking at multi-tasking. However, studies show that eating in a calm atmosphere is much better for the digestive process. Eating in the company of your colleagues (read pleasant company and ideally not discussing work!) adds to the experience of eating calmly and enjoying the mealtime. The break often does wonders when you get back to the task after the meal.
  • Focus on your food – Aim for at least one meal a week where you can eat in complete silence. Mindful eating can do wonders as a way of relaxation as well as a means to reduce the extra chatter from the mind. Of course, you can choose to dinnertime for this practice, but some time out from the work day is a great practice for concentrated mindfulness – paying attention to every bite, every morsel, the burst of flavors and textures, colors and aromas of spices or herbs. One step further would be attempting this with your eyes closed! I invite you to try it even if just for a moment! (and leave me a comment! 🙂 )
  • Snack smart – It is very tempting to reach out for the sinful, sugary (or salty) snacks when hit by a craving or sudden hunger pang. It helps to plan for these – let’s face it, we all have them, might as well plan for them. Keeping some small portions of fruit-nut mixes or trail mix in your drawer or packing some nuts, carrot / cucumber / celery sticks with a hummus dip along with your lunch is a good idea too!
  • Stay hydrated – Many of us seem to confuse the sensations of hunger with that of thirst – making us reach for a snack when we actually need water. Air conditioning also factors in with reduced urge to drink water and adds to dehydration. If you tend to forget, put in an hourly pop-up reminder on your calendar to ensure you have a glass of water.
  • Eat to De-stress – Make sure you include foods that can help to combat the effects of stress on the body. The Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) is a good supplement classified as an adaptogen to help the body manage stress. A variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables also add vitamins and minerals to the daily intake. Ensure omega 3s are a part of your diet as they can positively influence cardiovascular health as well as anxiety and depression.
  • Supplement when necessary – Stress has a way of depleting the vitamin reserves and/or the absorption of essential nutrients in the body. Vitamin C has been shown to deplete under stressful conditions. When excessive workplace stress may lead to insufficient nutrition from an average diet, it is worthwhile to supplement with high quality multivitamins, Omega 3s and essential nutrients – preferably organic. Read labels and research manufacturer guidelines taking care to watch out for heavy metals and fillers in the capsules.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’ve tried them and I know they help. Stress is one thing that we can all stand to benefit from managing, especially at the workplace. Start with choosing any one and gradually add some others to build towards your de-stressed working lifestyle.

And remember, if you do try the mindful eating tip one of these days or any of the other tips above, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experience!

First published on LinkedIn here.

#WorkplaceWellnessWithLuvena

The Carrot Halwa Insight

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As I was prepping to make a surprise carrot halwa for the kids this afternoon, I got into one of my spellbinding webs of thought. This time, I found myself getting immersed into the dish I was preparing. Mind you, I’m not an Earth Mother and I really do not enjoy standing and cooking for long hours although my efforts are always very kindly appreciated and enjoyed with much pleasure.

I have also of late revisited many of the traditional Mangalorean recipes that have been handed down from my great-grandmother and have enjoyed observing the way my children have enjoyed the goodness of wholesome flavours – all from clean ingredients and spices from our own surroundings. It’s been a beautiful experience… and yes, I digress…

So back to the carrot halwa.

This web that was drawing me in gradually into my usually simultaneously multi-faceted thinking pattern (I really don’t know how else to explain the way my aha moments appear!) As I pounded the green cardamom while the grated carrots slowly cooked in ghee, the gorgeous aroma of the seeds just lifted my senses up a notch. I looked around at the orange carrots looking so vivid and bright against the vessel and I was reminded of a class I often teach – Healing Through The Senses – a class that taught Ayurveda 101 and brought into consideration the various elements and principles of Ayurvedic biology and physiological influence.

My halwa recipe is entirely organic – in the sense that I wing it every time. There is not set ratio or proportion to the ingredients, instead, I go with what I sense is required on the day I make it. So it is a largely intuited one. However, the basic requirements are the staple carrots, ghee, milk, sweetener of choice (I don’t use refined sugar any more, so I replace it with jaggery powder) and powdered green cardamom. Add-ons by others include raisins, powdered pistachios, slivered almonds, silver foil, saffron strands, etc. My family is not that fond of dry fruits, so the basic ingredients suit our palate just fine. In an effort to bring in an Ayurvedic quality to milk, I try to bring in desi gir cow A2 milk when I can – and when it isn’t available (because it shouldn’t be made available beyond what little can be spared for human consumption), I make do with regular milk. I also used to make my own ghee, but now get some desi ghee from friends who source it from the farm.

Cooking halwa isn’t that hard – the only physical effort is the grating of the carrots. After that, preparing halwa is a labour of love and teaches us patience and perseverance – to keep an eye on the carrots so they don’t burn and the milk so it doesn’t stick to the pan as it evaporates. The mindfulness of being with the food as it cooked gently because you can’t rush it takes the experience to a whole new level along with the gradually deepening aromas emanating from the slow cooked dessert.

Now, to the Ayurvedic significance (because that’s what this post is all about!)

Carrots, root vegetables, are the fruits of the earth produced in the dark winters. Their nature is such that they store the energy within them while the world outside is moving to cooler temperatures and seasons. They are a storehouse of pitta and are ushna is potency which makes them ideal to warm the body during the damp and cold, kapha and vata of fall/autumn and the Indian monsoons. The idea of carrots in many winter vegetable stews is not a new one!

The grounding effect of the ghee, jaggery and milk also have a soothing, nurturing quality while the ghee also adds a good element of fluidity and unctuousness to the dish. The earthy jaggery was a rustic element of connection to prithvi and the cardamom was both heat and air of moving exhilaration and crisp lightness.

All in all, the appreciation of the wisdom of our food and the consideration that our traditional recipes carry simply astounded me. I was amazed at what I was able to understand when only I paused to listen to the wisdom and be receptive to how this artful, yet philosophical blend of ingredients created a symphony for the senses – a visual delight of vibrant colors, sensory orgasm of all the tastes of ayurveda. It has the balancing act for all the doshas and it has the fulfilling satiety that accompanies the experience of having explored all the six tastes of ayurveda in one dish itself!

Beat that!

Apart from breaking down the recipe for all the ayurvedic insights, I couldn’t help but be WOWed by the specificity of our ancestors in the foods they ate and served because of their primarily tendency to affect one’s psychology, mood and temperament. There was and still remains the effort to constantly bring our mind and body back to a state of balance and food was a tool to address that. The connection between what we ate and what we comprise of (annamaya kosha) and the effect of that layer on the deeper sheaths of our energy (pranamaya kosha) and mind (manomaya kosha) was significant in co-creating a structure of balance in society – in their citizens’ bodies and minds…

The responsibility of this structure was on everyone. The comparison to our responsibility to create a better society around us today in 2019 was not lost on me – the poignancy was deep.

Food unites people – within themselves and without, with others.

Union – yoga.

Food for thought this…. all because of carrot halwa that took a good 45 minutes to prepare and 5 minutes to be polished off by two very grateful and happy children.

This… this conversation with myself – on halwa… my thoughts for today.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Cook the grated carrots in ghee over medium heat till they are nice & soft. Be patient now & mindful enough to stir it often.
  • Lower the flame & pour in the milk, jaggery powder & green cardamom powder. Allow it to cook. Keep stirring as the milk evaporates and the mixture thickens. Here’s where you remember why you love the one’s your making this for… especially if it is for yourself!! Perseverance. Stir often & mindfully so the halwa doesn’t stick tot he bottom of the pan.
  • Don’t over cook it or it may end up too dry and the carrots overcooked. I sometimes put in some ghee a little towards the end too…

Note: You may add those optional extras that I mentioned in the blog above… but it tastes delicious this way too!!

Last part of the recipe: Enjoy it… savor it… Smile..