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Brain Food: Using Nutrition to Tame Stress Levels in Older Adults

As humans, we are designed to handle and react to occasional stressors. In moderation, stress can be good, leading to productivity, energy, and mental sharpness. On the other hand, chronic stress can leave us exhausted, anxious, and at risk for depression. 

As you know, the seniors you care for often experience chronic stress. It may be due to the loss of a loved one, a challenging diagnosis, or financial issues. The pandemic also contributed to stress levels in older adults. When surveyed in January of 2021, 44% of Americans aged 50-80 reported feeling stressed for several days or more in the past two weeks.

As a senior care provider, there are many services and activities you can offer residents to help them manage chronic stress. For example, exercise classes and support groups are beneficial and are slowly being held again in many senior living communities.

In addition to emotional and social support, offering nutrient-dense foods known for regulating mood and cortisol (a stress hormone) is a critical aspect of providing holistic senior care.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Researchers have established a clear link between the gut and the brain. It’s known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). The two body systems are in constant communication through nerves in the nervous system.

Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, Director of Nutrition and Brand Innovation at Incite Strategic Partners, says that food contains substances that affect our mood and mental health via the GBA. 

“We’re learning more every day about how various foods impact the GBA and how that, in turn, affects our mood, emotions, and mental health,” explains Bruning. “There are also many nutrients that play direct, vital roles in managing hormones such as cortisol, and other bodily functions related to mental health.”

How Food Plays a Role in Lowering Stress Levels Among Seniors

Since the gut and the brain are in constant communication, what you serve residents impacts both. There are foods known to increase inflammation in the gut and the brain, such as excessive added sugar and refined grains. Residents should consume them in moderation.

On the flip side, we know certain nutrients lower stress levels and boost mood.

“Nutrients such as B-vitamins, vitamin C, folate, potassium, magnesium, and Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower stress levels in various ways. Eating a healthy, balanced diet full of fruits and veggies, fatty fish like salmon, or plant foods like walnuts, chia, and flax, plus mood-boosting foods like dark chocolate, can help keep stress levels under control,” says Bruning. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood. Suboptimal levels of this neurotransmitter can cause sleep and mental health issues. Ninety percent of serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and Bruning says certain foods may help keep serotonin levels in check.

“Whole grains and other fiber-containing carbohydrate foods can help keep serotonin levels optimal, without causing the blood sugar highs and lows that occur when we eat sugar-laden sweets or refined grains,” she says.

Incorporating Stress-Reducing Foods into Dining Menu

Most likely, stress-reducing foods are already in your menu rotation. Simply offering these on a more regular basis can lower residents’ stress levels and mood if they choose to consume them.

“One simple change you can make is offering a whole grain option. For example, if rice is on the menu, have some brown rice available to those who want it, or another whole grain option like quinoa, if you have a resident population that is familiar with it,” says Bruning. “Offer whole-grain bread, rolls and whole grain-based pilafs or salads.”

If you’re making menu changes, it is always important to communicate these changes to staff and residents. Educating them on the mental health benefits of certain foods can go a long way in accepting changes and inspiring openness to trying new dishes.

Bruning says Baby Boomers are more health-conscious than the generation before them. So they may expect your dining program to offer these nutrient-dense foods regularly. In fact, Boomers are just as likely as Millennials to snack on healthy foods made with fresh ingredients.

Nutrition and Well-Rounded Care

Serving stress-taming foods can be incredibly beneficial to the mental health of residents who choose to consume them on a regular basis. They can decrease inflammation, support serotonin levels, and balance cortisol.

In addition to potentially boosting mood and reducing stress, offering these foods are part of providing well-rounded healthcare. When combined with right medications, physical therapy, and other quality healthcare services, proper nutrition may enhance residents’ overall wellness.

“Many of the same foods that support lower stress levels can also help residents manage chronic diseases. Though food is no substitute for medications, in conjunction with a proper treatment plan overseen by a healthcare provider, eating nutritious foods can be beneficial for individuals managing heart disease, diabetes, and aid in recovery from surgery,” adds Bruning.