Stress. No one wants it, but we all experience it from time to time. Higher levels of stress can cause problems at work and at home. But stress is not just hard on your mental well-being; it is also hard on your body and can lead to many negative health outcomes.
Stress levels can also increase significantly when economic times are tough. In England, the British Health and Social Care Information Centre found that stress had increased by 47 percent during that country’s recession and that stress was the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK, affecting 20 percent of the population. Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, an expert on stress, was alarmed and told The Independent, “I have never seen figures like this before. Stress is a trigger mechanism for a whole range of conditions, from heart attacks to immune system disorders, mental illness and depression and anxiety.”
Everyone is familiar with comfort foods, but the key comfort foods that have been shown to actually reduce stress all contain salt. Stress is characterized in the human body by high levels of the hormone cortisol, referred to as the “stress hormone.” Scientific research has shown, in animals and in humans, that increased levels of salt consumption are effective in reducing levels of cortisol.
Research from the University of Haifa, published in the science journal Appetite, confirmed the relationship between salt and stress in humans. Researchers found an inverse correlation between salt and depression/stress, especially in women. Craving salty foods may very well be a biological defense mechanism we evolved to cope with daily stress.
The researchers reviewed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) using 10,000 individuals and demonstrated that depression and stress were higher in individuals who consumed less salt, a trend more prevalent in women than men. They noted that the relationship of higher depression with lower salt intake in humans was consistent with the results of other animal studies. They also found that young people, up to the age of 19, selectively choose foods that are higher in salt, indicating a natural feedback mechanism driving them to consume higher salt foods and rewarding them with more vigorous growth.
Other good stress-relieving tips include getting a good night’s sleep and taking time off to focus on relaxation and regular exercise, which has added health benefits. Of course, with exercise, another benefit of salt becomes apparent, as this vital nutrient is necessary to remain properly hydrated and healthy. When you sweat, you lose not just water but also electrolytes (including sodium) which need to be replenished.
The fact remains that whether they are called comfort foods or mood stabilizers, research indicates salty foods are effective at making us feel better and reducing our heightened stress levels, a common condition in today’s ever-changing world. So, the next time you finish a stressful day and want to wind down and relax, don’t be surprised if you instinctively reach for a salty snack.