A guide to truly happy meals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 March, 2010, 12:00am

Jennifer asks: As stress and my workload pile up, late nights become inevitable. That weakens my immune system and often leaves me tired during the day. What can I do to alleviate this problem?

Wynnie says: Stress is a normal evolutionary reaction - it's a way of helping you protect yourself in tough situations such as facing physical danger, or sitting exams.

When we experience stress, our body reacts by pumping out adrenaline and cortisol, hormones which prepare us to either fight or flee. While it's OK to feel motivated by a little stress when your workload is piling up, long-term stress reduces our resilience and coping mechanisms, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or tired, emotional and more susceptible to common ailments like colds and flu.

Eating the right balance of foods can help to boost our immune system and enable our body to deal with some of the negative effects of stress.

Antioxidant-rich foods: Vitamin C is required to make adrenaline. A lack of this vitamin reduces the activity of cells in the immune system that gobble up harmful bacteria and viruses, leaving us more vulnerable to colds, flu and other diseases.

Stress also depletes vitamin C and other antioxidants such as vitamin A, E and selenium from the body. Boost your immune system by including citrus fruits, mixed berries, nuts and kiwi fruit in your daily diet.

Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna are rich in omega 3 fats. These help your brain release serotonin, a feel-good chemical that promotes feelings of calmness and happiness. A couple of servings - about 100 grams - of oily fish a couple of times a week also helps keep levels of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, in check. If you're not a fish fan, flaxseeds, walnuts, tofu and soy beans are also great sources of omega 3 fats.

Complex carbohydrates: All carbs stimulate serotonin production. It's best to choose complex carbs such as wholegrains, wholewheat bread, brown rice and pasta, as they are digested more slowly, stabilising blood sugar levels and so helping to provide a steady supply of serotonin.

B Vitamins: These convert food into energy and maintain the nervous system. A deficiency can leave you feeling irritable, tired and depressed. B vitamins are found in wholegrain cereals, fruits, leafy green veggies, yogurt, beans and peas. You'll get enough of these crucial vitamins by eating a varied diet.

Magnesium: This mineral regulates cortisol levels, especially during times of stress. Replenish your levels of magnesium naturally by making friends with leafy green veggies such as spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli or kale. These are great in salads, sandwiches, soups or stir fries. Tofu, nuts and wholegrains are also rich in magnesium.

Regular exercise is also an important immunity booster and stress buster. Feel-good chemicals such as endorphins are released into the bloodstream, lifting your mood, decreasing stress hormones and leaving you feeling calm and relaxed.

Wynnie Chan is a British-trained nutritionist. If you've got a question for her or would like to be featured in this column, e-mail nutrition@scmp.com