Stress levels may be high these days, but did you know that what we choose to eat can help to reduce stress, ultimately allowing us to take charge of our mental health?
“Instead of thinking of food as ‘stress eating’ or ‘guilty pleasures,’ we can think of using food to shape the lens in how we experience stress,” said psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of the upcoming book “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.”
Taking control of stress with the foods we eat can help to counter inflammation throughout the body, as well as elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which can otherwise lead to high blood sugar, increased appetite and weight gain, among other symptoms, according to Felicia Porrazza, a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian who helps stressed-out clients find natural ways to improve their overall wellness.
Feeling less stressed already? I hope so! Here are some food suggestions to help you live in a calmer state.
Open your palate to oily fish
Try out anchovies, sardines and herring, in addition to salmon, trout and mackerel. These foods are a rich source of stress-busting omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which play an important role in brain health.
“Increasing omega-3 fatty acids can help to regulate how our bodies handle stress,” Porrazza said. Stress can increase inflammation in the body so if we can reduce inflammation by consuming more omega-3s, we could also potentially reduce cortisol levels, which could improve health and wellness, Porrazza explained. In fact, omega 3s help to blunt the cortisol response after acute stress, some research has shown. On the flip side, low levels of omega 3s may affect the function of the HPA, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, axis, which plays a role in how our bodies respond to stress, according to Porrazza.
Omega-3 fats might help to reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety, concluded a recent review and meta-analysis of 19 clinical trials involving over 2,200 participants from 11 countries.
Consuming high amounts of these fatty acids in fish may help protect us from depression, too, according to other research.
Need some ideas besides grilled salmon? Try a Caesar salad with an anchovy vinaigrette dressing, or add some herring to your Sunday bagel order.
Mix it up with shellfish
Mussels, clams and oysters are rich in vitamin B12 in addition to omega-3s, which are both prominent nutrients in diets connected with lower anxiety, Ramsey explained.
In fact, B vitamins, including vitamin B12, help to maintain the nervous system, and stress can cause a slight increase in the body’s requirements of these B vitamins, explained Martha McKittrick, a New York City-based registered dietitian who provides nutrition counseling and wellness coaching to many stressed-out New Yorkers.
Vitamin B deficiencies can increase the risk of developing stress-related symptoms such as irritability, lethargy and depression.
Since vitamin B12 is not produced by plants, if you are vegan, you should ensure that you are consuming vitamin B12 from fortified foods or a supplement.
Consume more vitamin C
Foods such as red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruit and kiwi are rich in vitamin C, which in high doses has antidepressant effects and improves mood, and may be helpful in treating stress-related disorders.
Other research has revealed that vitamin C may help reduce anxiety among high school students.
To boost your vitamin C intake, aim to include one vitamin C-rich food with a meal, and another for a snack. You could also try one of my favorites: dark chocolate-dipped kiwis or oranges for dessert!
Choose healthy carbs
Carbohydrates can help to boost serotonin production in the brain, which is key in influencing our mood. “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for happiness and well-being,” Porrazza said.
Serotonin has a calming effect and also promotes sleep and relaxation, McKittrick explained. In fact, low levels of brain serotonin, research has suggested, can lead to increased vulnerability to psychosocial stress.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain. Complex carbs including whole grains and vegetables can help boost levels of serotonin because they make tryptophan more available in the brain.
Carbs like soybeans and peas also deliver a small dose of protein, which can help to balance blood glucose levels. This benefit is important, since fluctuations in blood glucose can cause irritability and worsen stress levels.
Additionally, if you eat too many highly processed carbs that are loaded with sugar and lack protein or healthy fats, like cookies and sweets, you can experience blood sugar spikes and crashes, “and that can make you feel more stressed,” McKittrick added.
Fill up on fermented foods
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and sauerkraut contain friendly bacteria known as probiotics, which have the ability to reduce stress and cortisol levels.
In fact, randomized controlled trials featuring probiotics suggest a causal link between the gut microbiota and stress responding.
Feeling shy? Fermented foods may help reduce symptoms of social anxiety, too, research has shown. These probiotic-rich foods may also help control negative thoughts that are associated with low moods.
How does it all work? Our gut bacteria produce about 95% of our body’s serotonin supply, which can positively affect how we feel, according to Porrazza. On the flip side, stress can increase inflammation and gut dysbiosis, which is basically an imbalance of the gut microbiota, and this can negatively influence mood.
Other fermented foods include sourdough bread, kimchi, miso and pickles.
Ramsey fights stress with a kefir-rich banana smoothie. “I get a good dose of potassium from the banana and I add nuts, cinnamon and cacao for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s a great energy and brain boost.”
Bananas are also a source of vitamin B6, which helps in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin.
Munch on magnesium-rich foods
A lot of times when you are stressed out, your magnesium levels can become depleted, McKittrick explained. “If you have a magnesium-deficient diet, it can raise stress hormones, so it is important to eat magnesium-rich foods, like leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds; legumes; and whole grains,” she said.
Conquer stress with crunchy foods
“A lot of my clients, when they think about crunchy foods, they think of chips, but sometimes you can manage stress with healthier crunchy foods like celery and carrots with hummus,” Porrazza said.
Cutting up an apple and then munching on it can also release stress, as Porrazza has observed with her clients. “Doing something with their hands can help them take themselves out of their head and give them a little bit of a mindful moment, which can take them out of the stress of the moment,” she added.
Take a tea break
Green, black and oolong teas are rich in theanine, an amino acid that helps reduce stress and promote calm feelings.
These teas are also rich in antioxidants, which can help reduce oxidative stress in the body, which helps protect against disease.
Black tea in particular has been studied for its role in stress recovery and reduction in cortisol levels.
And while there isn’t enough research to show that chamomile reduces stress, the act of sitting and drinking a cup of this herbal tea may be calming for some, Porrazza explained.
Other stress-busting diet tips
Lastly, there are a few diet strategies to avoid, in order to feel less stressed. One is to consume less caffeine.
“Caffeine has effects on the brain and nervous system and can elevate cortisol levels and exacerbate the effects of stress on the body,” McKittrick said.
Because of caffeine’s effects, it’s important to pay attention to how your body responds to caffeine. “If I am stressed, I can only have half a cup of coffee,” McKittrick added.
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And it’s important to not go too long without eating. Doing so can cause low blood sugar, which can make you feel more irritable and worsen stress. “It’s very individual, but for most I would say don’t go more than four to five hours without food – but pay attention to your own body,” McKittrick said.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.