Certain foods contain nutrients that can help fend off stress.
There are many ways to manage and even reduce stress levels when you’re feeling tense. Food can be one of your biggest allies — or enemies. It can make your stress levels go down or up, so it’s critical to pay attention to what you’re eating when you’re feeling frazzled. Not to mention, just being stressed can increase your need for certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin B, selenium, and magnesium, noted a review published in June 2016 in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences.
An article published in August 2015 in the journal Stress suggested that the amount and quality of nutrients you take in over time can impact the body’s neural circuits that control emotion, motivation, and mood. Other research, such as a study published in October 2017 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Behavioral Medicine, has pointed to gut microbiota — microorganisms in the intestine comprised of good and bad bacteria — as an essential link to the relationship between what you eat and drink, and how you feel.
“Microbiome health, or gut health, affects your mood, emotions, and psychological health,” says Alice Figueroa, RDN, MPH, a nutritionist in New York City and founder of Alice in Foodieland.
Fighting stress with food is a tactic available to everyone, Figueroa says. No expensive supplements or complex methodology is required.
Unhealthy eating patterns can send stress levels skyrocketing and potentially increase your risk of health problems in the future if you don’t address them. According to the June 2016 review in the Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences, a well-balanced and nutritious diet was likely the single most important ingredient for good health. So the next time you’re under pressure, arm yourself with this delicious arsenal of 10 stress-busting pantry staples:
Herbal Tea Helps Promote Feelings of Warmth and Calmness
Sometimes it’s the feeling that food or drinks induce, not their nutrients, that helps reduce stress. Drinking a warm cup of tea is one way to help make yourself feel calmer, says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, an online nutrition coach and owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Kentucky.
Past research has suggested that holding and sipping a warm beverage increases feelings of interpersonal “warmth” and friendliness. There’s a soothing effect of sipping a warm drink, regardless of the flavor — but certain herbs, like lavender and chamomile, have been shown to have a relaxing effect on their own, Meyerowitz says.
Figueroa agrees herbal tea is great for winding down but says green tea is perfectly fine when you need a small jolt of caffeine because it’s full of flavonoids, which studies show support brain health. They can help protect neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins, suppress neuroinflammation, and promote memory, learning, and cognitive function, according to previous research.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a cup of brewed green tea contains between 25 and 29 milligrams (mg) of caffeine versus black brewed coffee’s 95 to 165 mg per cup. Therefore, green tea can also be a preferable choice compared with coffee if you’re looking to chill out.
Flavonoids are a class of good-for-you plants and fungi also found in dark chocolate, citrus fruits, and wine. Despite green tea’s green light, Figueroa says to cut the caffeine in the afternoon to increase your chances of a good night’s rest.
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Dark Chocolate Offers an Antioxidant-Rich Indulgence
Dark chocolate in the diet can reduce stress in two ways — via its chemical impact and its emotional impact. Chocolate feels like such an indulgence that it can be a real treat to simply savor a piece of it, and that feeling alone can help to reduce stress, says Meyerowitz.
Dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidants, may also help reduce stress by lowering levels of stress hormones in the body, according to a study that followed participants who ate about 1.5 ounces (oz) per day for two weeks. But be sure to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation, advises Meyerowitz. That means you should aim to eat only one-fourth of a small dark chocolate bar (about 1 oz). Also, make sure the bar doesn’t contain an unnecessary surplus of added sugar, says Figueroa.
It’s also important to choose high-quality dark chocolate, she says. You may have heard about the “bean-to-bar” movement, which focuses on high-quality ingredients and in-house responsibility for every aspect of the chocolate making process. This “farm-to-table” approach ensures the bar is packed with pure components and no hidden additives or chemicals. Look on the label for two or three ingredients only, such as cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter.
Bust stress, boost resilience, and improve your well-being by following these expert tips.
Whole Grains Provide a Mood-Boosting Way to Carbo-Load
According to prior research, carbohydrates can temporarily increase levels of serotonin, a hormone that boosts mood and reduces stress. Once serotonin levels are increased, people under stress have better concentration and focus. Just make sure to choose healthy, unrefined carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes and whole grains, for better nutrition, and limit simple carbs, such as cookies, cake, and “white” foods, including white pasta and white bread. Unrefined carbs cause a quick spike and crash of blood sugar, while complex carbs contain vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, and so take longer to digest and have less of an immediate impact on blood sugar, according to Harvard School of Public Health.
Avocados Offer Stress-Busting Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Avocados are not only delicious mashed into guacamole or sliced and added to a salad — they also offer omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy essential acids are known to reduce stress and anxiety, boost concentration, and improve mood, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meyerowitz emphasizes the importance of getting the right amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet for overall health — in addition to the benefit of helping reduce stress — which the federal government’s dietary guidelines define as 1.6 g of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a form of omega-3 fats) for adult men and 1.1 g of ALA for adult women.
The possible superpower of avocados goes beyond their omega-3 fatty acids. They also consist of phytochemicals, fiber, and essential nutrients, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The survey, which was published in January 2013 in the Nutrition Journal, suggested that avocados have been linked to better diet quality and nutrient intake as well as a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions that include high blood pressure and obesity. It’s important to note, however, that the survey only suggested an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship, between eating avocados and these improved health markers.
Fish Can Boost Your Heart Health While Fending Off Stress
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Fight stress and help prevent heart disease by adding seafood to your plate. Fatty fish in particular are a great option because they’re heart-healthy, and their omega-3s may help ease depression because the nutrients easily interact with mood-related brain molecules, according to the Harvard Health Blog. Fatty fish include tuna, halibut, salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and lake trout, according to the American Heart Association.
Not a fish fan? There are other whole-food options, like seaweed, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and fortified food, such as certain brands of eggs, milk, soy milk, and nut milk. You can also try omega-3 supplements in the form of fish oil, which can be found at your local drugstore or grocery store. The Harvard Health Blog noted they’re tied to a lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
Figueroa says fish oil is fine if you’re not eating a balanced diet that is rich in omega-3s and includes eating fish at least twice a week. But she cautions that it’s important to check with your doctor or registered dietitian before beginning a supplement routine, so you can figure out the best brand and dosage for your health goals.
Warm Milk Can Help You Get a Good Night’s Sleep, Aiding Stress Management
Sipping warm milk before bed is a centuries-old home remedy for getting a better night’s sleep. According to SleepAdvisor.org, warm milk can have a relaxing effect on the body as well as on a psychological level. For people who grew up drinking warm milk before bed, the routine can signal that it’s time to go to sleep, for example. Also, the act of sipping a warm beverage curled up on the couch is innately relaxing.
Calcium-rich foods are an essential part of a healthy diet for bone health, but this nutrient may also help reduce depression, according to a study published in December 2012 in the journal Nutrition Research and Practice. Milk and other dairy foods with calcium and added vitamin D can help muscles relax and stabilize mood — one study, published in January 2017 in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, even found that it can also ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Figueroa says the main stress reducer here is calcium. If milk isn’t your thing, other dairy sources, like yogurt and cheese, are excellent sources of calcium, according to according to MedlinePlus. If you’re lactose intolerant, canned salmon, almonds, sunflower seeds, and green leafy veggies, like kale, broccoli, turnip greens, and bok choy, are also sources of calcium, the website notes.
Nuts Are a Great Stress-Busting Snack and They’re High in Healthy Fat
Nuts are full of nutrients, including B vitamins, along with healthy fatty acids. Meyerowitz says B vitamins are an important part of a healthy diet and can help reduce stress. Almonds, pistachios, and walnuts may even help lower blood pressure levels. According to a past study, pistachios in particular can have a role in reducing stress levels. Just remember to limit servings to just a handful a day to avoid excess calories.
Nuts and seeds are also high in magnesium, and that’s a plus, Figueroa says, because magnesium has been linked to better anxiety management. Findings from a review published in April 2017 in the journal Nutrients suggested that magnesium benefits individuals with mild to moderate levels of anxiety, but more trials are needed before making this treatment recommendation across the board.
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Citrus Fruits and Strawberries Contain Vitamin C, Which Help Fight Stress
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Some studies have found that high levels of vitamin C may help ease stress levels. One double-blind study, published January 2015 in the Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences, reported that vitamin C reduced stress levels in participants taking 500 mg per day, and also pointed to possible anxiety prevention. Another study, published in November 2013 in the Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences, looked at vitamin C and vitamin E and found a significant decrease in anxiety levels in the vitamin C group compared with other groups. Eating fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and strawberries is a good place to start.
Probiotics Can Create a Healthy Gut Microbiota, Helping You Manage Stress
The best way to support healthy gut hormones is with good-for-you bacteria called probiotics, Figueroa says. According to Harvard Health Publishing, probiotics can help boost the immune system, protect against harmful bacteria, and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients. An article published in December 2018 in University Health News cited several studies that found gut health has a direct correlation to improving anxiety, depression, and mood. One way is that gut bacteria can produce molecules with neuroactive functions, including serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which positively influence mood.
Probiotics can be available in supplement form, but it’s unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the pills can be more expensive than their food form, Figueroa says. Some of the top-rated brands run for more than $40 for a month’s supply, for instance.
Fortunately, probiotics occur naturally in food, too, and appear to be slightly better than the pill form, though both are efficient carriers for good bacteria, according to a study published in August 2014 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Figueroa’s favorite is kefir, a fermented yogurt drink, which is available in both dairy and vegan forms. She also recommends yogurt and fermented foods, including kombucha and miso, a Japanese fermented bean paste that can be found in miso soup.
Foods High in Fiber May Reduce Stress and Anxiety
As Figueroa mentioned, fiber-rich foods are gut-friendly and can play a role in lowering stress. According to a review published in July 2018 in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, a high-fiber diet may be linked with reduced anxiety, depression, and stress. A preliminary study on rats published in the journal Pharmacological Research suggested that fiber may help fight oxidative stress and inflammation — two effects that previous research tied to cancer, along with other health conditions.
To add more fiber to your diet, Figueroa recommends eating beans, green peas, berries, almonds, pistachios, flaxseed, sesame seeds, and lots of greens, like kale and broccoli. Whole grains are also fiber champs. Often whole grain–based foods will have a symbol or wording on the package saying so, but look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat” listed in the first ingredient to be sure.
“We hear it all the time: ‘eat foods that are rich in fiber,’ and it’s because they balance your blood sugar and prevent spikes in your insulin levels,” Figueroa says.
A blood sugar crash can induce fatigue, anxiety, shaking, irritability, and trouble concentrating, according to the Mayo Clinic. There’s a hormonal response when blood sugar gets low — a rapid release of epinephrine and glucagon, followed by a slower release of cortisol and growth hormone, according to the University of California in San Francisco — so keep the pantry full of fiber-rich foods and avoid blood sugar spikes and plummets brought on by empty carbs, such as chips and candy.