14 Surprising Foods to Help Soothe Stress
Last Updated: Sep 29, 2016
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If you’re like most Americans, you exist day-in and day-out with low levels of chronic stress. A recent study found that stress affects our health and that our health affects our stress levels (by a lot). And we're not just talking catastrophic stress. The buildup of everyday stress wears you down. Overall responsibilities, money, work, health and relationships all contribute to your stress load. That stress, in turn, affects your waistline, immune system, heart health, sleep and general happiness. A healthy diet can help armor your body against this silent killer. Let’s take a look at 14 foods specially fit to bring some relief.
Most cuts of pork are high in mood-boosting thiamin, though this doesn’t apply to bacon (sorry). Pork tenderloin, on the other hand, is the leanest cut of pork and an exceedingly excellent source of the B vitamin thiamin. Research shows that improving thiamin status improves well-being, overall energy and friendliness, while not getting enough is linked to bad moods and fatigue. As a water-soluble vitamin, it doesn’t get stored in the body, so it’s important to include thiamin-containing foods in your regular diet. Vegetarian? Keep kosher? No problem, thiamin is also found in abundance in beans, nuts, seeds, eggs and fortified grains.
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The link between chronic stress and blood pressure isn’t completely clear, though we do know that in times of immediate stress, the body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, pumping up stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), which raises blood pressure. To maintain an even keel after temporary spikes in blood pressure, look to potassium-rich foods. Dried spirulina powder is a novel option for potassium, and a little goes a long way: It only takes three to four tablespoons to add a significant amount of potassium to the diet. Add it to smoothies, dips, juices, baked goods and soups. If spirulina is outside your comfort zone, go for avocados, bananas, beans, beet greens, chocolate, edamame, milk, mushrooms, orange juice, spinach, sweet potatoes and yams.
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Omega-3s from seafood like anchovies may lead to a better mental state. In case you’re tired of hearing you have to eat salmon for your omega-3 fatty acids, keep in mind that sardines are not only a good source of those same heart-healthy fats (while being more affordable and more sustainable). For vegetarians, know that some of the plant-based omega-3s (ALA) will convert to the type of omega-3s in seafood (EPA & DHA), and you can find them in walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds and sacha inchi seed oil.
Many people hold tension in the jaw, and the simple mechanical action of crunching down on something can interrupt a clenched jaw for the better. To reap the benefits in the healthiest way possible, crunch on something good for you. The stress eater may want to reach for chips, but the smart snacker will have raw vegetables on hand instead. They provide a great crunch, but, unlike chips, are generally low in calories and high in nutrients (a win-win). Crunchy, low-calorie vegetables include celery, carrots, sweet bell peppers, radishes (French breakfast and watermelon radishes are gorgeous and easy on the palate), cucumbers, sugar snap peas and fennel.
“Studies have shown that those who consumed high amounts of vitamin C before a stressful situation have lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol compared with those who didn’t consume high amounts of vitamin C,” says Rene Ficek, RD, of Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. Citrus of all stripes are good sources of vitamin C. Red grapefruit is unique in that it also provides the antioxidant lycopene, and it’s sweeter than white or even pink grapefruit. Once citrus season is over (early spring), you can get your vitamin C fix year-round from broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and sweet potatoes.
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“With stress comes more comfort-food cravings,” says Rene Ficek, RD. She recommends using that to your advantage by indulging in healthy comfort carbs. “Oatmeal, a complex carbohydrate, is the perfect (and healthy) comfort food your body wants,” she says. Ficek adds that, “Oatmeal causes your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical. Also, beta-glucan, the type of soluble fiber found in oatmeal, has been shown to promote greater satiety than other whole grains.” As if that’s not enough to convince you, eating whole grains is also linked to a longer life, particularly due their role in heart health, according to new research from Harvard School of Public Health.
“Avocados are superfoods in many aspects,” says Rene Ficek, RD. She notes that when it comes to stress relievers, avocados again make the list. “They are rich in glutathione, a substance that specifically blocks intestinal absorption of certain fats that cause oxidative damage, which is helpful when dealing with stress-induced free radicals.” Avocados offer antioxidants lutein, beta-carotene and vitamin E -- as well as plenty of B vitamins like folate, low levels of which are linked to depressed moods. Rachel Begun, M.S., RDN, a culinary nutritionist, adds that people may not realize avocados are a good source of potassium, a mineral nutrient key in maintaining healthy blood pressure, which can spike in times of stress.
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“Stress can wreak havoc on the immune system,” says Rachel Begun, M.S., RDN. “That’s why we’re more likely to get sick when we’re stressed out.” She notes that zinc is essential to immune-system function, “so getting adequate amounts during times of stress is a good idea so you don’t get sick when you can least afford to.” Rene Ficek, RD, agrees and recommends oysters for their zinc, noting that “they are the perfect stress-reliever food. Six oysters, which is what you’d typically be served in a restaurant as an appetizer, has more than double the RDA for this important mineral.” Helpful tip: Take advantage of the many dining establishments that offer oysters priced as loss leaders designed to get patrons through the door.
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An appetite for bold global flavors makes ginger a rising star in the culinary world. Nutrition experts love ginger because it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory food, according to Rachel Begun, M.S., RDN. That’s important because “stress causes inflammation throughout the body, and inflammation is a precursor to almost all of the chronic conditions we seek to avoid, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.” She adds turmeric to the same category, and says, “Not only do they help fight the harmful effects of stress, they make your food taste delicious too!”
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“Most nuts have been shown to be helpful in combating stress,” says Rene Ficek, RD. “And because they are both crunchy and a little salty, they are perfect for food cravings.” What could be behind this? “Low levels of zinc have been linked to both anxiety and depression,” says Ficek, “and nuts are a healthy source of this needed zinc.” Our bodies have no way of storing zinc, so it needs to be a part of the regular diet. This is in line with dietary recommendations to eat a handful of nuts a day for heart health. In addition, a large population study of nearly 120,000 people who were observed for three decades found that those who ate the most nuts lived longest.
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It’s always nice when evidence backs up a folk remedy, because it is not always the case. “Scientific research indicates that a few plant foods may actually have stress-relieving effects,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of “Plant-Powered for Life.” In addition to the evidence that chamomile can help with upset stomach, Palmer says, “Chamomile tea was shown to be effective against anxiety.” It contains phytochemicals that seem to promote relaxation and reduce swelling from inflammation, though the exact chemicals have not been identified. Researchers think chamomile’s anti-inflammatory powers come from slowing down production of pro-inflammatory compounds such as prostaglandins, leukotrienes and histamines.
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When stress-busting calls for immune-system-boosting, mushrooms may be able to help. Mushrooms have the potential to provide 100 percent of the day’s vitamin D, and "more and more research suggests vitamin D maintains a strong immune system," says Rachel Begun, M.S., RDN. About 15 minutes of sun exposure a day also does the trick, only it isn’t always practical (e.g., during the winter or if we need to wear sunblock). While Begun notes that, “unfortunately, there are very few natural food sources of vitamin D,” getting nutrients from food is always preferable to a supplement. Some natural food sources include fatty fish, egg yolks and mushrooms. Vitamin D is also commonly added to milk, yogurt, orange juice and cereals.
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In the best research news ever, evidence indicates that chocolate has a strong positive effect on mood and generally increases pleasant feelings while reducing tension. Rene Ficek, RD, adds, “Recent research shows eating dark chocolate can help reduce levels of cortisol and catecholamines (hormones associated with stress), especially for those with high anxiety.” The downside is more psychological than it is physiological: Some may feel guilty after eating chocolate while dieting to lose weight. Ficek notes, “Keep in mind, chocolate is high in saturated fat and calories, so practicing portion control is a must.”
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Tea from the Camellia sinensis plant has been widely studied for a variety of health benefits, and includes black, oolong, green and white tea varieties. “L-theanine, a compound found in tea, has been shown to boost levels of the calming brain chemical dopamine,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN. In addition, “tea can help to improve attention, focus and overall mood,” adds Rene Ficek, RD. On the other hand, tea also contains caffeine, which has been shown to increase anxiety. Opt for white tea, which has the least caffeine and the mildest flavor, making it easy for tea novices to enjoy.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What do you reach for when you’re feeling stressed? How do you feel afterward? Do you think you’ve ever eaten out of stress and not even realized it? How can you incorporate these stress-busting foods into your diet? What are you willing to do (and give up) to stop the damaging cycle of stress and stress-induced eating?
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