Over 40 percent of Americans report that they indulged in unhealthy foods as a result of stress (1). While this may comfort you in the short-term, it can leave you feeling worse in the long run. What’s worse is that these comfort foods, if eaten time and time again, can lead to serious health complications.
One study found that among a group of chronically stressed women, eating foods high in unhealthy fats and sugar lead to concerning health effects, like a larger waistline, increased abdominal fat, more oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance (2). However, it was the combination of stress and unhealthy eating that made an impact.
The study’s lead author, Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of California at San Francisco Department of Psychiatry said, “Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their levels of stress. There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet – for example, it could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed (3).”
While it might be easy to grab a convenient “comfort food,” and a little more inconvenient to make healthy food choices when your body is exhausted, the foods I’ll list below can easily be packed when you’re feeling under pressure. You can store them in your car, in your desk, or even in your backpack. These 10 foods for stress relief will become your go-to.
Here are 10 foods to help you feel less chaotic and more calm:
When we’re stressed, our bodies release a chemical called cortisol (otherwise known as the “stress chemical”). Peppers (whether red, green, yellow or orange) reduce the amount of cortisol in the blood stream, which helps manage stress (4). They also contain vitamin C to boost immunity.
Watermelon is a great stress-reliever as it contains high amounts of vitamin B6. This vitamin is used by the body to produce the brain chemicals that relieve stress, anxiety and panic attacks. It also contains nitrates, which get converted to nitric oxide in the body, a compounds that causes blood vessels to open up, therefore lowering blood pressure (blood pressure often rises when faced with stress, anxiety or depression).
Bananas are packed full of brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin B6, potassium, and natural fruit sugars that help feed the brain in times of stress. Bananas are also one of the few fruits that contain the amino acid tryptophan and vitamin B6, both of which help to produce the natural chemical serotonin in the brain (the “happy chemical”). High potassium levels also help normalize the heartbeat, sends oxygen to the brain, and regulates water balance in the body. When we’re stressed, our metabolic rate rises, and potassium levels lower, so bananas can help counteract this!
Avocados contain 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, B vitamins, and folate. They help regulate blood sugar levels, and keep you satiated throughout the day (5) – two important factors in keeping your mood steady, even in times of stress.
Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids (over 2,664 milligrams for a 1/4 cup – 66% of your daily recommended intake), which the body converts into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to lower norepinephrine, a hormone that can make you feel anxious and irritable (6).
Blueberries have some of the highest levels of an antioxidant known as anthocyanin, which is known for helping brain function and improving our overall health. All berries, however, are rich in vitamin C, which has been shown to be helpful in combating stress. In one study, German researchers asked 120 people to give a speech, then do hard math problems. Those who had been given vitamin C had lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels after the stress of public speaking and solving difficult math problems (7). Make sure you get at least 2 cups of berries in your daily routine.
7. Chia Seeds
Similar to walnuts, chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which lower the levels of norepinephrine in the body that normally make you feel anxious and irritable. Chia seeds are also a great source of magnesium, a critical mineral for managing stress and mitigating depression.
8. Fermented Foods
Your gut bacteria actually influences you think and feel, so you can see how unhealthy gut flora can have detrimental impacts on the health of your brain. This can lead to things like anxiety and depression. In one study, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to have a significant effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone. This resulted in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behaviour (8). Some great fermented foods include things like sauerkraut, kombucha and coconut yogurt!
9. Dark Chocolate
Since magnesium deficiencies are linked to anxiety and stress, you want to make sure you keep your levels high. A good quality dark chocolate will contain adequate magnesium and zinc to give your brain a healthy boost so you can feel a little more jolly.
These stress-busting nuts are great for improving overall mental health. They are one of the best sources of the amino acid tryptophan, which is critical for improving the uptake of serotonin in the brain. Without tryptophan in our diets, we can’t produce serotonin as effectively, and our bodies can’t use the amount of serotonin that we do have. Cashews are also high in mood-improving magnesium, vitamin B6 and healthy fats.
Foods You Should Stay Away From
Over-processed comfort foods are usually the ones we reach for when stressed, anxious, or depressed. Unfortunately, these foods are also among the worst to eat when in these states of mind.
Things like sugar, gluten and processed foods contain compounds that trigger a state of reactions to make your mood even worse.
Refined sugar leads to fluctuations in blood sugar, but it goes a little deeper than that. William Duffy’s book, Sugar Blues, explains that sugar and grains contribute to insulin and leptin resistance and impaired signalling, which play a major role in your mental health. Sugar also suppresses the activity of BDNF, which promotes healthy brain neurons. BDNF levels are often critically low in both depression and schizophrenia. Refined sugar also leads to things like chronic inflammation, which impairs the immune system and is linked to a greater risk of depression.
Gluten is another problem, as it negatively impacts mood and brain health. Many studies have found its detrimental effects on mood (9), promoting depression and even mental health problems like schizophrenia. Gluten inhibits the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that isn’t only found in the brain – but in the gut.
Processed foods are another problem, as they contain ingredients linked to irritability and poor mood, like trans fats, artificial flavours and colours, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners and more.