By Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN
We’re a generation of doers, with seemingly endless to-do lists between work, chores, sports practices, and social engagements. Then there are worries about traffic, finances, and various other little inconveniences that add up. In addition to being worn out and frustrated, elevated levels of stress can take a heavy toll on both our mental and physical health.
Common symptoms of stress are irritability, lack of focus, muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, GI issues, lethargy and insomnia. Research also shows that individuals who suffer from high levels of stress have a greater likelihood of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, weight gain, heart disease and various other chronic illnesses – increased risks due in part to excess production of the stress hormone cortisol as part of our natural “fight or flight” response .
While many of life’s daily challenges are often out of our control, certain nutrient-rich foods can actually help reduce the body’s stress response. In fact, food “directly effects the structure and function of your brain, and ultimately, your mood .”
Here are some nutrients that improve the body’s ability to handle stress :
- Antioxidants and phytochemicals, among many other beneficial functions, promote a strong immune system and decreased inflammation throughout the body. Particular stand-outs that help diminish the body’s response to cortisol include bright yellow, orange and red produce rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene; dark red, blue and purple produce rich in anthocyanins; as well as phytochemical-rich dark chocolate and green tea.
- Omega-3-rich foods, such as cold-water fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies), flaxseed and chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, kidney beans and fortified eggs, provide EPA, DHA and ALA – three beneficial omega-3s that have been shown to reduce production of stress hormones, and are also linked to less inflammatory activity.
- Probiotics (the “good” gut bacteria) are mostly known for improved digestion, but they also play vital roles in supporting the strength of your immune system, reducing inflammation, and potentially decreasing levels of stress and anxiety . Yogurt with live and active cultures, kefir, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and pickled vegetables are good sources.
- B vitamins are required for energy production in the body, and the B vitamins folate/folic acid and vitamin B6 in particular help increase production of serotonin  – a neurotransmitter commonly referred to as the “happy chemical.” Folate is also important to production of another feel-good chemical, dopamine. Find folate in black-eyed peas and kidney beans, asparagus, avocado, peanuts and wheat germ; and B6 in chickpeas, tuna and salmon, poultry, banana, cottage cheese, potatoes and other starchy vegetables. Beef liver, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified whole grain products are also good sources for both.
- Tryptophan, one of our amino acids, is the precursor of stress-relieving serotonin, and can be found in egg yolks, cheeses, soy products, nuts and seeds, and turkey .
- Magnesium is a mineral associated with decreased muscle tension, irritability, fatigue and feelings of anxiety. Good sources of magnesium include almonds, cashews and peanuts, cooked spinach, black beans and edamame, avocado, and fortified whole grain products.
In addition to dietary stress-relievers, routine physical activity, regular exposure to vitamin D-rich sunshine, adequate restful sleep, proper hydration, and even meditation, breathing exercises, or simply getting fresh air or talking to a friend, can also play important roles in minimizing the body’s response to stress.
While a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet may be beneficial, other eating patterns can have the opposite effect. High intake of nutrient-poor high-fat and high-sugar foods often give us a small energy boost that quickly fades away. Regular excesses of both fat and sugar may also increase inflammation, making it even more difficult for our bodies to adequately deal with stress.
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- Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publishing website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. Updated 1 May 2018. Accessed 11 May 2018.
- Selhub, E. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Publishing website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626. Updated 5 April 2018. Accessed 11 May 2018.
- Rumsey A. The Best Foods for Stress-Relief. US News. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2017-06-21/the-best-foods-for-stress-relief. Published 21 June 2017. Accessed 14 May 2018.
- Probiotics Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety Levels. Today’s Dietitian. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/news/021717_news.shtml. Accessed 14 May 2018.
- 7 Foods That Could Boost Your Serotonin: The Serotonin Diet. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sleep/foods-that-could-boost-your-serotonin. Updated 10 July 2017. Accessed 14 May 2018.