When it comes to combating stress levels, what you eat may actually help relieve your tension. Some foods may help stabilize blood sugar or, better yet, your emotional response.
Green leafy vegetables
It’s tempting to reach for a cheeseburger when stressed, but go green at lunch instead. Green leafy vegetables like spinach contain folate, which produces dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, helping you keep calm. A study of 2,800 middle-age and elderly people found that those who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression symptoms than those who took in the least. Another study from the University of Otago in New Zealand discovered that college students tended to feel calmer, happier, and more energetic on days they ate more fruits and veggies. It can be hard to tell which came first—upbeat thoughts or healthy eating—but the researchers found that healthy eating seemed to predict a positive mood the next day.
You’ve probably heard that the tryptophan in turkey is to blame for that food coma on Thanksgiving. This amino acid helps produce serotonin, the chemical that regulates hunger and feelings of happiness and well-being. On its own, tryptophan may have a calming effect. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience, men and women who were argumentative (based on personality tests) took either tryptophan supplements or a placebo for 15 days. Those who took tryptophan were perceived as more agreeable by their study partners at the end of the two weeks compared with when they didn’t take it. Other foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, lentils, oats, beans, and eggs.
If you’re already a carb lover, it’s likely that nothing can come between you and a doughnut when stress hits. First rule of thumb: Don’t completely deny the craving. According to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carbohydrates can help the brain make serotonin, the same brain chemical that is regulated by certain antidepressants. But instead of reaching for that sugary bear claw, go for complex carbs. Stress can cause your blood sugar to rise, so a complex carb like oatmeal won’t contribute to your already potential spike in blood glucose.
As bizarre as it may sound, the bacteria in your gut might be contributing to stress. Research has shown that the brain and gut communicate via body chemicals, which is why stress can inflame gastrointestinal symptoms. And a study among 36 healthy women revealed that consuming probiotics in yogurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress. This study was small, so more research is needed to confirm the results—but considering that yogurt is full of calcium and protein in addition to probiotics, you really can’t go wrong by adding more of it to your diet.
Stress can ratchet up levels of anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon have anti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Oregon State University medical students who took omega-3 supplements had a 20 percent reduction in anxiety compared to the group given placebo pills.
When you’re stressed, there’s a battle being fought inside you. The antioxidants and phytonutrients found in berries fight in your defence, helping improve your body’s response to stress. Research has also shown that blueberry eaters experience a boost in natural killer cells, “a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in immunity, critical for countering stress.
A regular healthy indulgence (just a bite, not a whole bar!) of dark chocolate might have the power to regulate your stress levels. Research has shown that it can reduce your stress hormones, including cortisol. Also, the antioxidants in cocoa trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. Finally, dark chocolate contains unique natural substances that create a sense of euphoria similar to the feeling of being in love. Go for varieties that contain at least 70 percent cocoa.
One ounce of the buttery nut packs 11 percent of the daily recommended value of zinc, an essential mineral that may help reduce anxiety. When researchers gave zinc supplements to people who were diagnosed with both anxiety symptoms (irritability, lack of ability to concentrate) and deficient zinc levels over a course of eight weeks, the patients saw a 31 percent decrease in anxiety, according to Nutrition and Metabolic Insights. This is likely because zinc affects the levels of a nerve chemical that influences mood. If you’re already getting enough zinc, it may not help your mood to chow down on cashews (or other zinc-rich foods like oysters, beef, chicken, and yogurt). But cashews are also rich in omega-3s and protein, so they’re a smart snack no matter what.