What does food have to do with your stress levels? More than you might realize. About 40 percent of Americans say that stress drives them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods,1 which, in turn, trigger physiological changes that can make your mood worse.
If you become ill or gain weight due to stress-induced poor eating habits, it will only make your stress worse, prompting a vicious cycle than can be difficult to break out of.
On the other hand, carefully chosen healthful foods can have the opposite effect, working to boost your spirits and even lessen anxiety. A proper diet may not only help you feel calmer but can even lessen the damage that stress does to your body.
Which Foods Are Best for Managing Stress?
When you’re under fire at work, juggling multiple responsibilities at home, or going through a difficult time emotionally, these are the foods you should reach for. Really, though, you should strive to eat these foods regularly (not just in times of stress) to help maintain mental, emotional, and physical balance in your body.
1. Dark Chocolate
If you’re one of these individuals who get a nice mood boost whenever you sink your teeth into a bar of pure, unadulterated chocolate, it is not happenstance.
There’s actually a chemical reason called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.
It’s a derivative of the Sanskrit word “bliss,” and one of the great things about chocolate is that it not only produces this compound, it also contains other chemicals that prolong the “feel-good” aspects of anandamide. Chocolate has even been referred to as “the new anti-anxiety drug.”
One study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology also revealed that people who drank an antioxidant-rich chocolate drink equal to about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily felt calmer than those who did not.
A small amount of high-quality source of protein – like organic eggs, a piece of Gouda cheese, or a handful of macadamia nuts or pecans – helps keep your blood sugar levels steady for enhanced energy and mood.
Bananas contain dopamine, a natural reward chemical that boosts your mood. They’re also rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B6, which help soothe your nervous system, and magnesium, another nutrient associated with positive mood.
Coffee appears to affect a number of neurotransmitters related to mood control, so drinking a morning cup could have an effect on your general sense of wellbeing. Research has also shown that coffee triggers a mechanism in your brain that releases BDNF, which activates your brain stem cells to produce new neurons, thereby improving your brain health.
5. Turmeric (Curcumin)
Curcumin, the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its yellow-orange color, is thought to be responsible for many of its medicinal effects. Among them, curcumin has neuroprotective properties and may enhance mood and possibly help with depression.
6. Purple Berries
Anthocyanins are the pigments that give berries like blueberries and blackberries their deep color. These antioxidants aid your brain in the production of dopamine, a chemical that is critical to coordination, memory function, and your mood.
7. Omega-3 Fats
Found in salmon or supplement form, such as krill oil, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play a role in your emotional well-being. One study in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3, while past research has shown omega-3 fats work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects.
8. Oolong Tea
Sipping oolong tea might help you feel calm, as it contains high levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that helps inhibit the firing of neurons in your brain for an overall calming, anti-anxiety effect.
9. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like fermented vegetables and kefir are rich in beneficial bacteria that have a marked impact on your gut health, which in turn impacts your mood. Your gut is literally your second brain – created from the identical tissue as your brain during gestation – and contains larger amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with mood control.
Beneficial bacteria have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain via your vagus nerve. For instance, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to have a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.
One kiwi contains more than 85 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, and that’s good news for your stress levels. Vitamin C actually helps reduce your body’s production of stress hormones while boosting your immune function (so much the better for warding off stress-induced illness).