You’ve no doubt heard of stress eating — you may well have done it yourself. But did you know that some foods can be stress beating?
The human race has made some incredible advancements over the millennia — discovering fire, inventing the wheel, Uncrustables, and such. But in some very crucial ways, our brains are still stuck in the Stone Age.
Our bodies have a built-in stress reflex, known as the “fight-or-flight” response, meant to protect us from immediate threats. This natural reaction primes our body to handle stress. The sudden jolt you feel after the pug wakes you up in bed might as well be a saber-toothed tiger or mastodon to your brain.
Fortunately, there’s a wide variety of readily available, affordable, and delicious food sources that have natural, stress-relieving qualities that may help your body become more resilient to stress hormones.
Here’s how to hack your diet to help beat stress in the long run.
When you sense anything threatening or unusual, the part of your brain called the hypothalamus sets off alarms throughout your body. This triggers the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, which boosts your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy supplies.
And then there’s cortisol, adrenaline’s buzzkill cousin that regulates sleep cycles, blood pressure, inflammation, and sugar levels. It’s also the “flight or fight” hormone.
Take a second to remember what it feels like after your body has flooded with adrenaline and/or cortisol and the threat — real or otherwise — has passed. It’s almost like a hangover, isn’t it?
And similar to when you’re recovering from a tough night out, a body under constant stress might require a greater amount of vitamins and minerals — specifically, vitamins B and C, as well as selenium and magnesium.
That’s why many foods on our list are particularly rich in those vitamins and minerals, while others promote hormones associated with relaxation, such as serotonin and dopamine. There are others that are just plain relaxing to eat or drink.
Folate’s super important if you’re pregnant, or plan to become pregnant, as it’s essential for fetal development. But for decades, folate deficiency has also been linked to depression, as B vitamins are necessary for the proper synthesis of serotonin, a mood-boosting hormone.
Mood boosting sources of folate:
- leafy greens
- organ meats
Thanks to “Seinfeld” and subsequent decades of pop nutrition science, tryptophan’s supposed sleep-inducing qualities are no longer a secret. And people have year’s worth of post-Thanksgiving naps as experiential evidence.
But, tryptophan is also the only precursor to centrally and peripherally produce serotonin in your brain. In addition to turkey, 2 percent or whole milk are also excellent sources, along with canned tuna.
Eating carbohydrates makes you feel better — no matter how many low-carb diets try to convince people otherwise, that’s an actual scientific fact. As mentioned above, carbs cause secretion of insulin, which alters the plasma tryptophan ratio and leads to greater serotonin production in the brain.
But since stress tends to increase blood sugar anyway, you might want to lean toward complex carbs that won’t make the spike worse. So, in these events, a snack of oatmeal might be more stress relieving than, say, a bag of M&Ms.
But don’t rule out chocolate altogether… some studies have suggested that chocolate (particularly >70 percent cocoa) can trigger a feeling similar to being in love. We’re not sure that’s true, but it definitely causes the blood vessels to relax, which lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation overall.
We’re far from understanding the totality of the gut-brain connection — the pathway of chemicals that allow the brain and digestive system to communicate. But we do know that stress can have immediate effects on hunger and fullness.
Some people react to stress by eating, while others find it almost impossible to eat in times of stress. But while having, say, your bathroom loaded with bacteria would surely be stressful, the opposite occurs in the gut.
A healthy microbiome (i.e., good gut bacteria) is thought to enhance the gut-brain connection. The best way to ensure a vibrant microbiome is to eat a variety of foods, but probiotics can help as well, so yogurts are thought to have stress-busting qualities.
Other probiotic rich foods include:
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly referred to as “good fats,” but what exactly makes them good? Let’s start with their anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce the impact of stress hormones like cortisol.
It might be tough to find space for some of the most Omega-3 rich foods out there — mackerel, oysters, caviar — but walnuts, flaxseed, salmon, and canned tuna are also easy to find and easy to eat sources of stress-busting compounds.
Most nuts are great sources of magnesium, zinc, and dietary “good fats,” so they should be a staple of just about any diet that values balance, variety, and moderation.
However, in times of stress, pistachios, sunflower seeds, or any shelled nut can help stress for a more simple reason — many people may find the repetition of removing the shells of these nuts to be meditative, or at least something to distract from whatever is stressing you out in the moment.
But sometimes it’s harder to find sunlight than a carton of eggs, which contain vitamin D and also acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that may regulate mood.
Pro tip: Eggs from free-range chickens have significantly more vitamin D than eggs from conventionally raised chicks.
At the risk of hyperbole, that little shaker of iodized salt on your kitchen table is a literal lifesaver. It’s estimated that over 2 billion people are affected by iodine deficiency, which is the leading cause of preventable intellectual and developmental disabilities.
On a less dire level, a lack of iodine can also be associated with fatigue and depression. Use it as an excuse to order the seaweed side at your favorite sushi spot, which can contain over twice the daily RDA.
Or, as anyone familiar with Three 6 Mafia will point out, shrimp is also a great source of iodine, so long as you don’t overdo it.
Many people are already likely using food for its stress-reducing properties — like the bag of M&Ms kept in a desk drawer for days of back-to-back Zoom meetings that could’ve been e-mails.
Or the Taco Bell on the way home from work, when it’s somehow 7:00 p.m. and the last thing you want is the additional work of figuring out what to eat for dinner.
And the Cool Ranch Doritos that somehow alleviate the tension of being a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan during the playoffs. There’s nothing at all wrong with having foods associated with an emotional appeal.
“Emotional eating” and “comfort food” get bad raps, associated with binge eating or “unhealthy eating” demonized by the “wellness” industry. Food is not meant to simply be a vehicle for nutrients, all of which must be extracted as efficiently as possible.
But if you’re following the principles of intuitive eating — unconditional permission to eat with variety, balance and moderation — you’re probably already eating many of these stress-relieving foods. And saving yourself the stress of trying to seek out stress-relieving foods.