Surveys suggest that most Americans feel they are experiencing unhealthy levels of stress and nearly 80% of adults say they have endured more stress in the past 5 years. Are you in the mood to read about foods that may help reduce anxiety and more importantly, chronic stress? Did you know chronic stress is a big factor in weight gain? But before we go into foods that can help with alleviating stress, a quick primer on what stress can do to the mind and body may be helpful.
Stress can be defined as the non-specific response of the body to any stimulus that overcomes, or threatens to overcome, the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis (the equilibrium of internal biological mechanisms). The stress response may be caused by social stressors (e.g., life events, personal conflicts); physiological stressors (e.g., pain, vigorous exercise, intense heat or cold); psychological or emotional stressors (e.g., sorrow, fear, anxiety); and/or chemical stressors (e.g., blood acid-base imbalance, low oxygen supply).
If the stressor represents an “ongoing” hassle, fear or overwhelming issue in a person’s life, the effect is referred to as chronic stress. In contrast, if the stressor is more temporary and immediate, the effect is referred to as acute stress. The body perceives an acute stressor (e.g., dealing with a traffic jam) as a challenge that a human being is capable of handling. On the other hand, chronic stress can seem unmanageable. Physiologically, the human body responds differently to acute and chronic stress.
If the chronic stress (real or perceived) is of sufficient magnitude and duration, through various biological mechanisms, it results in prolonged elevation of cortisol levels. Cortisol, a hormone, is known to stimulate appetite during the intermittent recovery periods that occur while a person is experiencing chronic stress. Cortisol (with the help of slightly elevated insulin levels) has also been shown to activate lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme that facilitates the deposition of fat. In the presence of slightly higher insulin levels, elevated cortisol levels inhibit the breakdown of triglycerides, thus promoting fat storage. Thus, chronic stress may consistently contribute to greater central fat accumulation, especially in females.
Aside from medication, there are several strategies you can use to help reduce symptoms of stress, from exercising to deep breathing. Additionally, there are some foods you can eat that may help lower the severity of your symptoms, mostly due to their brain-boosting properties. And assuming one can access and afford such foods, these can go a long way in reducing pain and stress. Note that these foods may not make the stress go away but they may reduce the negative effects of stress that are highly associated with chronic stress, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease.
Nuts and seeds, especially almonds and pumpkin seeds are rich in magnesium, and in vitamins B2 and E, which help bolster the immune system during times of stress. Just a quarter cup of almonds each day does the trick. For variety, spread some almond butter on fruit slices or whole wheat crackers.
Avocado is as a key source for B vitamins that are essential for healthy nerves and brain cells. Researchers argue that feelings of anxiety may be rooted in B vitamin deficiency. Avocados are also high in monounsaturated fats, magnesium and potassium, which help lower blood pressure. Next time stress has you reaching for a pint of full-fat ice cream, opt for a non-dairy DIY version made with avocado blended with a ripe banana (for added magnesium and potassium), vanilla extract, nut milk, and cinnamon, a natural sweetener.
Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes), red and green peppers, blueberries, and many other fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C and its antioxidant properties, which may help to repair and protect cells and aid in lowering blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Soy milk contains high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, which is associated with a boost in the “happiness hormone” serotonin, which in turn may lessen depression and anxiety.
Brocolli, brussels sprouts, and asparagus are loaded with folic acid, a vitamin associated with serotonin production.
- Oatmeal can also stimulate the brain to produce serotonin. Complex carbohydrates (especially in steel cut or thick rolled oats) are absorbed more slowly, thus taking longer to digest, so you stay satiated longer, and they help to ensure a steadier supply of serotonin.
Dark chocolate contains flavonols, which are antioxidants that may benefit brain function by improving blood flow to the brain and promoting its ability to adapt to stressful situations. In addition, eating dark chocolate (at least 70% dark) has also been shown to increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which may help reduce the stress that leads to anxiety. Other researchers suggest that dark chocolate’s role in brain health may simply be due to its taste, which can be comforting for those with mood disorders. Either way, dark chocolate is high in calories and easy to overeat so its best to try and consume in moderation (1-1.5 oz serving size)
Dairy products (especially yogurt) may boost serotonin levels through an increase in the enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin. Studies have shown that probiotic foods like yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, and miso soup may promote mental health and brain function by inhibiting free radicals and neurotoxins, which can damage nerve tissue in the brain and lead to anxiety.
Fish, especially fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, and tuna, are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, that may reduce stress and anxiety. The mechanism of how this occurs is not clear but one study showed that taking 2.5g of Omega-3's (or having 12 to 15 ounces of salmon) can reduce stress and anxiety by more than 20%. The study found similar results when diets were laden with other fatty fish or a fish oil supplement. Try combining fish, with avocado, brussels sprouts or broccoli for a real boost of de-stressing foods!
Overall, research is sparse on the topic of specific foods and anxiety/stress prevention. Most studies have been conducted on animals or in laboratories, and more high-quality human studies are needed. However, these foods and beverages, may help you deal with your anxiety symptoms, as they may reduce inflammation and boost brain health.
Elliot B. July 2017. Six Foods that help reduce anxiety.
Montes and Kravitz. 2011. Unraveling the stress-eating-obesity knot
- Yuan-Pin Su et al. August 2015. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids in prevention of mood and anxiety disorder
Almaradhan et al. April 2012. Dietary and botanical anxiolytics.
Ying Xu et al. March 2014. Novel therapeutic targets in depression and anxiety: antioxidants as a candidate treatment.
Nutrition Data on citrus fruits (oranges):
Nutrition Data on sweet peppers.