It’s is difficult to measure stress.
There is no agreed upon definition of “stress” or what all it encompasses, exactly.
But there is one thing we can all agree on:
Stress is killing us.
Sure, sometimes, in certain instances stress can be good, it can even be life-saving as in the “flight or fight” mechanism.
Stress can motivate you to perform or save your life in some situations.
And research shows some stress can actually help us- we learn how to handle things, grow from our experiences and have more faith in our abilities to handle the next stressful situation.
But that’s the exception, not the rule.
Most stress is bad: bad for our health, bad for our sleep, bad for our relationships and long term stress is the worst of all, it takes its toll contributing to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety.
And it seems like we all have some degree of stress in our lives, some of it is exciting (marriage! A new baby! A new job!) and some is negative (a divorce, injury or work related stress).
If you are feeling stressed at work, you are not alone: According to the American Institute of Stress 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress.
And guess what, your coworkers are noticing: 42% of those surveyed said their coworkers need such help.
The American Psychological Association notes that “The Stress in America” survey results show that adults continue to report high levels of stress and nearly half reported that their stress has increased over the past year.
The report goes on to say that 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month.
But, don’t stress!
There are plenty of ways to reduce stress, including through the foods we eat.
How does food help reduce stress?
There are a few mechanisms through which food works to reduce stress and help you feel better.
Comfort foods, like a warm bowl of soup, can boost levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that works in our brain to boost mood, happiness and reduces anxiety.
(Just be careful not to overdo it- stress can also trigger our bodies to eat more food and less healthy foods)
A good nutritional strategy for coping with stress is to eat crunchy veggies.
Munching on crunchy veggies can also help reduce stress.
That satisfying crunch helps release a clenched jaw during a stressful time.
When your face is relaxed your brain relaxes as well.
Don’t have crunchy veggies on hand?
Clench your facial muscles tightly- really squish ‘em up- and then relax.
This little maneuver helps trick your brain into calming down during times of high stress. Just as our bodies follow clues our brains give it, our brains follow clues our bodies give it.
Relaxing a clenched jaw or putting a smile on your face no matter how miserable you are will give your brain the message that you are happy- you’re telling it “see, we’re all good here, we’re not stressed anymore.
You shouldn’t be stressed either.” Tricky, right?
Crunchy veggies also contribute to a healthy, balanced diet- just what the doctor ordered to help reduce stress.
Eating healthy foods helps in managing stress because a balanced diet helps improve our nutritional status. When our bodies are well nourished they are better equipped to deal with stress.
So when you’re stressed and find yourself reaching for that plate of cookies, remember that it will not help fuel your body.
When we fill up on questionable food choices we find ourselves well fed but undernourished and micronutrient deficiencies have been implicated in altered mood states (including work stress) in otherwise healthy individuals.
Foods that lower cortisol
Not only do healthy foods choices provide vital micronutrients, they can also reduce levels of damaging stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which take a toll on the body over time.
A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure.
But you didn’t come here just to read that a healthy diet helps with stress, did you?
You came here because you wanted to know which foods are stress relievers.
And we’ve got the answers!
Stress reducing foods
When it comes to foods that combat stress, complex carbs are at the top of that list, thanks to their ability to produce mood enhancing serotonin.
Sweet potatoes, beans and lentils, fruit, winter squash, whole grains and other healthy, complex carbs prompt the body to produce that “feel-good” serotonin.
Full disclosure: all carbs actually trigger serotonin (part of the reason sugar is so addicting).
But this doesn’t give you license to grab a donut in the name of combating stress. The negative effects of sugary, simple carbs outweigh the benefit you get.
Instead, stick to those complex carbs to fire up the serotonin levels without the negative impacts of simple carbs.
While simple carbs (like sugar, refined white flours) trigger a blood sugar spike complex carbs do just the opposite- they help stabilize blood sugar levels which helps you feel more balanced and even.
Bottom line: complex carbs trigger feel good hormones without damaging blood sugar spikes.
Want even more stress busting power from your complex carbs?
Pair them with vitamin C.
An important vitamin to beat stress, Vitamin C can be found in bell peppers, oranges (and other citrus- lemons, limes, grapefruit), kale, Brussels sprouts, kiwis, and strawberries.
One thing to be aware of with vitamin c: high heat destroys it, so opt for these foods raw or very lightly cooked.
What makes vitamin C good for preventing stress from doing damage?
It helps reduce the levels of stress hormones like cortisol and it strengthens the immune system.
Not only does vitamin C prevent the physiological effects of stress like increased cortisol release and high blood pressure, it helps people bounce back faster from stressful situations.
Bottom line: if you know you have a stressful meeting or a stressful task coming up grab an orange or snack on bell peppers and hummus before you start to help prevent stress from doing damage.
Next up on the stress fighting foods list:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Because is there anything these fatty acids can’t do?
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel, walnuts, flax and chia seeds help prevent surges in stress hormones and the depression that stress can often lead to.
Yup, you read that right: if you don’t manage it properly, stress can lead to depression.
Stress leads to inflammation and while acute or short term inflammation in the body can be a good thing as it helps eliminate pathogens and prevent disease when the inflammatory response becomes chronic (long term) it can lead to cognitive impairment, depression, fatigue and chronic pain.
Stress can also snowball– when we get stressed we are less likely to do things that help us combat stress, like eat healthy and exercise.
In turn, this increases our stress and can result in depression.
It’s not just omega-3 fatty acids that help. Other healthy fats also play an important role: healthy fats, like those found in avocados, olives, and nuts like pistachios, almonds and even peanuts help lower cholesterol and inflammation in the arteries.
Bottom line: Memory, mood, activity, and pain are impacted by long term or chronic stress but omega-3’s and other healthy fats help keep stress from doing too much damage. Aim for 3-4oz of fatty fish at least twice a week and other healthy fats on a daily basis.
As we are learning more and more, our gut bacteria impact so much more than just our guts.
From our brain to our mood to our immune system, these little guys fight the good fight every day and their reach is felt all over our bodies.
So, it only makes sense to keep our gut bacteria happy and thriving.
Giving the gut what it wants- like fermented foods- helps keep these little guys happy and healthy and increases bacterial diversity (this is a good thing).
Feeding the gut fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, kefir, pickles and sauerkraut provides the gut with a great variety of the healthy bacteria which play an essential role in your health.
- They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria
- They limit inflammation
- They improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food
- And they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
The health benefits of your gut flora or microbiome are many, including their ability to influence your mood by increasing production of neurotransmitters like Serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.
Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.
Bottom line: our gut and our gut bacteria influence our mood, fermented foods help keep the gut and gut bacteria thriving and our moods stable and balanced.
No list of foods that combat stress would be complete without a mention of the B complex vitamins.
Foods high in B-vitamins help reduce stress and depression and help make you more resilient to them.
One study, in particular, looked at work place stress and found that high doses of B vitamins improved mood states of employees and reduced worker stress.
What are the “B complex” vitamins?
There are many different kinds of B-vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, Vitamin B-6, vitamin B12, biotin and pantothenic acid.
They are found in a wide variety of foods so a varied diet can help ensure you get adequate amounts of B-vitamins.
In general, whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, legumes, fish, pork and poultry tend to be good sources of B-vitamins.
The only exception is B-12 which comes exclusively from animal products.
Vegetarian or vegan?
Don’t stress- you can get B-12 from nutritional yeast and many soy products and cereals are fortified with it.
Some foods, however, are higher in certain kinds than others- pork, dark leafy greens, whole grains, lentils, almonds and pecans are all high in the B-vitamin thiamin.
Another B-vitamin, riboflavin, can be found in milk and milk products like yogurt and cheese, asparagus, spinach (and other dark leafy greens) chicken, fish, eggs and whole grains.
Salmon, canned tuna, poultry, legumes (including peanuts) and whole grains all contain Niacin (important for healthy nerve function!)
Bottom line: B-vitamins are found in a variety of foods, so eating a balanced diet is important. B-vitamins help reduce stress and improve mood.
Looking to expand beyond just food?
Exercise is also valuable when it comes to stress reduction.
Aerobic exercise boosts oxygen circulation and spurs your body to make feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week.
Meditation and relaxation techniques also help your body deal with stress in a positive way. The kind of way that makes stress beneficial and helpful.
Remember, it’s not the stress itself that is damaging, it’s how you deal with it.
Foods can help, but dealing with stress in a healthy way and reducing stressors in your life is also important.