There are many ways to manage and even reduce stress levels when you’re feeling tense. Food can be one of your biggest allies – or enemies. It can make your stress levels go down or up, so it’s critical to pay attention to what you’re eating when you’re feeling frazzled.
Not to mention, just being stressed can increase your need for certain nutrients, such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, and niacin, according to research.
One article suggests that the amount and quality of nutrients you take in over time can impact the body’s neural circuits that control emotion, motivation, and mood.
Additionally, the causal relationship between diet and mental health conditions like depression can be tricky to definitively identify, but some research suggests that diet can affect mental health, while mental health can also affect diet.
Other research has pointed to gut microbiota – microorganisms in the intestine made up of good and bad bacteria – as an essential link to the relationship between what you eat and drink, and how you feel.
“Microbiome health, or gut health, affects your mood, emotions, and psychological health,” says Alice Figueroa, RDN, MPH, a nutritionist and author of Prediabetes Diet and Action Plan: A Guide to Reverse Prediabetes and Start New Healthy Habits.
Unhealthy eating patterns can send stress levels skyrocketing and potentially increase your risk of health problems in the future if you don’t address them.
“Fighting stress with food is a tactic available to everyone,” Figueroa says. “No expensive supplements or complex methodology is required. So the next time you’re under pressure, arm yourself with this delicious arsenal of 10 stress-busting foods.”
1. Herbal Tea Promotes Feelings of Warmth and Calmness
Sometimes it’s the feeling that food or drinks induce, not their nutrients, that helps reduce stress. Drinking a warm cup of tea is one way to help make yourself feel calmer, says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, an online nutrition coach and owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Kentucky.
Research has suggested that holding and sipping a warm beverage increases feelings of interpersonal “warmth” and friendliness. There’s a soothing effect of sipping a warm drink, regardless of the flavour. Further, certain herbs, such as lavender and chamomile, have been shown to have a relaxing effect on their own, Meyerowitz says.
Figueroa agrees herbal tea is great for winding down, but she says green tea is perfectly fine when you need a small jolt of caffeine because it’s full of flavonoids, which studies show support brain health. They can help protect neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins, suppress neuro-inflammation, and promote memory, learning, and cognitive function.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a cup of brewed green tea contains 28 milligrams (mg) of caffeine versus black brewed coffee’s 96 mg per cup. Therefore, green tea can also be a preferable choice compared with coffee if you’re looking to chill out.
2. Dark Chocolate Offers an Antioxidant-Rich Indulgence
Dark chocolate in the diet can reduce stress in two ways – via its chemical impact and its emotional impact.
Chocolate feels like such an indulgence that it can be a real treat to simply savour a piece of it, and that feeling alone can help to reduce stress, says Meyerowitz.
Dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidants, may also help reduce stress by lowering levels of stress hormones in the body, according to a study that followed participants who ate about 1.5 ounces (oz) per day for two weeks. But be sure to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation, advises Meyerowitz. That means you should aim to eat only one-fourth of a small dark chocolate bar (about 1 oz). Also, make sure the bar doesn’t contain an unnecessary surplus of added sugar, says Figueroa.
It’s also important to choose high-quality dark chocolate, she says. You may have heard about the “bean-to-bar” movement, which focuses on high-quality ingredients and in-house responsibility for every aspect of the chocolate-making process. This “farm-to-table” approach ensures the bar is packed with pure components and no hidden additives or chemicals.
Look on the label for two or three ingredients only, such as cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter. Additionally, a high cocoa content is desirable. A 2022 study found that dark chocolate with 85 percent cocoa may improve your mood more than chocolate with 70 percent cocoa.
3. Wholegrains Provide a Mood-Boosting Way to Carbo Load
According to research, carbohydrates can temporarily increase levels of serotonin, a hormone that boosts mood and reduces stress.
Once serotonin levels are increased, people under stress have better concentration and focus. Just make sure to choose healthy, unrefined carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes and whole grains, for better nutrition, and limit simple carbs, such as biscuits, cake, and “white” foods, including white pasta and white bread. Unrefined carbs cause a quick spike and crash of blood sugar.
Complex carbs contain vitamins and minerals as well as fibre and so take longer to digest and have less of an immediate impact on blood sugar.
“Because fibre can also support a healthy gut microbiome, reach for high-fibre foods, including whole rye, buckwheat, and brown rice,” says Figueroa.
4. Avocadoes Offer Stress-Busting Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Avocadoes are not only delicious mashed into guacamole or sliced and added to a salad – they also contain an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, research has found that high doses of these essential acids may reduce anxiety.
Meyerowitz emphasises the importance of getting the right amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet for overall health – in addition to the benefit of helping reduce stress – which the U.S. Federal government dietary guidelines define as 1.6 grams (g) of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a form of omega-3 fats) for adult men and 1.1 g of ALA for adult women.
But the possible superpower of avocados goes beyond their omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain phytochemicals, fibre, and essential nutrients.
A 2021 review of 19 clinical trials and five studies found that eating avocadoes may improve heart health, brain function, gut health, and weight management.
The researchers believe this is due to avocadoes having a relatively low caloric density and a low ratio of saturated fats to unsaturated fats, as well as being a good source of prebiotic fibre.
Additionally, one large survey of U.S. adults suggested that avocadoes have been linked to better diet quality and nutrient intake as well as a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions that include high blood pressure and obesity.
5. Fish Can Boost Your Heart Health While Fending Off Stress
Fight stress and help prevent heart disease by adding seafood to your plate. Fatty fish in particular are a great option because they’re heart-healthy, and their omega-3s may help ease depression because the nutrients easily interact with mood-related brain molecules, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Fatty fish include tuna, halibut, salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and trout, according to the American Heart Association.
Not a fish fan? There are other whole-food options, like seaweed, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and fortified food, such as certain brands of eggs, milk, soy milk, and nut milk. You can also try omega-3 supplements in the form of fish oil. Harvard Health Publishing notes that they’re all tied to a lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
Figueroa agrees supplementing with fish oil is fine if you’re not eating a balanced diet that is rich in omega-3s that includes eating fish at least twice a week. But she cautions that it’s important to check with your doctor or registered dietitian before beginning a supplement routine, so you can figure out the best brand and dosage for your health goals.
6. Warm Milk Can Help You Get a Good Night’s Sleep, Aiding Stress Management
Sipping warm milk before bed is a centuries-old home remedy for getting a better night’s sleep, and can have a relaxing effect on the body as well as on a psychological level. For people who grew up drinking warm milk before bed, the routine can signal that it’s time to go to sleep, for example. Also, the act of sipping a warm beverage curled up on the couch is innately relaxing.
In addition, calcium-rich foods are an essential part of a healthy diet for bone health, but this nutrient may also help reduce depression. In a 2023 survey of almost 15,000 participants, symptoms of depression decreased as calcium intake increased. Milk and other dairy foods with calcium and added vitamin D can help muscles relax and stabilise mood. One review even found that calcium may help ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
If milk isn’t your thing, other dairy sources, like yogurt and cheese, are excellent sources of calcium, according to MedlinePlus. If you’re lactose intolerant, canned salmon with soft bones, almonds, sunflower seeds, and green leafy veggies (like kale, broccoli, turnip greens, and bok choy) are also sources of calcium.
7. Nuts Are A Great Stress-Busting Snack, and They’re High in Healthy Fat
Nuts are full of nutrients, including B vitamins, along with healthy fatty acids. Meyerowitz says B vitamins are an important part of a healthy diet and can help reduce stress. Almonds, pistachios, and walnuts may even help lower blood pressure levels. According to a small 2022 study, walnut consumption among college students was found to have a possible protective effect against some of the negative impacts of academic stress. If you’re looking to add nuts to your diet, just remember to limit servings to just a handful a day to avoid excess calories.
Nuts and seeds are also high in magnesium, and that’s a plus, Figueroa says, because magnesium has been linked to better anxiety management. Findings from one review suggested that magnesium benefits individuals with mild to moderate levels of anxiety, but more trials are needed before making this treatment recommendation across the board.
8. Citrus Fruit and Strawberries Contain Vitamin C, Which Helps Fight Stress
Some studies have found that high levels of vitamin C may help ease stress levels. One double-blind study reported that vitamin C reduced stress levels in participants taking 500 mg per day. Another review found that vitamin C supplementation could improve symptoms of stress-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Eating fruit like oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries is another good place to start.
9. Probiotics Can Help Create a Healthy Microbiota, Helping You Manage Stress
The best way to support healthy gut hormones is with good-for-you bacteria called probiotics, Figueroa says. According to Harvard Health Publishing, probiotics can help boost the immune system, protect against harmful bacteria, and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients.
A 2021 study found that taking the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum may alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, possibly due to a relationship between the gut microbiome and mood.
Fortunately, probiotics occur naturally in food too, and appear to be slightly better than the pill form, though both are efficient carriers for good bacteria, according to another study.
Figueroa’s favourite probiotic is kefir, a fermented yogurt drink. She also recommends yogurt and fermented foods, including kombucha and miso, a Japanese fermented bean paste that can be found in miso soup.
10. Foods High in Fibre May Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Fibre-rich foods are gut-friendly and can play a role in lowering stress. According to one review, a high-fibre diet may be linked with reduced anxiety, depression, and stress. A 2021 study of over 3,300 adults found an association between greater fibre intake and reduced psychological distress. In addition, there was a lower chance of depression for women with higher fibre intake.
To add more fibre to your diet, Figueroa recommends eating beans, green peas, berries, almonds, pistachios, flaxseed, sesame seeds, and lots of greens like kale and broccoli. Whole grains are also fibre champs. Often whole grain–based foods will have a symbol or wording on the package saying so, but look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat” listed in the first ingredient to be sure.
“We hear it all the time: ‘eat foods that are rich in fibre,’ and it’s because they balance your blood sugar and prevent spikes in your insulin levels,” Figueroa says.
A blood sugar crash can induce fatigue, anxiety, shaking, irritability, and trouble concentrating, according to the Mayo Clinic. There’s a hormonal response when blood sugar gets low – a rapid release of epinephrine and glucagon, followed by a slower release of cortisol and growth hormone, according to the University of California, San Francisco – so keep the pantry full of fibre -rich foods and avoid blood sugar spikes and plummets brought on by empty carbs, such as chips and candy.