If you suffer from stress, you’re familiar with that restless feeling, that frightening tension that rises inside of you and sabotages your good mood. Although everyone feels nervous from time to time, chronic, excessive stress is currently the most common psychiatric issues in the USA. Many Americans reach for food as comfort when they’re feeling tense. During periods of stress, it can be hard to exercise control over which foods you eat, but it’s during these times that it’s actually most critical to choose the right foods.
There is a large volume of research that demonstrates the link between food and the brain shows that foods with high salt, fat, and sugar content can actually increase stress by causing inflammation or blocking serotonin receptors. Other foods, however, contain molecules and compounds that have the opposite effect and can actually reduce tension. This is great news because it means that part of our stress is under our control. Here are the best foods to have around if you suffer from frequent stress:
We all know that avocados are creamy, delicious, and photogenic, but did you know they can calm your nerves? Avocados are nutrient-dense, supplying you with nearly 20 different vitamins and minerals, all helpful towards a happy and healthy brain. Besides being full of nutrients themselves, avocados also contain healthy fats that help your body absorb all of these nutrients. This means that adding avocado to any meal will make it even more nutritious. Spread some avocado on whole-grain toast or add it to any salad to increase your nutrient intake and quickly feel happier and healthier.
Next time you need to satisfy the urge to munch on some potato chips, reach for some almonds instead. Besides being an excellent source of vitamin E, almonds also have exceptionally high levels of magnesium. As a “macro-mineral,” magnesium is essential to many of your body’s basic functions, but only 30% of Americans meet the daily recommended intake of dietary magnesium. Scientific studies have shown that a lack of magnesium is correlated to an increase in anxiety symptoms, so if you are suffering from anxiety, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of this essential mineral. Have a container of almonds handy for any time you feel like you need to snack on something, even if you’re not really hungry. Other magnesium-rich foods are cashews, pumpkin seeds, and spinach.
Ever heard of folate? This nutrient has undergone a huge amount of research in recent years and is recognized as a key factor in human health and disease prevention. Clinical studies have shown an inverse relationship between folate status and depression and anxiety symptoms, which means that keeping your folate intake high reduces your chances of feeling anxious.1 The best way to consume folate is through lentils, beans, and leafy greens. Black beans, in particular, are super easy to add to your diet because they are versatile and easy to cook. Throw some black beans in a pan and add them to any meal. They’re filling, tasty, and full of folate.
Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale are all cruciferous vegetables. This group of veggies is among the healthiest you can eat because of their cancer-fighting abilities and high nutrient content.2 Besides being an excellent source of a whole array of essential vitamins, cruciferous veggies are unique because when they are chopped or chewed they form a compound called sulforaphane.3 In nature, the plant releases this compound to ward off insects, but it has huge health benefits for humans. Sulforaphane is a powerful activator of the genetic pathway NRF2. This pathway controls over 200 genes, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant genes, as well as genes that inactivate harmful compounds. Thus, adding sulforaphane to your diet can help you excrete the harmful carcinogens that you take in from the environment. But how will it decrease anxiety? Well, sulforaphane has potent anti-inflammatory effects, and inflammation has a huge effect on the brain and behavior. Recent studies have shown that in many people, depression is essentially a disorder of chronic inflammation. By taking in compounds that reduce inflammation, you are decreasing your chances of developing depressive and anxious symptoms. In one study 4, sulforaphane proved to be as effective as prescription medication in treating depression symptoms in mice. Cruciferous veggies are healthful no matter how you prepare them, but eating them raw will give you the most sulforaphane.
Anxiety lives in the brain, so it’s important to make sure what you eat is keeping your brain in tip-top shape. One of the best ways to keep your brain healthy is to make sure you’re eating enough omega-3 fatty acids. This group of fats is unusual in that it’s the only type of fat that your body crucially needs, but can’t make itself, so it’s necessary to get it from dietary sources. DHA and EPA, two kinds of omega-3s, are crucial structural components of brain cells. So if you’re not getting enough of these in your diet, you will have higher brain inflammation and lower production of new brain cells. This brain inflammation is highly correlated with depressive and anxious symptoms. Many populations, including Spanish, Greek, and French, people consume plenty of omega-3s, but 70% of Americans are omega-3 deficient. You can find DHA and EPA mainly in fish, especially in what nutritionists call “oily little fish” – mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. Wild-caught sardines are a perfect omega-3 source because they’re cheap, sustainably fished, and delicious when added to various dishes. Try opening up a can and mixing them in a salad, stir-fry, or pasta dish.
Here’s a fun fact about mushrooms: their DNA is more closely related to that of humans than that of plants! Mushrooms were well-known throughout history as a powerhouse of valuable nutrients. They’re high in amino acids and, importantly, vitamin D. Most of us think we get enough vitamin D from sunlight, but 70% percent of Americans are actually vitamin-D deficient. This vitamin is responsible for the expression of over 1000 genes, and if you’re not getting enough you might experience slower brain cell growth and lower serotonin levels. Both of these are issues that are highly correlated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, so it’s necessary for someone with anxiety to make sure they’re getting enough Vitamin D.5 Try sautéing sliced mushrooms in olive oil and garlic for a Vitamin D-licious side dish.
Do you like spicy food? If so, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s a real correlation between a fiery tongue and a good mood. The way this works is through a fascinating process called hormesis.6 When you eat spicy foods, you’re actually consuming a small number of toxins. This stresses out the body just enough to trigger stress-response mechanisms to calm you down. The more low-level stress you feel, the more “feel-good” chemicals are traveling to your brain. So the spicier the food is, the more of a rush you’ll feel after eating it. This is the same process that causes a “runner’s high”. The more low-level pain you feel during a workout, the better you feel afterward. Activating these stress-response pathways has two effects. First, it gives us an immediate high, and second, it trains our bodies to handle stress better in the future. It’s easy to add spice to any dish – throw some red pepper flakes in whenever you add salt and pepper. Or, even better, add freshly-chopped jalapeños to any (or every!) meal.
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If you like this round-up of different foods which are good to alleviate stress, you’ll also enjoy our article on the best essential oils for stress.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States. There could be many factors contributing to any one person’s mental health, and everyone’s situation is a little different. But we all make dietary choices every day, and there’s no question that what you feed your body has an effect on your brain.7
If you tend to reach for fatty, oily, sugary foods when you’re feeling anxious, it may shock you how much better you will feel after eating an avocado or some almonds instead. If you’re feeling like you want to order a pizza, put on your favorite song and cook some veggies instead. These foods do double duty – they add beautiful vitamins and minerals to your system while keeping the dangerous ones out. Paired with lots of water, essential oils, and daily exercise, these additions to your diet are sure to lessen your anxiety symptoms.