When you think of stress eating, you probably think of crunching on a bag of salty chips or spooning ice cream straight from the pint. (No? Just us?) We’re here to put a new spin on stress eating by highlighting foods that can actually help you manage your body’s stress response instead of making it worse.
What Happens When We’re Stressed
You’re probably familiar with the shallow breathing, pounding heart and muscle tension that can come with stress. Maybe you sweat, get headaches or become more irritable. Longer term exposure to stress can also affect your mood, sleep, weight and memory. These are all responses to changes in our brain chemistry like increases in stress hormones such as cortisol, which trigger the fight or flight response.
The good news is the foods we eat can also affect our brain chemistry in ways that combat the effects of stress. So, instead of reaching for those chips or ice cream (SIGH), try working some of these foods into your diet.
Simply holding a mug of hot tea can be very calming. It invites visions of cozying up by a fire or lazing around in a pair of comfy pajamas. But certain herbal teas have an additional soothing effect. Chamomile has been shown to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and other teas like lavender, kava, mint and valerian can reduce stress and even improve your sleep.
Avoiding caffeine is typically a good rule of thumb when you’re stressed, but you can bend that rule for green tea. Green tea only has a little caffeine compared to coffee, but it also has vitamins B and C, and other beneficial nutrients like theanine, which has stress-reducing properties.
This nutrient has gotten props for boosting immunity, but it’s also been shown to reduce feelings of stress. Studies have linked vitamin C to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as lower blood pressure.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers
This nutrient is known for maintaining the nervous system. Various B vitamins are responsible for helping the brain produce serotonin and dopamine, which are chemicals that help regulate mood, improve mental function and contribute to a sense of calm. Deficiencies in vitamin B can cause symptoms similar to stress like depression and decreased cognitive function. By boosting your vitamin B intake, you can arm your body to handle stress.
Foods high in vitamin B include:
- Whole grains
- Tuna and salmon
- Milk, yogurt and cheese
- Leafy greens
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
You might be familiar with these healthy fats from the Mediterranean diet. Good news: They also help reduce anxiety.
Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids include:
- Salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel
- Chia seeds and flax seeds
- Soybeans and tofu
- Canola oil
Avocados pack a real stress-fighting punch because they’re high in healthy fats as well as vitamins B and C.
Whole grains, fruits and vegetables that are high in complex carbohydrates not only provide energy needed to effectively handle stress, but they can also boost serotonin in the brain.
Foods high in protein, especially tryptophan, can also help serotonin production. Try turkey, milk, soy, eggs, nuts and salmon. Proteins also take longer to convert to sugar in your blood, which can help your body avoid energy spikes and crashes that can create more stress on your body.
If the siren song of sweets is just too much to bear, try nibbling on some dark chocolate. It’s rich in antioxidants and helps enhance serotonin production. (We think that’s something we can all get behind!)
Take heart. Stress doesn’t have to be bad for you. In fact, some promising studies show there are some benefits of stress. It can enable us to rise to a challenge more easily or see us through a difficult patch. Check out this TED Talk on how stress can be your friend.
Still, we need all the help we can get. And while eating these foods when you’re feeling stressed is a good start, studies indicate consuming them over the long term will help your future self be better equipped to deal with stress. So, the next time you head to the grocery store, stock up on some stress-busting produce, meat, dairy and complex carbs.