When we’re stressed out, we might think that reaching for a donut or a plate of fries will make us feel better, but these foods provide little in the way of actual nutrition. They may actually make us feel worse, especially if we’re prone to food-guilt spirals.
The body has a physical response to stress – our muscles tense up, our breathing changes, the heart races, and blood sugar spikes, as the body courses with stress hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. We may also experience gastrointestinal discomfort and changes in appetite.
According to the American Psychological Association, this 'fight or flight' response is a biological process that may have been useful in fighting off an attacking army or running away from, say, a lion, but not so much for making it through a stressful staff meeting or when your newborn hasn't stopped crying all night! Chronic stress and our body’s response to it can lead to chronic health issues.
When we’re stressed, eating stabilizing foods can help us feel more together. Seeking out foods that contain protein, fat, and fiber to balance our blood sugar while providing other key vitamins, and minerals can impact how we deal with stress as well.
Incorporating nutrient-rich foods into our daily meals can help us navigate whatever 'crazy' comes our way.
Here are six stress-busting foods you need to eat now!
Carb cravings are a logical response to stress-related dips in mood-regulating brain chemical serotonin, as they are needed for normal serotonin production. The point is to not freak out if your grain-free, dairy-free, paleo egg muffin doesn’t sound appealing for breakfast on a hectic morning – a breakfast bowl of oatmeal will give you slow-digesting complex carbs and fiber, plus some Vitamin B6 to keep your energy up and reduce your stress levels.
Oatmeal also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor to serotonin and a key part of production. To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, top with nuts or nut butter for stabilizing protein and fat.
A 2013, Danone funded, UCLA study showed that consumption of probiotic bacteria in yogurt was associated with reduced activity in parts of the brain that handle emotion and stress, suggesting that changing gut bacteria can impact brain function.
Eating probiotic-rich foods and other foods that promote good digestion may be helpful for clear gut-brain communication, which means that happier gut bacteria = happier, calmer you. Yogurt also provides protein to help stabilize blood sugar, along with calcium and potassium to support regular muscle and nerve function to help you mellow out and think clearly.
The folate in dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale produces pleasure-inducing brain chemical dopamine, which can help you feel more upbeat as you roll with the punches. The potassium, magnesium, and calcium in spinach also promote normal muscle and nerve function to soothe your body’s 'fight or flight' response so you can deal with whatever comes your way.
Spinach also provides some protein and fiber (about 3 grams of each per 3-cup serving of raw spinach), so how about making a spinach salad for lunch that's both yummy and will reduce your stress levels?
Eggs provide stabilizing protein and fat and make an easy, delicious addition to all kinds of foods. They also offer instant portion control, at just 70 calories apiece. Like most animal proteins, eggs are also a good source of tryptophan.The anti-inflammatory impact of the omega-3 fatty acids in eggs may help counteract the effect of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline), which can lead to chronic inflammation in the body.
Hate eggs? Try fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, etc) or pop an omega-3 supplement. Walnuts and flax are some plant-based sources of omega-3’s, but keep in mind that the body may not absorb them as efficiently as those found in animal sources.
The Vitamin C in oranges and other citrus fruit (and lots of veggies too!) may help slow the production of cortisol. They’re also packed with folate, potassium, and fiber. The bright color and flavor also go a long way in boosting your mood and can-do attitude.
Nuts like pistachios are a great source of protein and healthy fats and make an easily transportable snack to keep 'hanger' (hungry + angry) at bay if you’re on the go or slogging through a full day of meetings. The potassium in pistachios helps with muscle and nerve function as well keeps you on an even keel. An added bonus? Shelling these nuts gives your hands something to do, which also reduces stress!
Let the eating begin!