Anxiety disorders affect 18% of the U.S. population, and only one-third receive formal treatment. These numbers don’t account for the everyday stress we all experience at work, school, while driving or taking care of family matters. The world is getting more stressful every day, but there are ways to deal with it without running away to a cabin in the mountains.
Changing your diet helps you deal with stress better and may even help control anxiety disorders. Eating the right foods helps balance the neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for controlling your reaction to stressful events.
Serotonin, Cortisol and Your Stress Levels
When you’re stressed out, angry or anxious, your body produces an abundance of cortisol. A steroid hormone created by cholesterol in your adrenal glands, it’s released when you exercise, wake up after a nap, or encounter stressful situations. Along with epinephrine, cortisol is responsible for the increase in energy and alertness required for survival in tense “fight or flight” moments. An occasional jump in cortisol due to stress is normal and natural, with the body returning to pre-stress hormone levels when stress subsides. People suffering from constant (or near-constant) anxiety rarely get a break from high cortisol levels. This does a lot more than leave them nervous or on edge. Excess cortisol levels damages health in many other ways. It elevates glucose production, which leads to a higher blood sugar level, and ultimately, diabetes. Cortisol also increases cravings for carbohydrates, sugary treats and junk food. The resulting weight gain furthers the chance of diabetes and heart disease.
Serotonin and Other Neurotransmitters Promote Calmness
The neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA counteract the ill effects of cortisol. These feel-good substances neurotransmitters are responsible for better sleep, a calm, peaceful attitude and good self-esteem. When serotonin is depleted, you become tense, anxious and depressed. When your body has a proper amount of serotonin, it’s better able to produce melatonin, a substance that regulates your body clock and sleep cycle.
Low amounts of norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, cause depression and lethargy. Not all neurotransmitters are chill - glutamate, dopamine, catecholamines, and PEA are excitatory. They help us focus and maintain a good memory and sense of ambition. If you experience a decrease in these neurotransmitters, you’ll be temporarily scatterbrained, tired and have poor short-term memory.
When serotonin, GABA and other neurotransmitters are out of whack and cortisol is high, you’ll feel stressed, anxious and hyperalert. To keep neurotransmitters properly aligned naturally – without anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication – it’s important to eat a balanced diet, including the following stress relief foods.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning you must get it from food. Your body can’t produce it. The tryptophan in turkey helps serotonin production, but you’ll need to eat some carbohydrates (a turkey sandwich instead of plain turkey) with it to feel the full relaxing effect.
Turkey seems to be the only food linked with tryptophan in articles, but it’s not the only one, just the most highly publicized. Other tryptophan-containing foods are chicken, tofu, cheese, lamb, fish, beans and eggs.
Dark Chocolate Isn’t Just for Dessert
Stress-reducing properties aren’t found in just the usual suspects. Chocolate contains polyphenols, antioxidants found in many fruits and vegetables. Highly stressed people reported feeling less anxious after eating dark chocolate, according to a study conducted by the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. Choose unsweetened dark chocolate over milk chocolate and additive-laden candy bars. Dark chocolate with high cacao content also provides flavonols, which may help people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by boosting blood flow to the brain.
Don’t limit yourself to chocolate bars for tasty stress relief. A 2013 Australian study showed subjects who drank a hot cocoa with either 250 mg or 500 mgs of polyphenols for 30 days felt calmer than participants who drank a polyphenol-free beverage. http://jop.sagepub.com/content/27/5/451.abstract
A soothing cup of tea can relax you in the middle of a hectic day. Even though black tea has caffeine, it contains much less than coffee, cola or energy drinks. Instead, it gives you energy without overexerting the nervous system or heart. Drinking black tea on a regular basis has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels to relive stress in study participants.
Black tea offers antioxidants called polyphenols to prevent inflammation, and the amino acid L-theanine to relax you while increasing your concentration. If you want to stay up late to complete a project without the jitters, a cup of black tea works better than an energy drink.
Green tea has even more stress-relieving attributes than black tea. A Japanese study cited by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involved 42, 093 people, with 2,774 of them described as suffering from psychological stress. Anxiety-plagued participants who drank five or more cups of green tea a day reported 20% less stress, while people who drank one cup of green tea experienced less relief from stress.
Green tea contains the antioxidant polyphenols catechin, epicatechin, gallaogatechin, epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate (EGCG), and apigallocatechin gallate. Polyphenols give green tea its bitter taste, and imbue it with dozens of health benefits. Green tea has been shown to reduce cancer-causing inflammation, lower cholesterol and protect the cardiovascular system.
Fruits and Vegetables with Vitamin C
Long regarded as a nutritional supplement to fight the common cold, flu and even cancer, Vitamin C may also reduce stress. A group of German researchers believe Vitamin C can help people deal with stress effectively. During a study, people who took 1000 mg of Vitamin C handled a public speaking task and math problems without developing high cortisol levels. Individuals who didn’t receive Vitamin C had higher cortisol levels and blood pressure.
Grapefruit, oranges, kiwifruit, apples and strawberries contain high amounts of Vitamin C, but you may be surprised to learn that yellow bell peppers, guavas and kale have more Vitamin C than any of those popular fruits. The great thing about Vitamin C is that you have so many ways to get more of this stress-reducing vitamin in your diet.
Yogurt and Other Probiotics
Gut bacteria’s effect on depression and mental health has been well-documented by many studies and articles. Colonies of bacteria live in our intestines -some good, some bad- and the food we eat affects the balance of beneficial vs. harmful bacteria.
A probiotic food stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut, and that does a lot more than aid digestion. A UCLA study showed women who ate yogurt daily had better brain function and experienced less stress than women who ate a non-probiotic dairy product or no dairy product. Probiotic foods, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and sourdough bread, can reduce depression by getting rid of bad gut bacteria and replacing it with healthy bacteria. There’s a strong connection between the bacteria in your gut and brain function. Good gut microbes create GABA, serotonin and dopamine to improve your mood. It’s believed the good bacteria travels to the brain via the vagus nerve, endocrine or immune system.
There are several probiotic foods that you should eat to reign in depression and stress. Only a handful of them, like yogurt, are eaten regularly by the general public. Look into the full list of probiotics to expand your anti-stress diet.
This sulfur-rich veggie also contains potassium, to lower blood pressure, and folate, to make sure your body produces enough of the calming neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. One cup of asparagus provides 75% of your daily recommended value of folate and 12% of the DRV of potassium. Steam or grill fresh asparagus as a side dish for salmon or turkey or add it to an omelet for a change of pace breakfast.
Dairy Foods, Liver and Sunshine – How Vitamin D Reduces Stress
If you find yourself getting depressed and anxious when you’re indoors for a long time, it’s not just because of boredom. We get most of our Vitamin D “The Happiness Vitamin” from sunshine. That’s why going outdoors is important for your health, even if you’re not exercising or playing sports. The sun’s rays supply us with Vitamin D through skin absorption, and a lack of Vitamin D causes depression, anxiety and aggravates everyday stress. High cortisol levels sap your body of Vitamin D, so spend more time in the sun if you’re feeling stressed. Take a ten-minute walk or sit on in your backyard and read a book. You don’t need to lie on the beach for hours to reap the benefits of Vitamin D from sunlight. However, the amount of time you’ll need to get the 600 IU of Vitamin D recommended by the National Institute of Health varies, depending on where you live, your complexion, the time of year, how much sunscreen you use, and how much of your skin is exposed.
Some doctors have used Vitamin D to treat fatigue, which is often linked with high levels of stress. Whether you’re stressed or calm, you can get more Vitamin D from eggs, fatty fish, cod liver oil, cheese, beef liver and Vitamin D fortified milk or other dairy products.
Omega 3’s Lower Stress and Protect Your Heart
Eating foods with omega 3 fatty acids has been proven to reduce stress. Taking fish oil capsules can accomplish the same stress-fighting goal, although it’s always preferable to get nutrients through food instead of supplements. Students who took received Omega 3 supplements during an Ohio State University study experienced 20% less anxiety than students who received a placebo.
Omega 3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and egg yolks. There are three kinds of Omega 3s – EPAs, DHAs, which are found in animal products, and ALAs, found in plants. EPAs and DHAs provide many other heath benefits beside stress reduction. They include protection against high blood pressure, heart disease and some types of cancer. Vegans can get Omegas 3s from ALA-rich kale, spinach and Brussels Sprouts, along with fish oil supplements.
Avocados are considered an ingredient in guacamole and a favorite fruit of Californians, but they are also one of the most nutritious fruits out there. Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), healthy fats which help lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. This creamy green fruit is rich in folate (Vitamin B9), which prevents excess homocysteine from accumulating in the blood. Homocysteine impairs the production of the happiness-inducing chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
A calmer disposition isn’t the only reason to eat avocados. Like carrots, peppers and other beta-carotene rich foods, eating avocados reduces the chance of age-related macular degeneration. Lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals in avocados, are also present in eye tissue, and eating avocados helps protect eyes from ultraviolet rays.
Minimize Stress by Avoiding These Foods
Ok, so maybe avoiding coffee isn’t a realistic goal. We all need to get a buzz on first thing in the morning, and sometimes less caffeinated beverages won’t cut it. But even the most steely-nerved individual can get the jitters after one too many Venti or Trenta sized servings of java. Too much coffee (more than 28 cups per week if you’re under 55), does more than trigger stress. It can cause increased heartbeat or heart palpitations, insomnia, rambling speech, anxiety, acid reflux, and body tremors.
Drinking coffee should wake up and give you energy, not make your head spin. The same goes for energy drinks. Don’t use coffee or high-caffeine energy drinks as a substitute for sleep and a balanced diet. Caffeine should compliment your lifestyle and the food you eat, not take their place.
If you drink alcohol to reduce stress, it may backfire. Alcohol worsens the effects of stress and can reduce the pleasant feelings you get from drinking, according to a University of Chicago study. Unwinding with a glass of wine at dinner may be a good idea when you’re not stressed, but choose tea, water or a smoothie instead if you’re feeling anxious.
Salty Snack Foods
When you eat lots of high-sodium foods, you’ll retain fluid, which elevates blood pressure and makes your heart work harder. This may increase mental and physical stress and leave you feeling fatigued.
Cola and Other Sodas
With its high sugar and caffeine content, cola increases jitters if you’re already nervous or stressed. Like coffee, alcohol and energy drinks, cola and other sodas contribute to dehydration and insomnia. Even diet sodas contain caffeine and/or harmful chemicals that exacerbate stress.
It’s way too easy to grab soda or sugary snacks from the vending machine if you’re under stress at work- and those foods will only ruin your concentration and aggravate stress.Avoid work-related binge or stress eating by bringing your own lunch or having an office lunch buddy who’s just as dedicated to healthy eating as you are.
We can’t stop stressful events from happening, but we can control the way we react to them. What we eat and drink (along with meditation and exercise) can make a big difference in how we handle what happens to us.
Are there any healthy foods or beverages that help calm you down when you're feeling stressed? Let us know in the comment section!