When work deadlines begin piling up and your social calendar is overbooked, who has time for healthy eating? But when it comes to combating stress levels, what you eat may actually help relieve your tension. Some foods may help stabilize blood sugar or, better yet, your emotional response. Here are 20 foods that may reduce stress and why they can help.
Green leafy vegetables
It's tempting to reach for a cheeseburger when stressed, but go green at lunch instead. "Green leafy vegetables like spinach contain folate, which produces dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, helping you keep calm," Heather Mangieri, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Health. A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders of 2,800 middle-age and elderly people found that those who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression symptoms than those who took in the least. Another study from the University of Otago in New Zealand discovered that college students tended to feel calmer, happier, and more energetic on days they ate more fruits and veggies. It can be hard to tell which came first—upbeat thoughts or healthy eating—but the researchers found that healthy eating seemed to predict a positive mood the next day.
You've probably heard that the tryptophan in turkey is to blame for that food coma on Thanksgiving. This amino acid helps produce serotonin, "the chemical that regulates hunger and feelings of happiness and well-being," Mangieri says. On its own, tryptophan may have a calming effect. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience, men and women who were argumentative (based on personality tests) took either tryptophan supplements or a placebo for 15 days. Those who took tryptophan were perceived as more agreeable by their study partners at the end of the two weeks compared with when they didn't take it. Other foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, lentils, oats, beans, and eggs.
If you're already a carb lover, it's likely that nothing can come between you and a doughnut when stress hits. First rule of thumb: Don't completely deny the craving. According to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carbohydrates can help the brain make serotonin, the same brain chemical that is regulated by certain antidepressants. But instead of reaching for that sugary bear claw, go for complex carbs. "Stress can cause your blood sugar to rise, Mangieri says, "so a complex carb like oatmeal won't contribute to your already potential spike in blood glucose."
As bizarre as it may sound, the bacteria in your gut might be contributing to stress. Research has shown that the brain and gut communicate via body chemicals, which is why stress can inflame gastrointestinal symptoms. And a UCLA study among 36 healthy women revealed that consuming probiotics in yogurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress. This study was small, so more research is needed to confirm the results—but considering that yogurt is full of calcium and protein in addition to probiotics, you really can't go wrong by adding more of it to your diet.
Stress can ratchet up levels of anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. "The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon have anti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones," says Lisa Cimperman, RD, of the University Hospitals Case Medical Center and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Oregon State University medical students who took omega-3 supplements had a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the group given placebo pills.
"When you're stressed, there's a battle being fought inside you," Mangieri says. "The antioxidants and phytonutrients found in berries fight in your defense, helping improve your body's response to stress." Research has also shown that blueberry eaters experience a boost in natural killer cells, "a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in immunity, critical for countering stress," Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor, tells Health.
When you have an ongoing loop of negative thoughts playing in your mind, doing something repetitive with your hands may help silence your inner monologue. Think knitting or kneading bread—or even shelling nuts like pistachios or peanuts. The rhythmic moves will help you relax. Plus, the added step of cracking open a shell slows down your eating, making pistachios a diet-friendly snack. What's more, pistachios have heart-health benefits. "Eating pistachios may reduce acute stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate," Mangieri says. "The nuts contain key phytonutrients that may provide antioxidant support for cardiovascular health."
A regular healthy indulgence (just a bite, not a whole bar!) of dark chocolate might have the power to regulate your stress levels. "Research has shown that it can reduce your stress hormones, including cortisol," Sass says. "Also, the antioxidants in cocoa trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. Finally, dark chocolate contains unique natural substances that create a sense of euphoria similar to the feeling of being in love." Go for varieties that contain at least 70% cocoa.
Fortified milk is an excellent source of vitamin D, which is thought to boost happiness. A 50-year study by London's UCL Institute of Child Health found an association between reduced levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of panic and depression among 5,966 men and women. People who had sufficient vitamin D levels had a reduced risk of panic disorders compared to subjects with the lowest levels of vitamin D. Other foods high in vitamin D include salmon, egg yolks, and fortified cereal.
Flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all great sources of magnesium (as are leafy greens, yogurt, nuts, and fish). Loading up on the mineral may help regulate emotions. "Magnesium has been shown to help alleviate depression, fatigue, and irritability," Sass says. "Bonus: When you're feeling especially irritable during that time of the month, the mineral also helps to fight PMS symptoms, including cramps and water retention."
Slice after slice of avocado toast might not be so healthy, but consuming regular portions of this superfruit might help shut down stress eating by filling your belly and making you feel more satisfied. In a 2014 study by Loma Linda University (which, full disclosure, was sponsored by the Hass Avocado Board), researchers had participants add half an avocado to their lunches, reducing their desire to eat more by 40% for the three hours following the midday meal. That full feeling will make you less inclined to reach for unhealthy snacks when stress kicks in..increasing your stress levels as a result.
One ounce of the buttery nut packs 11% of the daily recommended value of zinc, an essential mineral that may help reduce anxiety. When researchers gave zinc supplements to people who were diagnosed with both anxiety symptoms (irritability, lack of ability to concentrate) and deficient zinc levels over a course of eight weeks, the patients saw a 31% decrease in anxiety, according to Nutrition and Metabolic Insights. This is likely because zinc affects the levels of a nerve chemical that influences mood. If you're already getting enough zinc, it may not help your mood to chow down on cashews (or other zinc-rich foods like oysters, beef, chicken, and yogurt). But cashews are also rich in omega-3s and protein, so they're a smart snack no matter what.
As one of the top sources of vitamin C, oranges are thought to be a great way to relax and lower stress levels. "In addition to supporting immune function, which can be weakened by stress, this key nutrient helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can wreak havoc on the body," explains Sass. "The effects of a prolonged high cortisol level can include fatigue, brain fog, increased appetite, and weight gain, particularly belly fat."
Eggs aren't just a great brunch staple. "Whole eggs are one of the few natural sources of vitamin D," says Sass. "This nutrient is linked to several important health benefits, including better immune function, anti-inflammation, and mood regulation, including reducing symptoms of depression."
Nutritionist Keri Gans, RD, explains to Health that eggs also contain acetylcholine, a chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain and can impact your ability to regulate your mood, which could make it easier to manage stress levels.
Sushi lovers, you're in luck. That seaweed wrapped around your spicy tuna roll has added benefits for relieving stress.
"Seaweed is rich in iodine and one of the few sources of this important mineral," explains Sass. "Too little iodine can trigger fatigue and depression, but just a quarter cup of seaweed salad can pack over 275% of the daily value."
Green tea is a great alternative to coffee and won't give you those caffine-induced jitters like your cup of joe.
A Japanese study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, conducted with over 40,000 people, found that levels of psychological stress were 20% lower in those who drank at least five cups of green tea per day compared to those who drank less than one cup per day, says Sass. The results held true even after accounting for factors such as age, sex, medical history, body mass index, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, and diet.
Dwight Schrute would be thrilled to know that an added health benefit of beets is their folate content, a vitamin that can play a role in relieving stress. According to Sass, one cup of beets supplies over 30% of the folate needed daily.
"Because of its link with the nervous system, too little folate has been known to trigger mental fatigue, forgetfulness, confusion, and insomnia," Sass explains. "In addition, several common medications can deplete the body's supply of folate, including cholesterol-lowering drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, diabetes medications and birth control pills."
Add turmeric to your dishes for an extra boost of feel-good nutrients. Gans explains that the spice is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, specifically curcumin.
"Curcumin is known to possibly stimulate the 'feel-good' hormones in our body, like serotonin and dopamine," Gans says. "So by default, it's probably going to put you in a better mood."
Oysters are known aphrodisiacs, but their high zinc content is another reason to love those slimy little delicacies. Oysters contain 32 mg of zinc per serving (6 raw oysters), which is 400% of your recommended dietary allowance.
"Zinc may lower the body's response to stress," says Gans. "It's an antioxidant, which has the ability to possibly strengthen the immune system, have anti-inflammatory properties, and in zinc specifically, it may lower the body's response to stress and anxiety."
Swap that glass of wine out for a cup of chamomile tea before bed if you're really looking to relax. This tea favorite is the healthy way to unwind and get a great night's sleep while you're at it.
"Chamomile has been shown to enhance sleep, including promoting relaxation and sleepiness, and improving sleep quality," says Sass. "Adequate sleep is an important stress reliever and helps to optimize immune function, which can be weakened by stress."