8 Foods That Can Help Decrease Stress
Stress eating doesn't have to be a bad thing—here's why.
There’s a solid link between feeling good and living longer. Food plays an important role in that connection, including how it affects our moods and stress levels. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by more than just a case of the hangries, turn to this list of things you can eat or drink to help combat stress.
Whole Grains and Complex Carbs
“Eating whole grains is beneficial when you’re feeling stressed,” says Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, founder of Citrition, LLC, in New York. “Aside from being more nutritious, these foods have added benefits,” she notes.
“When people are stressed, the balance of serotonin in the brain can be off,” explains Greebel. Whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-wheat bread, and other complex carbs, such as starchy veggies and legumes, can combat stress by releasing “happy hormones” in the brain. They can also release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is thought to benefit both happiness and wellness, says Greebel. “Eating complex carbs helps increase serotonin, whereas eating refined carbs like bagels, cookies, and white bread has the opposite effect,” she says.
“It’s human nature to want to eat those foods when we’re stressed,” adds Greebel, “but they only exacerbate stress rather than combat it. Then we feel guilty for eating them, which also exacerbates stress,” she says. “If you’re going to have a junky snack, even whole-grain tortilla chips will help to combat the stress that you’re feeling.”
If you’re low-carbing it, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines) is also thought to help increase serotonin. Similarly, a study out of Montreal found that tryptophan (yep, the amino acid in turkey that makes us sleepy) decreased “quarrelsome behaviors,” increased “agreeable behaviors,” and improved overall mood. You can find tryptophan in poultry, eggs, and nuts.
Get the Recipe: Parslied Brown Rice Pilaf
Not that anybody needed a study to tell us this, but dark chocolate can decrease stress and anxiety by releasing serotonin and increasing a general feeling of well-being. “Have a piece of dark chocolate instead of some sort of packaged cookie, which is going to have the opposite outcome,” says Greebel. A study from the University of Madrid revealed that chocolate with a cocoa content of 85% has the highest level of serotonin, while chocolate with a cocoa content of between 70% and 85% has the highest level of l-tryptophan. (Added bonus: dark chocolate also contains magnesium, which is thought to improve relaxation and mood.)
Get the Recipe: Chocolate Mousse
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fatty fish, have been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, and, by extension, may help relieve stress. “They’re very beneficial,” notes Greebel. Look for omega 3s in flaxseeds, chia seeds, omega 3–enriched eggs, and grass-fed beef, “which is thought to have a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6,” says Greebel. “Having too much omega 6 is believed to lead to overweight and obesity as well as inflammation in the body, which is tied to many diseases,” she adds.
View Recipe: Cherry Chia Pudding
“Some people believe that those who are stressed have low levels of folate,” says Greebel. Eating folate-rich foods may help. Fortunately, “it’s in so many fruits and veggies,” she says. Try leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as asparagus, broccoli, avocado, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, orange juice, strawberries, and egg yolks. Fortified whole-grain products have the synthetic form, folic acid, which can be another important source of this nutrient.
View Recipe: Crispy Chicken Thighs With Kale and Chickpeas
Not only is vitamin C thought to combat mental stress and bad moods, but it actually helps with the physical stress that the body is undergoing, says Greebel. Fresh fruits and vegetables reign supreme here. Reach for bell peppers, broccoli, squash, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens, citrus, and strawberries. (An added benefit of strawberries is that they contain melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Better sleep equals a better ability to cope with stress.)
View Recipe: Jerk Chicken and Stuffed Mini Bell Peppers
Trillions of bacteria live in the digestive tract; they play an important role in both health and disease prevention. Healthy gut bacteria digest and absorb nutrients to form a better defense against both physical and mental illness. “There is a tremendous amount of thought behind the brain-gut connection,” says Greebel. “Many people have stress, anxiety, and depression, and it could be tied to the bacteria in the gut being off balance.”
“Making sure you have a balance of good and bad bacteria is very beneficial to your overall well-being,” notes Greebel. “The makeup of your gut bacteria can influence your mood.” The key is to feed the good bacteria while starving the bad by limiting or avoiding refined carbs and sugar, fried foods, high-fat dairy, and red meat. Feed the good bacteria with probiotic foods such as kefir, pickles and pickle juice, kimchi, kombucha, and fermented sauerkraut. “But to me, the easiest way to ensure you have a good balance of bacteria in your gut is getting yogurt in some way, shape, or form as a regular part of your day or week,” adds Greebel.
View Recipe: Kimchi Grilled Cheese
Various teas—and their accompanying aromas—have been shown to decrease anxiety, which can lead to better sleep as well as better stress management, says Greebel. One European study showed that smelling lavender decreased stress-induced anxiety, suggesting that it promotes greater relaxation and less mental stress overall. Orange and other citrus scents can likewise help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Chamomile is another traditional remedy for mild insomnia and can produce a sense of calm. To help reduce stress, try drinking lavender, mint, chamomile, or decaffeinated bergamot (Earl Grey) tea, suggests Greebel.
Give It Some Crunch
Ever notice that you’re clenching your jaw or gritting your teeth when your emotions intensify? “That’s one way people end up with migraines and stress headaches,” says Greebel. And stress makes headaches worse, she adds.
“Eating crunchy things reduces stress because it releases tension from your jaw, face, and neck simply by the act of crunching,” she says. “Being able to release some of that tension is very beneficial.” Greebel suggests eating radishes or jicama, celery, and carrot sticks—“something that has a really good crunch.”
“Many people are stressed at work and can’t have an immediate stress release, like a run, which is sometimes what you need to keep going throughout the day,” says Greebel. As a result, “a lot of people stress-eat, so they might as well eat something healthy.”
If veggies just won’t cut it, Greebel suggests eating air-popped popcorn with a little salt for that same amount of crunch. Popcorn is a “good salty snack that’s also a whole grain,” she says, adding, “you get a lot more of it in a portion than similar-type foods.”
View Recipe: Green Pea and Parsley Hummus
Food for Thought
Greebel notes, don’t forget about exercise any time of the day, in addition to yoga, stretching, and breathing exercises, to tune down your stress levels. “And turn off devices before bed,” she adds. “Those simple things are 100 percent useful to decrease stress.”