I hear you thinking. “Of course you can eat your stress away. It’s called chocolate”. Although you do make a persuasive argument, unfortunately, chocolate and all other “comfort” foods are not the best foods for stress reduction. At least, not in the long run. In this article, I will tell you exactly how foods affect your body AND mind, and what foods do relieve stress.
Reducing stress with healthy foods
When we suffer from stress, anxiety or depression, we usually look at situational, external factors to pinpoint the cause. Is our boss too demanding? Is our partner too demanding? Do we have unresolved childhood trauma?
Although these circumstances can certainly influence our state of mind, food plays a major part as well.
The relationship between your belly and your brain
There are millions of bacteria in your gut. Good ones and bad ones. They have the ability to affect the health of your belly and your brain.
You probably already know that your emotions can affect your gut. When you are in love, your belly feels like a butterfly zoo. When you experience a break-up, you feel down-right nauseous and too sick to even think of food. This isn’t just a thought. Anxiety, fear and sadness literally change your gut bacteria.
But this also works the other way around. When you consume foods that disrupt the health of your gut, the health of your brain gets knocked around as well. This, in turn, affects your emotions, your mood and the way you think.
Your gut is your second brain
Your gut is also called your “second brain”. Studies show that nutrition plays a key role in the onset, intensity, and length of depression. Anxiety and depression can actually be caused by stomach problems.
I know that it’s hard to eat healthy when you feel like shit. And there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a chocolate feast when you are going through a rough time.
But if you understand what positive effect stress-reducing foods have on you, you might be able to force-feed yourself a green smoothie every once in a while.
The effects of stress on your body
Mind you, stress isn’t necessarily bad. In order to function properly, you even need a little stress. But when the stress response in your nervous system is out of balance (in case of overactivity or under-activity), you can get sick.
Chronic stress depletes your body of:
- Vitamin C
- Different B vitamins (including B12)
These nutrients, and especially magnesium, are crucial for a healthy production of serotonin (your “happy hormone”) and the regulation of cortisol (your “stress hormone”). Your body needs different minerals and vitamins to function optimally. And vitamins need each other to get properly absorbed by your body.
If you have a lack of certain nutrients due to stress, your immune system deteriorates and you can get sick. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are linked to depression, burnout, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and chronic fatigue.
Stress and emotional eating
You feel like crap, your energy level is somewhere below zero, so what do you do? You reach out to comfort foods a.k.a. fast carbs. A bag of chips. A chocolate bar. An ice-cream.
Of course that makes you feel better. The rush of sugar gives you an incredible boost of energy. Your body gets a shot of serotonin and endorphin, which makes you feel happy. For a second.
But fast carbs lead to blood sugar fluctuations. This causes you to experience strong highs and lows in your energy level and state of mind.
After the sugar wears off, you experience a low. This low makes you grab another snack. Sugar can, therefore, become addictive. Although everyone knows that eating too much sugar makes us fat, some experts even claim that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine. In the long run, sugar literally breaks down your body and brain.
Healthy foods for stress reduction
So what are the best foods for stress reduction to make you happier and healthier?
1. Foods high in fiber and complex carbohydrates
You probably know that you shouldn’t load up on fat and sugar. But did you know that high-fiber foods are crucial for a balanced diet? Nutritionists recommend consuming 25-40 grams of fiber every day, but most of us don’t even get half of that.
Fiber helps to maintain stable blood pressure and a healthy gut. It also leaves us feeling satisfied so we experience fewer sugar cravings in times of stress. Unlike refined sugar or fast carbs, high-fiber foods and complex carbs release energy slowly.
All carbohydrates signal the brain to produce more serotonin. But for a constant supply of serotonin, it is better to eat complex carbohydrates, which take longer to digest. So, high fiber foods are great foods for stress reduction.
A healthy serotonin production also depends on tryptophan. The following foods are rich in fiber as well as tryptophan:
- Wholemeal products (avoid if you are gluten-intolerant/allergic)
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds, including linseed
- Legumes, such as chickpeas, beans, peas, and lentils
2. Foods high in magnesium
Stress leads to serious magnesium deficiency. As I mentioned before, studies have shown that magnesium deficiency is strongly related to anxiety and depression. A lack of magnesium can also cause headaches and make you feel tired. Magnesium helps to keep your cortisol levels in check.
These foods contain the most magnesium:
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Nuts, including almonds, walnuts, and cashew nuts
- Kelp and seaweed
- Brown rice
3. Foods high in vitamin C
What do you do when you have a cold? Snort up a bit of vitamin C! Everyone knows that vitamin C benefits our immune system. But vitamin C – just like magnesium – also keeps your cortisol level stable and helps to prevent depression. Studies show that vitamin C reduces anxiety and improves concentration.
These are foods high in vitamin C:
- Red bell pepper (contain twice as much vitamin C as oranges!)
- Citrus fruits, including lemon and orange
- Brussels sprouts
4. Foods high in omega-3 fats
Omega-3 fats regulate serotonin levels in your brain. To get enough omega-3, eat more of the following foods for stress reduction:
- Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel
- Soy products
5. Foods high in zinc
Zinc is an important mineral for the cells in your body and helps to maintain a healthy immune system. You find zinc in the following foods:
- Green leafy vegetables, including spinach
- Sesame seeds
- Whole grain products
- Pumpkin seeds
6. Foods high in B vitamins
B vitamins regulate your cortisol level as well and they are super important for cell metabolism. Foods with B vitamins include:
- Nuts, including almonds
- Whole grain products
- Brown rice
Vitamin B complex for a vegan diet
Most people who eat a balanced diet should have sufficient B vitamins, but a vegan diet can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency. Are you vegan? Then take a food supplement, such as a vitamin B-complex.
Get into the “rest & digest” mode
Now that you know how important the role of nutrition is in stress reduction, you can help your body and mind get strong and healthy.
Other ways to reduce stress are important too though. By relaxing, your body enters into the “rest & digest” mode. Which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode that gets activated when your body and mind are stressed.
Relaxation makes your body better able to absorb all of those necessary vitamins and minerals. Try one (or all) of these ways to get into the ultimate chill mode.
- Meditation (try my exercises for meditation and mindfulness)
- Tai chi
- Making music
- Body massage
- Sufficient sleep
- (Spiritual) self-development (check out my top 6 self-help books of all time)
Let thy food be thy medicine
It’s totally okay to wolf down a pizza or enjoy an ice cream every now and then. But when you suffer from chronic stress, inflammatory disease, or any other mental or physical health problems, you need to find a good balance.
Get a health boost, give your body the resources it needs, and “let thy food be thy medicine” (or use at least a combo if you do need medicine).
Further reading & recipes
I am not a food blogger (apart from the one time I shared my recipe for raw vegan chocolate chunks), so I leave that up to the professionals. The following, recently published, high-quality books are all chock-full of stress-reducing foods and yummy recipes:
- Busy, Stressed, and Food Obsessed!: Calm Down, Ditch Your Inner-Critic Bitch, and Finally Figure Out What Your Body Needs to Thrive
- When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating
- Boost Your Immune System: Strategies for Strengthening Your Immune System with Foods, Herbs, Stress Management, and More!
- 101 Optimal Life Foods: Alleviate Stress, Ease Muscle Pain, Boost Short-Term Memory, and Eat Your Way to Great Health…One Delicious Bite at a Time
PS Actually, I have shared some other healthy snack recipes here.
PPS The cover photo shows one of my meals at the Serenity Eco Guesthouse restaurant in Canggu, Bali. Seriously good food & yoga.
PPPS This article contains affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something, I earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you.