Running out to the store to grab a bag of chips and ice cream might be your first instinct when you're feeling stressed, but have you ever considered which foods you eat can actually reduce those anxious feelings?
Dr. Doni Wilson, a naturopathic doctor and the author of new book The Stress Remedy, emphasizes the role the hormone cortisol plays in making us feel stressed — and how eating (and avoiding) certain foods can get around it.
Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress, has been linked to innumerable health issues when experienced over the long-term, from heart disease to weight gain to lowered immune function in general, reports Psychology Today. It also inhibits other, more helpful hormones from being produced, like serotonin.
Natural responses to help deal with stress can include listening to music (which has a calming effect on the brain) or getting a good night's sleep (which can reduce cortisol levels), advises Prevention magazine. A massage can also increase serotonin and dopamine, while decreasing cortisol, says Dr. Doni.
Frustratingly, eating comfort foods, one of the ways many people make themselves feel better, is also a serious trigger for cortisol spikes. As Dr. Doni explains, some foods, like sugar, promote more cortisol, as well as more serotonin, in the brain, followed by a drop that leaves us tired and still anxious. There are, however, certain options that can help rather than hinder your brain chemistry.
Here are the best and worst foods and drinks to consume when you're feeling stressed. Have you found something else to help you? Let us know in the comments below:
Nuts like walnuts, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts help maintain healthy cortisol levels, says Dr. Doni Wilson, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Stress Remedy. The vitamins in nuts can also help strengthen the immune system, which can be hindered by stress.
Wild salmon, mackerel and sardines can all help prevent cortisol from rising, notes Dr. Doni. The omega-3s in these fish are the key to that inhibition, studies have found.
Cortisol is not all bad — it's most basic use is to help your body react to stress. It's when the cortisol is present in the long term that it's an issue, so the antioxidants and vitamin C in berries like strawberries, blueberries and cranberries can help ensure the hormone level is maintained properly.
Spinach, kale, chard and more contain magnesium, which helps muscles relax, and calcium, which is calming, says Dr. Doni.
Dark-chocolate specific antioxidants, or flavonoids, have been shown to actually reduce cortisol specifically, so keep some high-quality chocolate on hand when you know it'll be a tough day.
High-fibre carbs like oatmeal and quinoa not only keep you full for longer, but can also increases serotonin for longer periods of time than refined carbs, says Dr. Doni.
Drinking tea can decrease cortisol, increase endorphins and oxytocin, relax muscles, and improve your mood, says Dr. Doni.
Including protein with every meal — which you should be eating every 3 to 4 hours — can help balance your hormone levels and keep cortisol from spiking and making you more stressed.
Salt is one of the no-no foods when it comes to feeling stressed — which is exactly why you want that bag of chips so badly. Salt can trigger more cortisol and a boost of serotonin, but then drop off, leaving you feeling worse than you did before.
The same goes for sugar, which has an immediate impact on blood sugar levels and can cause quick spikes and drops.
If you're stressed about getting things done, one of your first inclinations is to drink coffee or soft drinks to stay awake and finish. But don't do it first thing in the morning. Since cortisol is released first thing in the morning and is its own "upper" of a sort, studies found it's best to wait until approximately 9:30 a.m. for your coffee — and try to stick to just one.
Like caffeine, alcohol is another beverage we turn to when stressed, to just take a bit of the edge off. The problem is that alcohol also increases cortisol levels, leaving us just as stressed as we were before.