When you get stressed or anxious, do you reach for something salty or sweet, or do you lace up and go for a walk or run? For many who feel stressed or anxious, especially during times like these, our natural instinct is to reach for foods (and drinks) for comfort and maybe even for an escape.
However, often the very things we choose to gulp down (chips, cookies, alcohol) are only providing us short-term relief and may actually increase anxiety and depression in the long run. There’s a reason for this, according to Karen Hemmes, a registered dietitian at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.
How food affects stress and anxiety
“Eating foods such as processed meats, high sugar foods, caffeine and alcohol, which provide little nutritional value, have been associated with more psychiatric symptoms and can increase cortisol levels—our primary hormone responsible for stress,” she said. “A diet high in whole foods and low in processed foods can help maintain healthy cortisol levels.”
Research has shown that increases in stress and cortisol have been linked to an increased risk of developing obesity, metabolic syndromes, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and other disorders of the brain.
Certain foods may also reduce stress and anxiety. “Eating a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats can help decrease stress and anxiety and boost mood and self-esteem,” Hemmes said. “These foods provide your body with the nutrients you and your brain need to function properly.”
Foods that help reduce stress and anxiety
While there is no specific diet that can cure stress and anxiety, there are some foods that may help. Here are some foods worth trying to help improve your well-being:
A Mediterranean-type diet high in omega-3 fatty acid
Consuming omega-3 rich foods along with supplemental fish oil may reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Such foods include:
- Fish: salmon, tuna and sardines
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds
Foods high in vitamins A, C and E
Foods high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C and vitamin E can help prevent cell damage to the brain. Such foods include:
- Vegetables: asparagus, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli and leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Fruits: strawberries, citrus fruits, papaya, cantaloupe and apricots
- Nuts and seeds: almonds and sunflower seeds
Foods high in vitamin B
Several studies have linked high doses of vitamin B with reduced symptoms of stress. Foods rich in vitamin B can also aid in heart and brain function. Such foods include:
- Lean proteins: chicken, fish, eggs and turkey
- Fortified cereals
- Nutritional yeast
Prebiotic and probiotic foods
“Serotonin, a key hormone that regulates our mood, feelings and well-being and happiness, is primarily made in our guts,” Hemmes said. “Therefore, having healthy gut microbiome can help reduce stress and anxiety. Eating prebiotic and probiotic foods can help with that.” Such foods include:
- High fiber foods: raspberries, whole grains and beans
- Fermented foods: kefir, aged cheese, sauerkraut and kombucha
Research has found that magnesium may help with brain functions that reduce stress and may even be helpful in the treatment of mild anxiety.
“When we’re stressed, it can cause us to excrete magnesium in our urine,” Hemmes said. “Having low magnesium levels may contribute to anxiety, panic disorders, insomnia, fatigue and hyperemotionality (being overly emotional).”
Foods rich in magnesium include:
- Fruits: bananas and avocados
- Vegetables: broccoli and spinach
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds
- Legumes: lentils, beans, chickpeas and peas
- Dark chocolate
Foods (and drinks) that are stress- and anxiety-provoking
If you’re feeling stressed, try to avoid these foods:
- Sugary drinks and foods
- Processed foods, such as chips, cookies, frozen foods and ready-made meals
- Foods high in trans fats and excessive saturated fats, such as fried foods, red meat, full-fat dairy, butter and baked goods
But if you do dabble in a few of these items, remember, moderation is key!
Don’t rely on food alone to de-stress
We are what we eat, but when it comes to managing stress and anxiety—food alone isn’t the answer.
“Activities like regular physical exercise, getting enough sleep and treating any underlying mental health problems are important too,” Hemmes said.
Talk to your doctor or a behavioral health specialist if you’re struggling to manage stress and anxiety in your life. The right health care provider can help you better understand what might be triggering your anxiety and stress and make healthy diet and lifestyle changes to combat them. To find a Banner Heath specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.