Whether you're running late to work, moving to a new home or struggling to pay the bills, you feel it – that chemical reaction that causes your heart to race and muscles to tense. And when left untreated and poorly managed, stress wreaks havoc on your health. It makes you more susceptible to illnesses like the common cold, raises blood pressure and increases risk of diabetes and depression. You may already know that exercise and meditation are healthy ways to reduce stress, but nutrients in certain healthy foods may also help.
Feeling stressed? Go ahead and eat a little dark chocolate. Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the chocolate, stimulates the release of serotonin in the brain. This mood-altering chemical has been shown to make you feel relaxed and happy. The nutrients in dark chocolate also improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure. While this sweet treat offers a number of health benefits for the stressed, you don't want to over do it. One ounce of dark chocolate a day should be enough to help you cope. Lisa Cimperman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, also suggests non-alkalized dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cacao to get the most benefits.
The omega-3s in salmon are not only good for your heart, but researchers say they may also help you better manage stress. The essential fatty acids found in salmon protect neurons from damage caused by stress, which is especially helpful to those dealing with chronic stress. For good health, aim to eat salmon, or other fatty fish such as tuna or sardines, twice a week. If you're not into fish, Cimperman suggests flaxseed or walnuts to get your omega-3s.
Low in calories and readily available, bananas make a good food to add to your stress-reducing diet. Vitamin B6 deficiency decreases serotonin production, according to naturopathic doctors Kathleen A. Head and Gregory S. Kelly. Making bananas a regular part of your diet repertoire keeps vitamin B6 levels and serotonin production up. Bananas are also rich in potassium, which is a nutrient that helps lower blood pressure.
Cortisol is the primary hormone responsible for the stress response. It prepares the body for fight-or-flight reactions by flooding it with glucose for immediate energy. Chronic stress reduces magnesium in your body, and low levels increase your susceptibility to stress, compounding the effects, according to some researchers. If your stress is causing you to feel anxious, irritable and agitated, your body may be deficient in magnesium. With 150 milligrams per 1-cup cooked serving, Swiss chard can up your intake of magnesium, help balance cortisol levels and reduce anxiety.
Green and black tea contain the amino acid L-theanine. This amino acid increases dopamine and serotonin production. Like serotonin, dopamine is a feel-good chemical in the brain that promotes pleasure. So, even though a cup of green tea sometimes has more caffeine than a cup of coffee, the L-theanine can counteract the stimulant to promote feelings of joy and relaxation in some people.
Crunchy and sweet, red peppers not only add color to a stir-fry or salad, but also boosts immune health and fights stress. A 1/2-cup serving of red peppers contains 158 milligrams of vitamin C – that’s more than a 6-ounce glass of orange juice. It also has more vitamin C than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 90 milligrams for men and 75 milligrams for women. According to Dr. Head and Dr. Kelly, upping your intake of vitamin C in amounts greater than the RDA helps lower cortisol levels – they recommend up to 1 gram a day. This is especially important for men who tend to have higher levels of cortisol than women.
The B vitamins are known to help extract energy from the food you eat, but they also play a major role in stress management. Niacin promotes sleep, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and thiamin regulate cortisol in stressful situations, and folate is necessary for the regeneration of neurons. Beans are not only a good source of B vitamins, but are also high in fiber, protein and iron. A 1/2-cup serving of any bean, including black beans, kidney beans or chickpeas, can help you get the Bs you need to work out the stress. Incorporate beans into soups, salads or whole-grain side dishes for added texture and flavor.
- National Institute of Mental Health: Fact Sheet on Stress
- Alternative Medicine Review: Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitters Imbalance, Anxiety and Restless Sleep
- Psych Central: Chocolate and Mood Disorders
- Princeton University: Serotonin
- Nutrition Review: Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Chronic Stress-Induced Modulations of Glutamatergic Neurotransmission in the Hippocampus
- American Heart Association: Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin B6
- American Heart Association: Potassium and High Blood Pressure
- Medical Hypothesis: Rapid Recovery From Major Depression Using Magnesium Treatment
- USDA: National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Chard, Swiss, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, Without Salt
- Psychology Today: Dopamine
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin C
- MedlinePlus: B Vitamins
- Lisa Cimperman MS, RDN, LD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson, Cleveland, Ohio
- The Bean Institute: Nutritional Value of Dry Beans
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: Daytime Trajectories of Cortisol: Demographic and Socioeconomic Differences -- Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences