Stress and food have a complicated relationship.
Stress can cause you to grab for food—and it's likely you'll grab for the wrong things and overeat them as well. Stress, for many, spikes appetite, making it turn into an insatiable and desperate monster.
In fact, almost 40 percent of Americans report eating too much or eating the wrong foods as a way of dealing with their anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. And those foods they turn to—comfort foods—are usually unhealthy ones, like cake, cookies, ice cream, chips and mac and cheese.
They're foods rich in fat and sugar, which send pleasure signals to the brain. How? By boosting levels of the hormone serotonin, which has a calming effect.
But there are foods that can help with stress. Yes, you can nurture yourself with good, healthy foods that will comfort you and soothe your stress.
A word about carbohydrates: Many people crave carbs when they're stressed. Some experts think that the craving is related to the decrease in serotonin, that feel-good hormone. So, if you love carbs, then be smart and choose "smart carbs," like nourishing whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, which contain healthy things like fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
Let's get more specific and varied for the sake of stress relief:
1. Green leafy veggies
Think spinach, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, broccoli rabe, mustard greens: they're rich in folate, which helps your body manufacture neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) that help regulate mood. Create kaleslaw out of chopped kale or incorporate some spinach into these delicious herbed spinach quiche portabella caps.
The key ingredient here is L-tryptophan, which is an amino acid your body needs to convert into serotonin, which plays a role in mood. In fact, L-tryptophan is found in most foods that contain protein—with the exception of gelatin—but turkey contains a significant amount. This turkey and cucumber sandwich on whole-grain bread gives you a filling, balanced meal.
3. Fermented Foods and Yogurt
The "gut" has gotten a lot of attention lately, and this brain-gut connection is for a good reason: An unhealthy gut flora, numerous studies show, can hurt your brain health and lead to anxiety and depression. There is recent research that demonstrates changes in gut bacteria can lower anxiety levels in mice as well as affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And, when you consider that your intestines house most of the body's serotonin, that all-important mood-related neurotransmitter, it's easy to see the connection as well.
Fermented foods and yogurt that contains the probiotic lactobacillus rhamnosus (which can lower the stress-induced hormone corticosterone) can help ease stress. Although research is ongoing, adding healthy foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles can't hurt! Learn more about probiotics here.
When researchers studying post-traumatic stress disorder fed rats a diet rich in blueberries, they found that levels of serotonin in the brain increased, suggesting that blueberries might have a beneficial effect on stress. CNN reports that the antioxidants and phytonutrients in these little berries can help "improve your body's response to stress and fight stress-related free radicals." Get your blueberry fix with our blueberry banana oatmeal chia smoothie.
5. Dark Chocolate
A healthy indulgence (as long as you watch how much you eat), dark chocolate has been shown to reduce stress hormones, including cortisol. And its antioxidants can relax the walls of your blood vessels, hence lowering blood pressure and enhancing circulation. For a special indulgence, cook up these chunky chocolate brownies, made with healthy ingredients, including prune puree, which substitutes for added fat.
A warm cup of milk before bed is not just an old wives' tale: It's high in vitamin D, which is a nutrient associated with happiness. And the California Milk Advisory Board reports that the tradition of drinking warm milk before bed comes from the science related to the release of tryptophan, which helps decrease stress (see above).
Thank the omega-3 fats in salmon (as well as in sardines and anchovies) for influencing your mood. In one study, medical students taking an omega-3 supplement enjoyed a reduction in their anxiety levels. Those omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that may help fight off the negative effects of stress hormones on your body as well. Here's an easy and delicious way to turn salmon into salmon cakes, served up with some sauce made from Greek yogurt.