The Diet and Stress Connection
The body has a very physical response to stress (think: muscle tension, blood sugar spikes, breathing changes, racing heart) as stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol pump through your system. Add an upset stomach and appetite changes, and you've got yourself a bad party.
According to the American Psychological Association, this "fight or flight" response is a biological process that was probably useful early on in the process of evolution—but not so much for modern-day stressors like traffic, tight deadlines, and dating problems. Because chronic stress can lead to chronic health issues, it's important to get a handle on it ASAP.
Wolfing down a doughnut or demolishing a bag of chips might provide a temporary distraction. But these nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods can actually make you feel worse physically. They may also trigger negative emotions, perpetuating the stress cycle. The good news is that healthy, nutritionally valuable food can have the opposite (positive!) effect. Over time, eating more of these foods can help your brain and body respond better to stress. Aim for a balance of protein, fat, and fiber to stabilize your blood sugar and give you important vitamins and minerals. Adding these foods to the menu may help you keep it together now and going forward.
Several studies have shown that eating probiotic-rich foods and other foods that promote good digestion may be helpful for clear gut-brain communication, helping you feel happier and calmer. Probiotics have been used to soothe stress-related stomach issues. A 2013 (Danone-funded) study showed an association between consumption of probiotic bacteria in yogurt and reduced activity in parts of the brain that handle stress and emotion, suggesting that changing the gut bacteria can impact brain function. Yogurt also provides stabilizing protein, along with calcium and potassium, which support regular muscle and nerve function to help you mellow out and think clearly.
When you're stressed, the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin takes a hit. And, because carbohydrates play a big role in serotonin production, a stress-induced carb craving is actually pretty logical. The key is to reach for slow-digesting whole grains to help promote stable blood sugar levels.
Oats provide a bonus dose of the amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin and a key part of its production. Vitamin B6, found in oats, is also important to keep your brain firing on all cylinders. That'll help you feel focused and energized instead of like you need to take a nap under your desk.
To get the most mileage out of your meal, top a bowl of oatmeal with nuts, nut butter, or if you're up for a savory twist, an egg.
Tough day at work? Have a big spinach salad for lunch to help you feel more upbeat and ready to take on the second half of the day. The folate in dark, leafy greens such as spinach and mustard greens produces the pleasure-inducing brain chemical dopamine. Spinach also provides some protein and fiber (about 3 grams of each per 3-cup serving of raw spinach). The potassium, magnesium, and calcium in spinach also support normal muscle and nerve function to soothe the body's "fight or flight" response to stress, so you can deal with whatever comes your way.
Folate-rich oranges are also a great go-to stress management food. They're packed with potassium and filling fiber, and the bright color and flavor provide a nice mood boost. What's especially awesome about oranges is that the vitamin C in there—also present in many other fruits and veggies—may help slow the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Getting a handle on cortisol is key, as chronically high levels have been associated with health conditions. Don't like citrus? Try kiwi, mango, or berries, which also offer stress-reducing benefits. For less-sweet options, try tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, or winter squash.
The protein and fat in eggs help stabilize blood sugar, and eggs are an easy addition to nearly any meal. Hard-boiled eggs also make a convenient snack. Bonus: They also offer instant portion control, at just 70 calories each. Like most animal proteins, eggs are a good source of tryptophan, which is needed for serotonin production to keep you feeling positive. What else do eggs have going for them? The anti-inflammatory impact of the omega-3 fatty acids in eggs may help counteract the effect of stress hormones (namely, cortisol and its BFF, adrenaline), which can lead to chronic inflammation in the body.
Sardines are another great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids as well as tryptophan and protein. You can enjoy canned sardines on whole-wheat toast, cooked as part of a sauce, or mixed with a little plain Greek yogurt or olive oil to make a tuna-style salad on a bed of your favorite greens. Fresh sardines are delicious grilled, too. Just can't wrap your head around eating sardines? Other fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel also provide lots of omega-3s, or you may want to ask your doctor about a fish oil supplement. Walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flaxseed are some plant-based sources of omega-3's, but they may not be absorbed as efficiently as those found in animal sources.
Nuts make for a handy, easily transportable snack you can sneak into a meeting or slip into your bag to munch on mid-flight, on your commute, or between appointments on a busy day. Aside from providing a balancing mix of protein, fat, and fiber, the potassium in pistachios helps with muscle and nerve function. A serving size is about 45 nuts, which means they'll take you a while to eat. Buy the ones that are still in their shells—shelling them yourself (not while driving, though!) gives your hands something to do, which also soothes stress.