By Dr. Mercola
What does food have to do with your stress levels? More than you might realize. About 40 percent of Americans say that stress drives them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods,1 which, in turn, trigger physiological changes that can make your mood worse.
If you become ill or gain weight due to stress-induced poor eating habits, it will only make your stress worse, prompting a vicious cycle than can be difficult to break out of.
On the other hand, carefully chosen healthful foods can have the opposite effect, working to boost your spirits and even lessen anxiety. A proper diet may not only help you feel calmer but can even lessen the damage that stress does to your body.
Which Foods Are Best for Managing Stress?
When you're under fire at work, juggling multiple responsibilities at home, or going through a difficult time emotionally, these are the foods you should reach for. Really, though, you should strive to eat these foods regularly (not just in times of stress) to help maintain mental, emotional, and physical balance in your body.
1. Dark Chocolate
If you're one of these individuals who get a nice mood boost whenever you sink your teeth into a bar of pure, unadulterated chocolate, it is not happenstance.
There's actually a chemical reason called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.
It's a derivative of the Sanskrit word "bliss," and one of the great things about chocolate is that it not only produces this compound, it also contains other chemicals that prolong the "feel-good" aspects of anandamide. Chocolate has even been referred to as "the new anti-anxiety drug."
One study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology2 also revealed that people who drank an antioxidant-rich chocolate drink equal to about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily felt calmer than those who did not.
A small amount of high-quality source of protein – like organic eggs, a piece of Gouda cheese, or a handful of macadamia nuts or pecans – helps keep your blood sugar levels steady for enhanced energy and mood.
Bananas contain dopamine, a natural reward chemical that boosts your mood. They're also rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B6, which help soothe your nervous system, and magnesium, another nutrient associated with positive mood.
Coffee appears to affect a number of neurotransmitters related to mood control, so drinking a morning cup could have an effect on your general sense of wellbeing. Research has also shown that coffee triggers a mechanism in your brain that releases BDNF, which activates your brain stem cells to produce new neurons, thereby improving your brain health.
Interestingly enough, research also suggests that low BDNF levels may play a significant role in depression, and that increasing neurogenesis has an antidepressant effect!3
5. Turmeric (Curcumin)
Curcumin, the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its yellow-orange color, is thought to be responsible for many of its medicinal effects. Among them, curcumin has neuroprotective properties and may enhance mood and possibly help with depression.4
6. Purple Berries
Anthocyanins are the pigments that give berries like blueberries and blackberries their deep color. These antioxidants aid your brain in the production of dopamine, a chemical that is critical to coordination, memory function, and your mood.
7. Omega-3 Fats
Found in salmon or supplement form, such as krill oil, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play a role in your emotional well-being. One study in Brain Behavior and Immunity5 showed a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3, while past research has shown omega-3 fats work just as well as antidepressants6 in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects.
8. Oolong Tea
Sipping oolong tea might help you feel calm, as it contains high levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that helps inhibit the firing of neurons in your brain for an overall calming, anti-anxiety effect.
9. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like fermented vegetables and kefir are rich in beneficial bacteria that have a marked impact on your gut health, which in turn impacts your mood. Your gut is literally your second brain – created from the identical tissue as your brain during gestation – and contains larger amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with mood control.
Beneficial bacteria have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain via your vagus nerve. For instance, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to have a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.7
One kiwifruit contains more than 85 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, and that's good news for your stress levels. Vitamin C actually helps reduce your body's production of stress hormones8 while boosting your immune function (so much the better for warding off stress-induced illness).
Are Mushrooms the Secret to Banishing Anxiety?
Mushrooms are certainly a wonderful medicinal food and many varieties are rich in the antioxidant selenium, low levels of which have been linked to anxiety. However, a team of researchers from New York University is exploring the hallucinogen psilocybin as a treatment for cancer-related anxiety – with remarkable results.
Psilocybin is found in more than 200 species of mushrooms, and though it was declared a Schedule 1 substance (along with marijuana) due to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it had actually been used to treat anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and many other conditions for decades prior. In ancient times, such mushrooms were also widely consumed as part of religious ceremonies. As reported by New York University:9
"In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers studied the effects of psychedelic drugs and found promising improvements in mood and anxiety, as well as a diminished need for narcotic pain medication among advanced-stage cancer patients. The research was abandoned in the early 1970s in the wake of widespread recreational usage that led to stiff federal laws regulating hallucinogens.
A person receiving a diagnosis of cancer is faced with multiple and severe physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Often, the resulting anxiety and hopelessness increase physical symptoms such as pain or nausea and interfere with the patient's quality of life. The rationale of this clinical study is to determine if an experience with psilocybin will lead to changes in perception and awareness resulting in improvements in anxiety, depression, pain, attitude towards disease progression, quality of life, and spirituality in patients with cancer.
…It is hypothesized that a onetime experience with psilocybin will occasion dramatic shifts in consciousness and awareness that will lead to short-term (i.e. hours to days) and long-term (up to 6 months in this study, following the administration of the second dose of either psilocybin or placebo) improvement in anxiety, depression, and pain…"
The Atlantic recently reported on several people who took part in the study who experienced dramatic anxiety relief following the treatment. In one case, a man's anxiety score dropped from 21 on a scale of 30 (one of the highest scores the researchers had seen) to zero after one session (and it had stayed at zero for seven months and counting).10 I am certainly not advising the use of hallucinogenic drugs for stress relief, and it's important to understand that this study is being conducted under very strict, and safe, conditions. However, the anxiety-relieving effects appear to be powerful and real – and worthy of additional research.
Three Worst Foods for Your Mood
If you're feeling stressed or anxious, the foods that follow will only make it worse.
Sugar can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar, which can bring on mood swings, but its role in poor mood actually goes much deeper than that. Entire books have been written on this topic, such as William Duffy's book, Sugar Blues. There are at least three potential mechanisms through which refined sugar intake could exert a toxic effect on your mood and mental health:
- Sugar (particularly fructose) and grains contribute to insulin and leptin resistance and impaired signaling, which play a significant role in your mental health
- Sugar suppresses activity of BDNF, which promotes healthy brain neurons. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and schizophrenia, which animal models suggest might actually be causative
- Sugar consumption also triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that promote chronic inflammation. In the long term, inflammation disrupts the normal functioning of your immune system, which is linked to a greater risk of depression
Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, may negatively impact mood and brain health. In fact, a number of studies indicate that wheat can have a detrimental effect on mood,11 promoting depression and even more serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia. One mechanism that can help explain the mysterious connection between wheat and mental health problems is the fact that wheat inhibits production of serotonin.
Neurotransmitters like serotonin can be found not just in your brain, but also in your gut. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression, and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Wheat in particular has also been implicated in psychiatric problems, from depression to schizophrenia, due to it containing a range of harmful substances such as the lectin known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) and gluten exorphins, opiate-like peptides, which may have neurotoxic activity.
3. Processed Foods
The list of potentially mood-busting ingredients in processed foods is a long one. Aside from sugar and gluten, they may also contain synthetic trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, and other synthetic ingredients linked to irritability and poor mood.
Try This Simple Tool to Manage Your Stress
Your diet plays an important role in stress management, but using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can help reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, thereby reducing your chances of experiencing adverse health effects. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important "release valves" that can help you manage your stress.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It's akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified EFT therapist.
By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional "scarring" and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, your physical symptoms can improve or disappear as well. For a demonstration, please see the following video featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman, in which she discusses EFT for stress relief. However, for serious problems it is far preferable to see an experienced EFT therapist in person, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.