Which foods reduce stress?
A number of foods contain the essential macro and micronutrients which, when eaten, can help to reduce the symptoms of stress. Some of these food groups include healthy fats, such as those contained in oily fish or avocados, foods high in plant protein, including chickpeas or oats, plus prebiotic-containing food such as bananas or kimchi.
Let's take a closer look at some of the key foods you should include in your diet and how they can help reduce stress:
Oats have long been considered an effective food and remedy for helping to promote calm and reduce the symptoms of stress. Oats, as well as some other sources of complex carbohydrates such as bananas or sweet potatoes, are particularly abundant in the amino acid tryptophan which, in turn, is able to cross the blood brain barrier and is then involved in promoting serotonin synthesis – the happy hormone! (1)
Complex, or slow-release carbs, also help to stabilise our blood sugar more readily, which is a major determinant of mood. More refined carbs could instead risk giving rise to more peaks and troughs in our blood sugar, which can be linked to episodes of heightened stress or anxiety.
Oats are also rich in B vitamins which are particularly nourishing of our nervous system. This is part of the reason why the remedy Avena sativa, which is made from the oat plant, has been used so successfully for 1000s of years to help calm the symptoms of mild stress and anxiety.
Avena Sativa can be used to soothe symptoms of emotional distress
- For symptoms of mild stress and anxiety
- May also be used to aid sleep
- Fresh herb tincture
- From organically grown oat herb (Avena sativa herba)
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2. Healthy fats
Healthy fats, including omega-3, are well known for supporting brain functions and helping to protect our mood. Omega-3 may be particularly protective as the fatty acid constituents of omega-3 (EPA and DHA) can cross the blood brain barrier and exert some effects at the level of the brain, including being strongly anti-inflammatory. (2)
Although omega-3 oils are found most readily in oily fish, vegetarian sources also exist, including in avocados, plus a variety of nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Options like nuts or seeds are also a fantastic source of magnesium, another essential nutrient which is required in order to help maintain healthy stress responses.
Eggs are very nutritionally complete. Not only do they contain a good dose of protein and healthy fats, but also a number of both fat- and water-soluble nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin D and choline, which are all particularly important for maintaining a healthy stress response.
For these reasons, eating eggs as part of a well-balanced diet could be one step in the right direction in terms of managing the symptoms of stress.
As one of the few food sources of vitamin D, (plus, helpfully, also containing a nice dose of healthy fats in order to assist with the absorption), eggs have lots to offer. Vitamin D deficiencies have often been linked to cases of mood disorders such as depression, as well as having possible links with symptoms of stress or anxiety. (3)
4. Prebiotic foods
There is a well-established gut-brain link meaning that by looking after your gut you, in turn, may have a better chance of having healthier cognitive functions.
Gut bacteria are fascinating in that when they digest the fibrous portions of our food which we call prebiotics, they product beneficial short chain fatty acids. It is these substrates that are thought to go on to exert an array of positive effects on the balance of neurotransmitters in and around our gut such as serotonin, or stress-related hormones such as cortisol, which can then go on to affect our mood or stress responses more directly. (4)
5. Healthy sources of protein
Healthy sources of protein, including plant-based options such as chickpeas or beans, as well as lean meats such as turkey or minimally processed Greek yoghurt, could all help to potentially support our mood.
Firstly, these options are rich in the amino acid tryptophan which is involved in the synthesis of serotonin (1) but also, protein is very useful in helping to balance our blood sugar levels. Peaks and troughs in our blood sugar levels can impact our mood and make us less resilient to stress. (5)
6. Herbal teas
Whilst not a food, I can't not mention herbal teas. Also, what we drink is a really important consideration as this can certainly add up throughout the course of the day and impact our health, just as much as any food can!
Herbal teas can be a lovely option to help support healthy mood and stress responses. Chamomile tea, for one, is extremely calming, with lots of research to help back it's use in limiting stress and promoting calm. (6) Green or matcha tea or is another option which is rich in a substance called l-theanine which is extremely calming. (7)
By opting for herbal tea you're also more likely to be replacing higher-caffeine options which can easily add to symptoms of stress or anxiety.
7. Dark chocolate
Cocoa polyphenols, which are rich in antioxidants, could actually have some beneficial effects on our stress responses as research has suggested that good quality dark chocolate may exert some effects on mood-friendly neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. (8)
As a result of the chemical effect of chocolate, there also comes the emotional attachment - it can literally make us feel good. In my book it isn't healthy to completely deny ourselves of some simple delights such as chocolate and, therefore, my advice is just to opt for a good quality dark chocolate so that you're more likely to benefit from some of the lovely antioxidants from the cocoa, but less likely to fall victim to any of unwanted extras, such as a high dose of refined sugar, which may appear in some of the more poor quality options.
Finally, much like some of the benefits of omega-3, spices such as turmeric may exert some beneficial effects as a result of their anti-inflammatory actions in the body.
Curcumin, the bioactive compound found in turmeric, may also be able to influence neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and, for this reason, have had some possible positive results in the management of stress and other symptoms associated with mood disorders. (9)