More than a third of us reach for comfort foods during stressful times; starchy foods and desserts are go-to foods when the going gets rough, according to a recent national survey. But as it turns out, the foods that provide quick comfort may lead to more stress in the long run.
As David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard University and a researcher at Boston Children's Hospital, tells NPR, "When we feel stressed we seek foods that are going to comfort us immediately, but often times those foods lead to surges and crashes in hormones and blood sugar that increase our susceptibility to new stresses." Oops.
Many of us have a lot of stress in our lives and short of running away from home and joining the circus, much of that stress is out of our control. But we can do things to prime our bodies to best deal with it. "Our body chemistry can very much affect how that stress gets to us," says Ludwig. And indeed, there are components of food that seem to have a strong relationship with mood on a chemical level.
For example, foods that are high on the glycemic index (that is, food from which the sugar is quickly absorbed, like refined carbs) make blood sugar surge, and then crash, resulting in spikes of the stress hormone adrenaline. And according to a study published in Translational Psychiatry, a high-fat diet can disrupt normal functioning of the hypothalamus in mice, which in turn promotes symptoms associated with depression.
While there are many different approaches for dealing with stress, arming your body with mood-boosting food is one of the most basic places to start. Try adding the following foods to your diet — and step away from the white pasta and cake.
1. Pumpkin seeds
The humble pumpkin seed is a mighty source of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and especially magnesium. Only about one-third of Americans meet their daily magnesium needs; not enough of this important mineral can lead to a higher risk of headaches, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, nervousness and high blood pressure. Magnesium is a brain super food, and a whole lot of it is getting thrown out when you carve pumpkins and toss those seeds!
2. Dark, leafy greens
Kale, Swiss chard and other dark, leafy greens are packed with magnesium, a deficit of which can lead to the complaints listed above, which work to create the perfect environment in which stress thrives.
The gold standard of protein, eggs also provide calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, D, E, and K – all in one little 80-calorie package – making them one of the most nutritionally-dense foods around. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of "The Happiness Diet," praises nutrient-rich foods for battling stress and notes that scrambled eggs are part of his favorite anxiety-reducing breakfast.
Selenium-rich foods deserve a special mention in this list. Several studies have linked low selenium levels to less-happy moods, according to WebMD, and the brain may even hoard selenium if it senses a deficiency. So in addition to those eggs, try eating include Brazil nuts, oysters and albacore tuna to make sure you're getting enough.
4. Carrots and celery
Carrots, celery and their crunchy brethren work more on a mechanical level. Chomping and chewing work as physical relief to stress, and may be particularly helpful for those who have a habit of grinding their teeth. Bonus: They also help to fight bad breath!
5. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (sardines, salmon)
Omega-3 fatty acids can help soothe your mood by quelling the body's response to inflammation, says Joe Hibbeln, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who has spent decades studying how omega-3 fatty acids in fish effect emotional health. He notes that studies show how omega-3s help buffer neurons from the harm that chronic stress can create. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked to helping with depression as well as encouraging more positive social behavior in children. (And yes, there's the mercury issue, but there are ways around that problem.)
Some consider flaxseed to be one of the most powerful foods around, and with good reason. There's some evidence showing it may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Its high omega-3 content lands it in NPR’s list of stress-busting foods, and there are testimonies across the Internet of people who praise flaxseed oil for saving them from depression and mental illness. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health notes that there is some evidence that taking flaxseed oil might improve attention, impulsiveness, restlessness and self-control in children with ADHD.
7. Red peppers, papaya and kiwi
Red bell peppers are packed with nutrients. (Photo: Lucas Cobb [CC BY 2.0]/flickr)
What do these three foods have in common? They have more vitamin C per serving than oranges; and vitamin C is the key here. Multiple studies point to C for curbing stress hormones. As Psychology Today reports: “People who have high levels of vitamin C do not show the expected mental and physical signs of stress when subjected to acute psychological challenges. What's more, they bounce back from stressful situations faster than people with low levels of vitamin C in their blood.” Berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and leafy greens all boast high vitamin C levels as well.
8. Whole grains
Whether on their own — like brown rice, quinoa or oatmeal — or in whole-grain products like breads and pasta, we’re talking hearty carbohydrates that have not had all of their nutritional integrity processed out of them. Carbs prompt the body to produce more serotonin, the chemical that is commonly known as the "happiness hormone." By getting your serotonin from complex carbs that are not as easily digested as simple carbs, your blood sugar levels will also be more stabilized.
Drinking black tea may help you recover from stressful events more quickly, notes WebMD. One study looked at people who consumed four cups of tea daily for six weeks, compared with people who drank something else. At the end of the study, the tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful situations. Meanwhile, chamomile tea has been used for ages to calm jitters and relieve stress.
10. Dark chocolate
Cocoa flavanols in chocolate can help boost your mood and sustain clear thinking; and study after study touts dark chocolate’s ability to increase feelings of wellness and decrease stress. Not to mention, it might make you smarter. Is it just a coincidence that the higher a country's chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it creates? More chocolate, please.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2014.