Stress. It’s one word that’s sure to make you feel that familiar pit in your stomach. We’ve all felt stress, whether mental or physical, and we’re all looking for ways to help our body and mind deal with it. Luckily there are ways to cope, and one of those is through what you eat.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, long-term stress can cause irritability, sleeplessness, and digestive problems, and over time can lead to more serious problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression or anxiety.
Uncontrolled stress can take a serious toll on your body and your mind, but fighting back with good nutrition can get you back on track. The tricky thing is, that may be exactly the opposite of what you want to do right now.
At the exact time that you need to be eating healthier, your body may be trying to get you to crave less nutrient-dense foods. And giving into those cravings can make your body more at risk for stress-related issues.
“Stress increases the hormone cortisol, which also increases appetite, and it’s natural to reach for those sweet treats or high-fat foods,” says Paige Crawford, a performance dietitian at EXOS. “These foods are associated with temporary pleasure, so you may crave them in an attempt to counteract the feeling of stress. It’s easy to see how this can lead to a downward spiral, leaving you undernourished and unable to combat the havoc that stress brings to your body.”
But recognizing the issue ahead of time can help you get the comfort you crave while still getting the nutrients you need. Mix the tasty foods below into your meal plan to boost your mood and reduce the negative effects of stress.
Research shows that stress has the power to negatively affect the good bacteria in our gut. Reducing the quantity of good bacteria in our gut seems to increase the negative effects of stress, but our diets are directly associated with the bacteria in our gut.
“This strong connection between our gut and our brain is why foods that support our gut can be a great tool for battling stress,” says Crawford. “While we’re consistently learning more about this connection, having a happy gut has been shown to help you have a happy mind. Probiotic intake during stress elevation has been associated with better working memory performance.”
Yogurt is the most well-known source of probiotics, but don’t miss out on other sources like sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha. In addition, these foods may help with your immune system, which is also dependent on your gut health.
If you want to go the supplement route, Total Gut Health packets make it easy for you to add digestive enzymes, probiotics, prebiotics, and other nutrients to your food to support your gut microbiome.
2. Fiber-rich carbs
Now that we know how important it is to maintain a healthy gut when it comes to our mental health, fiber is another critical component in this relationship.
Crawford recommends getting fiber from a variety of foods, such as starchy vegetables, fruit, and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, oats. Not only do these foods help boost the healthy bacteria in our bellies, but these forms of carbohydrate also can increase the stress-reducing hormone serotonin.
3. Omega-3 fatty acid
Those fishy foods have a super power and that’s omega-3 fatty acids. Your body can’t make these essential fats by itself, so you have to get them through food.
“Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, flaxseed oil, and walnuts, have been shown to alleviate inflammation, which prevents surges of stress hormones and may reduce the risk of depression,” says Crawford.
Fatty fish are also rich sources of B vitamins which play many vital roles in the body, such as calming the nervous system and balancing mood. If you’re not a fan of fish, a krill oil supplement can help you get the same benefits.
4. Rhodiola rosea
This herb may be garnering new attention, but it’s been used as a traditional medicine in eastern and northern Europe for centuries. “This adaptogenic herb can help support the body’s ability to handle stress and has been shown to reduce fatigue and burnout caused by stress,” says Shannon Ehrdhardt, a senior performance dietitian at EXOS.
Taking a rhodiola supplement in the morning can help you support cortisol levels, and unlike other stimulants like caffeine, it doesn’t seem to increase your heart rate or blood pressure.
Long touted as the tea of choice for chill grandmas, chamomile has some helpful calming effects. A 2016 study of new mothers found that drinking chamomile tea every night for two weeks led to better sleep quality, which is understandably critical in those first months of early parenthood.
If you’re not into tea, chamomile can be taken in other ways, like Onnit’s New Mood supplement.
Yes, chocolate is a treat. But a little bit of dark chocolate, which is the highest in flavonoids and lowest in added sugar, can be a great mood booster.
“The polyphenols in cocoa and dark chocolate boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and have gained hype for their neurological and cardioprotective benefits,” says Crawford.
Ingesting chocolate has also been to decrease perceived stress, which in itself takes a toll on the body. In one study some stressed out medical students were able to decrease their perceived stress by eating a small amount of chocolate every day.
We hear a lot about antioxidants, but once you understand their function, it’s a no-brainer that a diet rich in these molecules can do wonders for stress.
“Antioxidants work to neutralize potentially harmful free radicals in the body, which are linked to many illnesses or disease states. An imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants can lead to oxidative stress, which can impair the nervous system,” says Crawford.
Make an antioxidant smoothie by adding several sources of antioxidants like berries and dark leafy greens to get a variety and balance of nutrients. You can also add some of the other foods on this list like yogurt, flaxseeds, and chocolate to compound benefits.
The real secret: A balanced diet
Unfortunately, none of these foods on their own can help your body deal with stress. “Sticking to your routine eating times helps to reinforce these habits. Don’t let stress derail your day and unknowingly default to unbalance or poorly timed foods,” says Crawford. We recommend whole grains, nuts, seeds, oils, vegetables, fruits, protein, and ample water while keeping sugar, alcohol, and processed food intake under control. In the end, supporting your body through good times and bad with good nutrition is the best recipe for success.
For more ways to help your body cope with stress, visit exosathome.com for daily workouts, mindset practices, and more.
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About the AuthorMore Content by Kelsey Webb