5 Foods to Reduce Stress

Stress often makes you think of comfort foods and can increase your appetite. When you’re eating sugary, salty, and fried foods you can get a temporary high that makes you feel good but can leave you spiraling and crashing afterwards leading to more junk food binges. Many people complain of weight gain during stressful situations, especially if they’re long-term, such as caring for a loved one or going through a divorce. So let’s rethink our stress-eating and look at foods that actually combat stress and increase health.

First of all what is stress?  Stress is how our bodies react to a threat or challenge.  It can be short-term like escaping a car crash or long-term such as a demanding job.  When our bodies are threatened our sympathetic nervous system releases cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones create our fight or flight response leading to increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and rapid breathing. It decreases non-essential body functions such as slowing-down the digestive system and immune system. Our muscles can be tense and sleep cycle can be affected (increased alertness). Stress is normal part of our survival but can greatly increase health hazards if we don’t cope with it well. For example, according to Dr. Almeida a leading stress researcher at Penn State, having a bad attitude toward our to-do lists doubles heart attack risk compared to those who have a more laid-back attitude. 

Having a healthy diet is one major way to combat stress. Importance should be to focus on nutrients that reduce inflammation and decrease cortisol. Here are five of the best stress-fighting nutrients and where to find them.

1.       Magnesium: Balances cortisol levels – Best sources include pumpkin seeds, spinach, black beans, quinoa and cashews. 

2.       B-vitamins – B6, B12, Folate – B vitamins are important co-factors for many enzymatic reactions in our body.  They are responsible for energy production which can combat fatigue and is vital to brain health, memory and cognitive function which can be depressed by stress. They are also used to decrease homocysteine levels decreasing risk of heart attack.  Deficiencies in these vitamins can make handling stress more difficult. 

a.       B6 – poultry and fish, spinach, bananas, and sweet potatoes. 

b.      B12 – Fortified cereals and milk alternatives, and animal foods such as fish, poultry, and dairy.

c.       Folate – lentils and other legumes, asparagus and dark green leafy vegetables. 

3.       Vitamin C: Slows production of cortisol – Best sources include nearly all fruits & vegetables, citrus fruits, kiwis, and dark green leafy vegetables.

4.       Omega-3 fatty acids – reduces overall body inflammation and is a good anti-oxidant.  Also decreases cortisol levels and can actually make you feel less stressed.  Sources of omega-3’s: include fatty fish, walnuts, flax seeds and soy. 

5.       Zinc – inhibits cortisol secretion and boosts the immune system.  Sources of zinc include poultry, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and asparagus. 

Other stress-busting techniques are to exercise regularly, meditate, massage and yoga.  Even just breathing mindfully can help release feel-good endorphins and reduce stress.   

Melaine Hendershott MS, RDN, CSO. To consult with Melaine, please call (970) 569-7614 or contact her at hendershott@vvmc.com