When work deadlines begin piling up and your social calendar is booked, the last thing you want to hear is to steer clear of the vending machine. Who has time for healthy eating? But when it comes to combating stress levels, what you eat may actually help relieve your tension. Indeed, some foods may help stabilize blood sugar or, better yet, your emotional response. Here, 12 foods to reach for when you've just about had enough.
Green leafy vegetables
It's tempting to reach for a cheeseburger when stressed, but go green at lunch instead. "Green leafy vegetables like spinach contain folate, which produces dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, helping you keep calm," says Heather Mangieri, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A 2012 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders of 2,800 middle-aged and elderly people and found those who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression symptoms than those who took in the least. And, a 2013 study from the University of Otago found that college students tended to feel calmer, happier, and more energetic on days they ate more fruits and veggies. It can be hard to tell which came first—upbeat thoughts or healthy eating—but the researchers found that healthy eating seemed to predict a positive mood the next day.
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You've probably heard that the tryptophan in turkey is to blame for that food coma on Thanksgiving. The amino acid, found in protein-containing foods, helps produce serotonin, "the chemical that regulates hunger and feelings of happiness and well-being," Mangieri says. On its own, tryptophan may have a calming effect. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience, men and women who were argumentative (based on personality tests) took either tryptophan supplements or a placebo for 15 days. Those who took tryptophan were perceived as more agreeable by their study partners at the end of the two weeks compared with when they didn't take it. (The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.) Other foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, lentils, oats, beans, and eggs.
If you're already a carb lover, it's likely that nothing can come between you and a doughnut when stress hits. First rule of thumb: Don't completely deny the craving. According to MIT research, carbohydrates can help the brain make serotonin, the same substance regulated by antidepressants. But instead of reaching for that sugary bear claw, go for complex carbs. "Stress can cause your blood sugar to rise, Mangieri says, "so a complex carb like oatmeal won't contribute to your already potential spike in blood glucose."
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As bizarre as it may sound, the bacteria in your gut might be contributing to stress. Research has shown that the brain signals to the gut, which is why stress can inflame gastrointestinal symptoms; communication may flow the other way too, from gut to brain. A 2013 UCLA study among 36 healthy women revealed that consuming probiotics in yogurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress compared to people who consumed yogurt without probiotics or no yogurt at all. This study was small so more research is needed to confirm the results—but considering yogurt is full of calcium and protein in addition to probiotics, you really can't go wrong by adding more of it to your diet.
When you're stressed, it can ratchet up anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. "The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon haveanti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones," says Lisa Cimperman, RD, of the University Hospitals Case Medical Center and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Oregon State University medical students who took omega-3 supplements had a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the group given placebo pills. One 3-ounce serving of cooked wild salmon can have more than 2,000 milligrams of omega-3s, double the daily intake recommended by the American Heart Association for people with heart disease.
"When you're stressed, there's a battle being fought inside you," Mangieri says. "The antioxidants and phytonutrients found in berries fight in your defense, helping improve your body's response to stress and fight stress-related free radicals." Research has also shown that blueberry eaters experience a boost in natural killer cells, "a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in immunity, critical for countering stress," says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor.
When you have an ongoing loop of negative thoughts playing in your mind, doing something repetitive with your hands may help silence your inner monologue. Think knitting or kneading bread—or even shelling nuts like pistachios or peanuts. The rhythmic moves will help you relax. Plus, the added step of cracking open a shell slows down your eating, making pistachios a diet-friendly snack. What's more, pistachios have heart-health benefits. "Eating pistachios may reduce acute stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate," Mangieri says. "The nuts contain key phytonutrients that may provide antioxidant support for cardiovascular health."
Calling all chocoholics: a regular healthy indulgence (just a bite, not a whole bar!) of dark chocolate might have the power to regulate your stress levels. "Research has shown that it can reduce your stress hormones, including cortisol," Sass says. "Also, the antioxidants in cocoa trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. And finally, dark chocolate contains unique natural substances that create a sense of euphoria similar to the feeling of being in love!" Go for varieties that contain at least 70% cocoa.
Fortified milk is an excellent source of vitamin D, a nutrient that might boost happiness. A 50-year-long study by London's UCL Institute of Child Health found an association between reduced levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of panic and depression among 5,966 men and women. People who had sufficient vitamin D levels had a reduced risk of panic disorders compared to subjects with the lowest levels of vitamin D. Other foods high in vitamin D include salmon, egg yolks, and fortified cereal.
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Flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all great sources of magnesium (as are leafy greens, yogurt, nuts, and fish). Loading up on the mineral may help regulate emotions. "Magnesium has been shown to help alleviate depression, fatigue, and irritability," Sass says. "Bonus: When you're feeling especially irritable during that time of the month, the mineral also helps to fight PMS symptoms, including cramps and water retention."
You can't just reach for slice after slice of avocado toast during crunch time if you don't want to gain weight, but this superfruit might help shut down stress-eating by filling your belly and making you feel more satisfied. In a 2014 study by Loma Linda University (which, full disclosure, was sponsored by the Hass Avocado Board), researchers had participants add half an avocado to their lunches, which reduced their desire to eat more by 40% for the three hours following the midday meal. That full feeling will make you less inclined to reach for unhealthy snacks when stress kicks in.
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One ounce of the buttery nut packs 11% of the daily recommended value of zinc, an essential mineral that may help reduce anxiety. When researchers gave zinc supplements to people who were diagnosed with both anxiety symptoms (irritability, lack of ability to concentrate) and deficient zinc levels over a course of eight weeks, the patients saw a 31% decrease in anxiety, according to Nutrition and Metabolic Insights. This is likely because zinc affects the levels of a nerve chemical that influences mood. If you're already getting enough zinc, then it may not help your mood to chow down on cashews (or other zinc-rich foods like oysters, beef, chicken, and yogurt). But, cashews are also rich in omega-3s and protein, so they're a smart snack no matter what.