4 ways to fight stress and anxiety with food

Mental Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Mar 8, 2017

Let’s talk about stress. In many ways, facing stress is unavoidable. We all face stress, whether it’s caused by work, family, finances, school or some other factor that compels us to worry.

But did you know stress is harmful to your health? 

Many scientists believe that our increasingly stressed and fast-paced lifestyles have a direct link to higher than normal levels of cortisol (a compound linked to stress) in our bodies. It has been shown that elevated cortisol over the long-term results in increased blood sugar levels and weight gain from the impact of overeating. A cortisol infused body can also result in issues with digestion and absorption — ever heard of the gut-brain connection?

Systemic inflammation causes elevated cortisol levels. So, naturally decreasing inflammation through diet and lifestyle can mean decreased cortisol levels. Here are three ways to help relieve stress.

Eat anti-inflammatory foods.

While there is not one perfect anti-inflammatory diet (many factors play a role in reducing inflammation and cortisol), here are a few guidelines to help you stress less.

  • Eliminate trans fats and limit intake of saturated fats.
  • Eliminate or reduce how much caffeine you drink.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation or not at all.
  • Boost consumption of whole plant foods to maximize intake of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans.
  • Meet recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids (may be best measured as a ratio to omega-6 fatty acids)
  • Try probiotics, if recommended by your doctor.

Focus on foods rich in serotonin.

Have you ever felt depressed and stressed out after several days of starting a diet? Research has shown that this might be related to the diet restricting carbohydrate-rich foods that also contain serotonin, a major mood neurotransmitter.

Serotonin is known to impact our mood, sleep, cognition, appetite and digestion. In other words, when serotonin is low, we feel more depressed and stressed out, and when levels are high, we tend to feel greater joy, calmness and even experience better sleep.

For these reasons, it is essential that we include serotonin-containing foods in our diet.

serotonin foods

Furthermore, serotonin-containing foods also boost serotonin levels in the gut, given the fact that up to 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in our intestines. Therefore, you not only need to include serotonin-containing foods in our diet, but also foods containing its precursor — tryptophan.

Some great options for doing this are nuts, seeds, spinach, turkey, fish, yogurt, eggs, beans, lentils and chicken.

Including these foods as part of your everyday intake can positively influence your stress, mood and energy levels.

Drink a calming cup of tea.

You know that feeling of calmness that comes over you after having a cup of tea? It is likely from the chemical compounds found in tea, such as flavonoids and L-theanine, exhibiting soothing properties.

Studies have found that flavonoid and L-theanine can reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, which aid in alleviating stress. Drinking a warm cup of green, black or chamomile tea can be a good remedy for your everyday stress.

So, next time you feel stressed, reach for a cup of tea and feel the calming effect begin to take a hold of you.

Embrace the herbs.

Several herbs have also shown to exhibit anti-anxiety properties. The most commonly known include turmeric, basil and lemon balm.

  • Turmeric is very well known for its antioxidant properties, but some studies have also shown that turmeric can increase the blood circulation to the brain, aiding in a feeling of calmness.
  • Basil has both immune-enhancing properties along with a calming potential that can help reduce stress.
  • Lemon balm has also been shown to have a soothing effect. A small number of studies have shown that this herb can decrease stress-related hormones in the body. 

Although stress is often simply a part of life, there are steps you can take to help reduce the burden of stress on your happiness and your health. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any dietary supplementation. And if you feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, speak up — your doctor can help.

Information in this blog post was contributed by Mittal Patel, Marcela Lacayo and Emina Gibic, dietetic interns at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. 

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