Slideshow Diet for Stress Management
Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on Monday, April 23, 2012
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Stress Management Diet
Stress: We all have it, and how we handle it can make all the difference. Stress management can be a powerful tool for wellness, since too much stress can affect physical health. There are many strategies, and one of them is all about what you eat. Read on to learn how a stress management diet can help.
Stress-Busting Foods: How They Work
Foods can help tame stress in several ways. Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can cut levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. And a healthy diet can counter the impact of stress, by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Do you know which foods are stress busters?
All carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it's best to eat complex carbs, which are digested more slowly. Good choices include whole-grain breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas, as well as old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Dietitians usually recommend steering clear of simple carbs, which include sweets and soda. But in a pinch, these foods can hit the spot. Simple sugars are digested quickly, leading to a spike in serotonin. Still, it doesn't last long, and there are healthier options. So don't make these a stress-relieving habit; you should limit these.
Oranges make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) returned to normal more quickly when people took vitamin C before a stressful task.
Popeye never lets stress get the best of him -- maybe it's all the magnesium in his spinach. Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach goes a long way toward replenishing magnesium stores. Not a spinach eater? Try some cooked soybeans or a filet of salmon, also high in magnesium. Green leafy vegetables are a rich source of magnesium.
To keep stress in check, make friends with fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease, mood disorders like depression, and PMS. For a steady supply of feel-good omega-3s, aim to eat 3 ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
Drinking black tea may help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank four cups of tea daily for six weeks with people who drank another beverage. The tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful situations. When it comes to stress, the caffeine in coffee can boost stress hormones and raise blood pressure.
Pistachios, as well as other nuts and seeds, are good sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds every day may help lower your cholesterol, ease inflammation in your heart's arteries, make diabetes less likely, and help protect you against the effects of stress. Don't overdo it, though: Nuts are rich in calories.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium -- and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. Guacamole, made from avocado, just might be a healthy alternative when stress has you craving a high-fat treat. Avocados are high in fat and calories, though, so watch your portion size.
Almonds are chock-full of helpful vitamins: vitamin E to bolster the immune system, plus B vitamins, which may make you more resilient during bouts of stress such as depression. To get the benefits, snack on a quarter of a cup every day.
Crunchy raw vegetables can help fight stress in a purely mechanical way. Munching celery or carrot sticks helps release a clenched jaw, and that can ward off tension.
Carbs at bedtime can speed the release of the brain chemical serotonin and help you sleep better. Since heavy meals before bed can trigger heartburn, stick to something light, such as toast and jam.
Another bedtime stress-buster is the time-honored glass of warm milk. Research shows that calcium eases anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS. Dietitians typically recommend skim or low-fat milk.
There are many herbal supplements that claim to fight stress. One of the best studied is St. John's wort, which has shown benefits for people with mild-to-moderate depression. Although more research is needed, the herb also appears to reduce symptoms of anxiety and PMS. There is less data on valerian root, another herb said to have a calming effect. Tell your health care provider about any supplements you take, so they can check on any possible interactions.
De-Stress with Exercise
Besides changing your diet, one of the best stress-busting strategies is to start exercising. Aerobic exercise boosts oxygen circulation and spurs your body to make feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week. If you're not active now, tell your health care provider you're going to start exercising -- they'll root for you and make sure you're ready to get moving.