There’s no doubt about it, food and stress are linked. And it’s not just that when you’re stressed you might eat too much, or too little, or reach for the wrong foods.
The food you eat directly affects the processes in your body, and can either stress you out or help you keep stress in check.
We talked to clinical dietitian Kathryn Munder to find out which foods matter most when it comes to managing stress. She shared these eight food groups that can impact your mental health.
Foods that reduce stress
The food you eat provides more than energy. Your body uses nutrients from food to create the chemical messengers that keep your system functioning properly.
1. High quality proteins
The hormones and neurotransmitters that make up your body’s stress response are made from the amino acids you get from protein in foods.
“If you’re not getting enough protein, you could have deficiencies in the nutrients that play a role in your mood and how your brain functions,” says Munder.
Munder recommends eggs and fatty fish like salmon, sardines and tuna to deliver a big hit of protein.
“Eggs are nature’s multivitamin because they are packed with nutrients that play a role in regulating your bodies stress response,” she says. “And fatty fish contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are very important for overall brain health.”
Lean proteins like chicken, turkey, tofu and beans also can help you keep your protein intake high.
Herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint have a stress-reducing nutrient called L-theanine.
L-theanine is an amino acid that produces a calming effect by supporting brain chemicals that reduce anxiety.
It’s also found in green teas, where it combines with small amounts of caffeine to boost concentration.
“In green tea, it can balance out the stimulant or anxiety effect from the caffeine,” says Munder.
3. Probiotic, prebiotic and fermented foods
Probiotic and fermented foods help to keep the bacteria in your digestive system balanced. This is important for reducing stress because one of the key mood-boosting hormones is made in your gut.
“Around 90% of your body’s serotonin is made in the GI tract, so having a healthy gut is really important,” says Munder. “We need serotonin because it increases feelings of happiness and well-being.”
Foods like Greek yogurt, kombucha tea and sauerkraut all naturally promote a healthy gut.
When it comes to probiotic supplements, Munder says there’s still a lot we don’t know.
“Probiotic supplements generally seem to be safe and may provide benefit,” says Munder. “But probiotic foods provide more benefit because they contain other components that help protect the bacteria. For example, the dairy portion of yogurt can help to protect the bacteria from your stomach acid so that it can survive long enough to get to your large intestine.”
High fiber foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and legumes contain “prebiotics,” which also feed the healthy bacteria in your GI tract.
4. Foods high in magnesium
When it comes to reducing stress, sleep is key. And magnesium has been shown to help with sleep, as well as for reducing anxiety.
Magnesium is found in a wide variety of foods from leafy green vegetables, to salmon and even dark chocolate.
“A little bit of dark chocolate can be good for you, but overindulging can have the opposite effect,” says Munder.
5. Vitamin D
Research shows a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and stress.
“Low vitamin D levels have been shown in people who have stress, anxiety and depression,” says Munder.
Vitamin D is found in dairy products like eggs and cheese, as well as fatty fish like salmon. Mushrooms also contain vitamin D.
More research needs to be done to explain the link, but vitamin D is known to be essential for your immune system. If you get sick, that can cause stress.
Foods that increase stress
Low nutrient, high calorie foods increase stress in a couple of ways.
“The lack of nutrients means your body does not have what it needs to keep itself running smoothly,” says Munder. “Plus unhealthy food usually contains substances that cause additional problems, which your body has to manage.”
1. Added sugar and refined carbohydrates
This includes cookies, cakes and sugary drinks, as well as carbs like white bread and pasta.
These foods cause stress because they lead to rapid increases in blood sugar levels, which your body must regulate.
“When your blood sugar increases, your body has to make insulin to bring it back down again,” says Munder. “You will go through a crashing period, and the up and down has a domino effect on other hormones in your body.”
This process can lead to an increase in cortisol, which is the main stress hormone.
“Any time your body feels overwhelmed, that can shift your cortisol levels and put you in a state of fight or flight,” says Munder.
Your body works hard to regulate high blood sugar because it can dramatically affect how your systems work.
“If there is too much sugar in your blood, then it literally becomes thick like syrup, and that makes it very hard for your heart to pump the blood around your body,” says Munder. “That’s why your body works so hard to correct it.”
Caffeine impacts stress in two ways. It can lead to overstimulation of our bodies natural stress response, and it can disrupt sleep.
“Sleep is a big thing when it comes to regulating stress,” says Munder. “Your body needs that time to wind down, reboot and clean up all the things that it’s supposed to do.”
If you drink caffeinated drinks, try to do it in small amounts earlier in the day.
3. Fried foods
Fast foods or other foods high in trans fats indirectly affect stress in your body because they cause inflammation. They also create extra work for your body.
“These types of fats are harder to break down, so they’re not the kinds of food that your body can immediately use for fuel,” says Munder. “Your body will try to store them and that requires a little bit more work.”
Overeating also indirectly impacts stress because it makes your body work harder. It also can lead to leptin resistance, which is where your body can no longer tell your brain when it is full.
“Every single system in your body relies on the food you eat,” says Munder. “It’s like the gasoline you’re putting in your car. Our bodies are complex machines that require premium gasoline and that means putting high quality food in your body.”