Though we can mentally differentiate between the stress of caring for a sick family member and being stuck in traffic, our bodies can’t easily distinguish between the two and reacts to each with the same fight-or-flight response. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released to boost alertness and trigger an increase in heart rate, pulse and muscle tension. This physical response is helpful during certain situations (like escaping a burning building), but it can negatively affect our mood and waistline if it becomes chronic.
However, in addition to relieving stress with things like meditation, yoga and other types of exercise, what you eat matters, too.
Stress depletes the body’s stores of B vitamins, so eating foods high in B vitamins can help replenish those stores. Certain B vitamins, like B6 and folate, have an effect on brain glucose regulation, and are necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA and melatonin, which reduces symptoms of depression and helps improve our psychological response to stress.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA and EPA, can aid in the regulation of brain neurotransmitters, which may help reduce anxiety and impact how we react to stressful situations.
What’s more, stress can lead to overeating and craving unhealthy processed foods, which is why it’s even more important to eat nourishing foods when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Try adding these foods to your plate to reduce the impact of cortisol and stress in the body:
Fish like salmon and mackerel are high in DHA and EPA, which helps to promote healthy brain function and can reduce inflammation. Fatty fish also boasts high concentrations of B vitamins, vitamin D and the antioxidant selenium, which fights oxidative stress.
Pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, B vitamins and zinc, all of which play into brain health. Magnesium is involved in more than 600 reactions in the body, including mood and brain function. Deficiencies of magnesium have been linked with depression, which tends to reduce levels of serotonin in the brain and increase the cortisol stress response.
Chia seeds are a top plant-based source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. They can also help keep blood sugar levels stable and are high in magnesium, selenium and many beneficial plant compounds that have been linked to reduced inflammation in the brain and body.
Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated fats, as well as brain-boosting minerals like folate and magnesium. Additionally, avocados contain vitamins C and E, antioxidants that help counteract oxidative stress and reduce inflammation in the body. The healthy fats in avocado can also help increase satiety after meals, preventing overeating.
The recommendation to add more greens to your diet can benefit your brain health, too. Greens like spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, are high in vitamin C, magnesium and plant compounds which help protect your cells from damage.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has a plethora of promising research about its health benefits. While curcumin is linked to lowered anxiety and reduced inflammation, a 2015 review found curcumin also helps increase DHA synthesis in the brain and liver, which can have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and calming effects.
Green tea, and specifically, matcha, contains several antioxidants as well as the amino acid, theanine. Theanine has been linked to calmness and relaxation, and may increase the production of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine.
Whole grains, like oats, are high in magnesium, selenium and B vitamins. Additionally, oats are complex carbohydrates, which means they’re digested more slowly, preventing quick spikes of blood sugar that can impact moods and stress.
In addition to vitamin B6 and vitamin D content, Greek yogurt is a great source of probiotics, which feed the good gut bacteria. Research shows gut bacteria impacts mood levels: One study in the journal Nutrition found participants who consumed a mixture of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains (the main strains in yogurt) for eight straight weeks experienced less depressive symptoms, reduced inflammation and reduced serum insulin levels compared to the control group.
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low carb via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app. Save your favorites and log everything directly to your diary.