There is no shortage of stress in daily life. Your kids won’t stop fighting. Your flight is delayed. Your boss gives you a tight deadline. You try to juggle all your responsibilities and still find time for yourself.
These types of demands can contribute to emotional unrest and tension. No matter the source, stress often leads to physiological changes within the body that can have long-lasting effects. Ongoing stress sets off a series of hormonal reactions that can contribute to inflammation, irritability, anxiety, and chronic disease.
Although you can’t avoid all stress in your life—and you wouldn't want to, as some stress is helpful—you can start to reduce its detrimental effects by building resilience and learning how to cultivate your body’s natural state of balance. One important way you can support your body is through your diet.
The Importance of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
In addition to herbs known as adaptogens, like ashwagandha, there are a variety of foods that can help nourish your body and help you cope with stress. When you choose foods that provide your body with the proper nutrients, you’re better prepared to handle demands and challenges.
Although each person is unique and has personalized nutritional needs, eating a variety of healthy foods in their whole-food forms helps provide your body with essential stress-busting nutrients that protect, relax, and nourish your body.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet high in antioxidants, fiber, and essential phytonutrients, and low in processed foods, trans fats, and refined sugars, helps your body to maintain stress hormones like cortisol within a healthy range, reduce cravings, and stay balanced. This way of eating also helps stabilize blood sugar levels and squelch inflammation.
In particular, certain vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients can help your body cope with and recover from stress.
Some of the top stress-fighting nutrients include:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Incorporating whole, fresh foods that provide these nutrients in your diet can help you cope with stress and remain calm, focused, and balanced throughout your day.
Top 5 Stress-Relieving Real Foods
When the body is under stress too frequently, it can lead to a disrupted balance of different hormones and inflammatory molecules that may contribute to the formation of free radicals. Free radicals are waste products that can be produced due to chronic stress, exposure to toxins, and normal metabolic processes. They are highly reactive and can therefore bind to and damage cells if they become too numerous, contributing to a process known as oxidative stress. Out-of-control oxidative stress can damage proteins, DNA, and other parts of cells, and therefore may contribute to many diseases, including cancer, neurological disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and asthma.
Antioxidants are compounds found in foods like fruits and vegetables that help to remove or neutralize these free radicals before they initiate oxidative stress and harm our cells. For example, berries, such as blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries, as well as other fruits and vegetables with a blue/red hue, are rich in antioxidants in the flavonoid family called anthocyanins. These naturally occurring plant pigments are responsible for the vivid red-orange and blue-violet colors of fruits and vegetables and are powerful antioxidants within the body. Consequently, consumption of natural antioxidants like anthocyanins is associated with reduced oxidative stress, inflammation, and risk of degenerative diseases.
Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries are also rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that supports the adrenal glands to help you maintain optimal hormone levels. Vitamin C-rich foods like berries, citrus fruits, bell peppers, and kiwi also help protect your cells from free-radical damage that may be increased with chronic stress. Research suggests that vitamin C can help prevent stress-induced oxidative damage to the body, reduce overall inflammation, and reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Walnuts are rich in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, that help nourish your nervous system and calm your mind. When you’re stressed, stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine increase in your body. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can help counteract the negative effects of these hormones. Studies suggest that those who consume adequate omega-3 fatty acids have reduced anxiety and can better cope with stress.
Avocados are also high in healthy fats, including omega-3s, and they offer many of the same health benefits as walnuts.
Avocados also contain glutathione, one of the master antioxidants and detoxification enzymes in the liver and other tissues that help protect your body from oxidative stress. Chronic stress depletes your body of this important molecule, which is crucial for maintaining healthy immune function, protecting cells from environmental toxins, and preventing cancer.
Consuming avocados and sulfur-rich foods like the cruciferous vegetables broccoli, kale, and cauliflower can help you maintain adequate glutathione levels. You will absorb the most glutathione from avocados if you eat them raw and combine them with foods that contains vitamin C. Try tossing fresh avocado cubes with grapefruit segments in your salad for a stress-busting meal.
4. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens like spinach, chard, kale, and arugula are rich in many phytonutrients and antioxidants, including B vitamins and magnesium. Magnesium is a crucial mineral for maintaining calm and relaxation. Other great sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, beet greens, quinoa, and sesame seeds.
Magnesium also improves your body’s overall response to stress and helps maintain healthy blood pressure. Many people are deficient in this important mineral, which may contribute to the risk of insomnia, anxiety, and heart disease.
A magnesium deficiency can disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) axis and central nervous system, which coordinate many aspects of the stress response. These systems are crucial for allowing your body to regulate its stress response by releasing the proper amounts of hormones and neurotransmitters. Disruption in their normal function may often lead to irritability and nervousness.
In addition to magnesium, leafy greens provide your body with B vitamins, which are essential for healthy nerve and brain function. For example, folate contributes to the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in your experience of pleasure and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations.
In addition to providing stress-reducing healthy fats and satiating protein, cashews are rich in zinc, which is an essential mineral for neuropsychological performance and modulating your body’s response to stress. Many enzymes in the body require zinc to function properly, including those that help protect your body from oxidative stress.
Emotional and physical stress can deplete zinc and lead to deficiencies in this important mineral. Your brain is especially rich in zinc, so it’s not surprising that zinc deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression, irritability, and food cravings. Other plant-based sources of zinc include garbanzo beans, pumpkin seeds, and mushrooms.
As is the case with most minerals, balancing your intake of zinc with other nutrients is crucial for your neurologic and overall health. Therefore, it’s important to always work in conjunction with a health-care practitioner before supplementing or making significant dietary changes.
Your attitude towards food and the way you eat can also make a difference in how your body handles stress. Mindful eating—paying attention to the smell, taste, temperature, and texture of the food; being aware of your dining experience and surroundings; and recognizing your hunger and level of fullness—can add to your food’s stress-busting benefits. Slowing down, pausing, and remaining calm in the present moment allows you to decrease stress and make more balanced food choices.
Instead of turning to traditional “comfort” foods, which are often high in sugar and contribute to inflammation, soothe your stress and stabilize your energy with real, whole foods. Incorporating these foods into your diet can boost your body’s natural resistance to the harmful effects of stress.
When you adopt healthy stress-management patterns in your life, like focusing on a stress-busting diet, you help your body build resilience. This gives you the innate strength and physiologic balance to build true mind-body health.