With bills to pay, bosses to deal with, relationships to maintain, and simply keeping up with the hustle and bustle of daily life, many people are stressed to the max. So, how are people coping with their stress? Some people listen to music, others go for a run, read a book, hang out with friends, or take a long nap. Then there are the people who turn to food as a form of therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 40 percent of Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress.
It’s extremely easy to reach for “comfort food” when you’re stressed out. At the time, it really feels like those buttery mashed potatoes, heaping spoonfuls of ice cream, and refined sugar filled chocolate cake can fix all of your problems. Unfortunately, the reality is those foods don’t help fight stress. Instead, traditional comfort foods just make people feel sluggish and gain weight. Seems to me that would cause more stress. Don’t you agree? So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, reach for one of the following 15 nutrient-rich health foods. These foods contain vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and antioxidants that are known to boost feel-good brain chemicals and help you beat the blues.
1) Green Leafy Vegetables
When you think of “comfort food” you probably don’t think of a big green salad. However, this isn’t a joke. Green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and romaine lettuce have actually been proven to help boost mood since they contain folate, a beneficial vitamin that produces the mood-regulating brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin. In one 2012 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers found people who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression when compared to those who ate the least amount.
Another green vegetable that’s rich in folate is asparagus. One single cup of asparagus provides two-thirds of your daily value, making it a great source of this mood-boosting nutrient.
While you can always take a folate supplement, researchers have found greater mood-boosting results when people actually eat folate-rich produce. In 2013, researchers at the University of Otago conducted a 21-day study where they had 281 young adults complete a daily online food diary (along with answering some other personal questions). At the end of the study, researchers found a strong day-to-day connection between positive mood and higher fruit and vegetable consumption. They said participants felt “calmer, happier, and more energetic” on days they ate more fruits and veggies. That mood also carried into the next day after consumption.
Avocados are a unique fruit. Unlike berries, bananas, or citrus fruits, avocados are rich in healthy fats and protein. While the brain needs these healthy fats to function properly, it’s actually avocado’s high folate content that lands the tasty green on this list. As I’ve mentioned with some of the other folate-rich foods on this list, it’s a vitamin that helps the body produce mood-regulating dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters. Serotonin works by passing messages between nerve cells and helps the brain manage a variety of functions. By itself, researchers say folate can boost mood naturally and improve the efficiency of antidepressants. However, the power of folate strengthens when it’s combined with vitamin B12. Fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, and trout) are good sources of vitamin B12.
They’re not just for monkeys! Bananas offer many benefits for health, including putting you in a better mood. Researchers say bananas are effective at fighting stress because they contain high levels of tryptophan. In the body tryptophan is converted to serotonin, the mood-elevating brain neurotransmitter. Additionally, studies show that bananas contain beneficial antioxidants that help with the release of dopamine within the brain.
5) Organic Turkey
If you’re someone who follows a diet that allows for meat then definitely load up on organic turkey breast (and not just during Thanksgiving). Like bananas, turkey is another food that’s rich in the amino acid tryptophan. Additionally, turkey is lean and loaded with filling protein.
Blueberries are often referred to as a powerful “brain food” because they can help improve memory and cognitive function. They’re also a great mood-boosting food. That’s because the sweet blue fruit is rich in beneficial antioxidants that aid the brain in producing dopamine. Like I said just a few minutes ago, dopamine is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. Research also shows that people who munch on blueberries experience a boost in natural killer cells. They’re a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in boosting immunity and is also critical for countering stress.
7) Wild Caught Salmon
Salmon is rich in beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Along with supporting heart health, digestion, and fighting cancer, this type of fat is extremely beneficial for mental health. Several studies have found a strong connection between diets rich in Omega-3 fats and good mood. For example, in one British study, scientists gave a group of depressed patients a daily dose of EPA (a type of Omega-3 fatty acid). After three months, over two-thirds of the group reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms. All of the patients in this study had previously tried antidepressant medications, such as Prozac.
Other studies have found Omega-3 fats protect new mothers against postpartum depression.
You may notice that I recommend eating “wild caught” salmon. There are two ways fish are raised – wild or farmed. When possible, avoid farm-raised fish because they are generally raised eating GMO feed, have a high risk of disease and parasitic infection, and given high doses of antibiotics that aren’t good for us to consume. Plus, in farm-raised fish the beneficial omega fatty acids can by reduced by as much as 50 percent!
8) Fermented Foods
Fermented foods such as live-cultured yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, natto, tempeh, and miso are rich in probiotics (AKA good gut bacteria). This may sound crazy at first, but researchers say the bacteria in your gut actually contributes to your mood and stress level. After several studies, researchers have found a brain-gut connection, meaning the two organs actually “communicate” with each other. In multiple case studies with mice, researchers were able to completely alter the mice’s behavior just by changing their gut bacteria. The mice that had balanced gut bacteria were less anxious, more adventurous, and seemed to be in a better mood.
In a separate study, UCLA researchers gave healthy women a fermented milk beverage. Some women were given milk that had a probiotic supplement in it. Other women were given milk without probiotics. Next, researchers scanned their brains while showing them photos of people with emotional facial expressions. They found the two groups of women had different reactions. The women who were given the fermented probiotic-rich beverage showed a reduced brain response, meaning they weren’t as emotional when viewing emotional expressions.
9) Nuts and Seeds
Next time you’re stressed try munching on a handful of nuts or seeds. Flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, peanuts, and pistachios are all great options. That’s because they’re all rich in magnesium. According to researchers, magnesium plays a large role in the development of the feel-good chemical serotonin. A boost in serotonin levels can help fight depression and irritability.
Additionally, many nuts and seeds contain ALA Omega-3 fats along with other vitamins/minerals that fight depression, stress, and anxiety.
10) Goji Berries
Goji berries are one of the most nutritious foods on earth. Among their many health benefits is stress relief. In one study, researchers gave participants goji berry juice. After 14 days of regular consumption, participants experienced a feeling of calmness, contentment, and happiness (among a slew of other health improvements that aren’t related to mental health). Scientists say mood-regulating benefits are a result of goji berries’ ability to reduce the amount of cortisol released in the body during periods of stress.
Are you someone who loves to reach for carbs, especially when you’re stressed out? I’m talking about sugary glazed donuts, chocolate cake, or greasy potato chips. Why not go ahead and feed that craving? Well, sort of. Rather than stuffing your face with refined sugars, gluten, and dangerous food additives, make yourself a bowl of oatmeal. According to researchers at MIT, carbohydrates can actually help the brain make serotonin. Plus, oatmeal is a complex carb that won’t spike your blood sugar levels.
Most famous for their high vitamin C content, oranges offer the body a lot of amazing health benefits. Along with boosting the immune system, the vitamin C in oranges help regulate high-stress hormones and lower blood pressure, which rises when the body is in “fight or flight” mode. Additionally, oranges contain folate and vitamin B. If you remember back to the beginning of this article, folate produces the mood-regulating brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
13) Chamomile Tea
If you’ve never laid in bed at night with a good book and cup of chamomile tea then you are really missing out. It’s one of the most calming experiences. Not only because you’re getting some much-needed alone time, but also because the chamomile tea is working its magical powers to calm your nerves.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all used the popular herb for both physical and mental benefits. Today, numerous studies have proven those benefits. In one 8-week study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania gave patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) chamomile supplements. When compared to patients who were given placebo pills, GAD patients who were given chamomile experienced a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms.
According to researchers, this popular herb contains some powerful compounds in chamomile that can bind to the same brain receptors as drugs like Valium.
14) Green Tea
Green tea is another powerful tea with powerful mood-boosting benefits. According to researchers, that’s because green tea contains the amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine has been shown to produce a calming effect in the body. The only downside? In order for you to feel less stressed from drinking green tea, you’ll have to drink up to five cups. If you are planning on drinking that many cups throughout the day, you may want to consider drinking a caffeine-free tea.
15) Dark Chocolate
Attention all chocoholics: Don’t feel so guilty every time you indulge in a little bit of the sweet treat! According to researchers, dark chocolate can actually reduce stress hormones, including cortisol. Additionally, when you eat chocolate, a neurotransmitter called anandamide is produced in the brain. Anandamide temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.
When shopping for chocolate, choose a bar that contains at least 70% cocoa. A quick note, though, this type of chocolate won’t be quite as sweet as a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Instead, it will have a somewhat bitter taste to it. The higher the cocoa content, the more bitter the chocolate will be and the more health benefits it will provide. Some people love the taste of dark chocolate while others can’t stand it. If you are someone who likes dark chocolate, aim to eat about one-two ounces a day.
Top 3 Worst Foods To Eat When You’re Stressed
You just read the best foods to eat when you’re stressed out. While they can help to boost feel-good brain chemicals and beneficial bacteria, there are other foods that do the complete opposite.
Sugar promotes inflammation, kills good gut bacteria, acts as fertilizer for bad gut bacteria, and leads to fluctuations in blood sugar. All of these factors promote mood swings. So think of sugar this way: A moment on the lips and your mood will take some dips (okay – that was a poor attempt at being funny)!
Gluten is a protein that has been called toxic for the gut. Now get this – feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin can actually be found in greater concentration in your gut than in your brain. Several studies have linked wheat to poor mood and depression.
3) Processed Foods
If you’ve read through our list of nine most dangerous food additives, then you know certain ingredients in processed foods (such as artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and MSG) can have a negative impact on brain health and mood. It’s always best to eat clean!
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