The stresses from ordinary life can get to anyone. But a varied and balanced diet can go a long way toward helping you unwind.
Most people have probably heard that serotonin, one of the body’s main hormones, is linked to mood and general happiness. But you might be surprised to hear that as much as 95 percent of this critical hormone is located in your gut—not in your brain.
“Serotonin is produced in the GI tract,” says Jan Walker, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “And those cells, if they’re bathed in the correct nutrients, will help produce better levels of serotonin.” And that can mean a better mood.
What’s more, relying on subpar energy can actually have a negative effect on body and brain performance. Although the research isn’t 100 percent conclusive, Walker says that trends show “diets that are high in refined sugar can impair brain function, and may even lead to increased depression.”
Although there are no magic food bullets that will relieve stress, Angel Planells, a registered dietary nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says human bodies crave variety. That means people should strive to get a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, protein, and carbohydrates to boost levels of balancing hormones like serotonin.
“That will help make sure that our body is performing to the best of its abilities while we all deal with fighting off the general stressors of life,” he says.
Here are some foods to help you do just that.
THE FOOD: Dark chocolate
WHY IT MATTERS: “Consuming dark chocolate has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol,” Planells says. At the same time, compounds called flavanols might help relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, and decrease blood pressure, all of which benefit the heart.
TRY IT: This will no doubt be the easiest sell on the list, but it’s not without pitfalls. Avoid milk chocolate or white chocolate, which contain less of the good stuff, Planells says. (Milk chocolate also typically contains unhealthy ingredients such as butter and vegetable oils.) Not (yet) a fan of dark chocolate? Try dipping fruit in dark chocolate or adding it to homemade peppermint bark.
THE FOOD: Fruits and veggies
WHY IT MATTERS: Literally all the reasons! Bananas boost serotonin. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C, which reduce cortisol levels and make them easy stress busters. Spinach, Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, edamame, avocado, and potatoes are all good sources of magnesium, which reduces cortisol and promotes good sleeping patterns (which contributes to better mental health). Potassium-rich foods, such as oranges, cantaloupe, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peas, and cucumbers stabilize our blood pressure levels. And many veggies, like celery and carrots, provide the added bonus of making you feel satisfied without filling up on junk.
TRY IT: Try mixing things up by combining different foods into flavor combos, Planells says, like apple slices slathered with peanut butter or veggie sticks with a side of hummus. Walker also suggests combining colors or arranging foods in visually inviting ways to keep things interesting.
THE FOOD: Whole grains
WHY IT MATTERS: Carbohydrates are synonymous with comfort foods like pasta, bread, and many confections. Unfortunately, we often make such foods less healthy by using refined grains, like white flour, rather than whole grains. “But if we make some swaps, we can see a reduction in stress through feeling more satisfied, as it takes longer to digest and absorb complex carbohydrates,” Planells says, adding that whole grains help us “stabilize our blood sugar so we are less ‘hangry.’”
TRY IT: Simply choosing “whole grain” versions of your favorite foods, such as bread, crackers, or pasta is an easy way to get started. Those looking to take whole grains to the next level can try making oatmeal from scratch. “A warm cup of oatmeal can boost levels of serotonin,” Planells says, which can act as a calming chemical in the brain. And feel free to add lots of yummy extras, like fresh or dried fruit and bits of dark chocolate. You might also look for recipes that incorporate whole grains into treats, such as these cherry chocolate chip cookies.
THE FOOD: Fish
WHY IT MATTERS: You’ve heard of “good fats,” right? Well, oily fishes are where it’s at. Not only are fish such as salmon excellent for general brain health, but Walker says research suggests omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D have been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety.
TRY IT: Eating anchovies or sardines by themselves might give you pause, but try adding these healthy options to pizza or salads. Or add fresh or smoked mackerel to pasta or risotto. This small, fatty fish is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
THE FOOD: Dairy
WHY IT MATTERS: Trouble falling asleep? Try dairy sources like milk, yogurt, and cheese. “Bedtime milk can help soothe your stress and bring on more restful sleep,” Planells says. Yogurt might also be a powerful source of probiotics: beneficial, naturally occurring gut microbes, which more and more research is pointing toward as a critical component of whole-body health. “I would say in 10 years’ time, it will be all about the bugs, or probiotics,” Walker says.
TRY IT: Chow down on protein-packed Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts and a drizzle of honey. (Avoid the sugar-heavy yogurt varieties.) Or toss all those ingredients into a blender for a pre-snooze smoothie. You can get another double shot of de-stressors by sipping on some hot cocoa, mixing milk with dark chocolate.