Nearly 40 percent of Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress.1 While it may seem tempting to drown your anxiety in a bowl of ice cream or calm your nerves with a bag of chips… eating junk foods while stressed may be particularly dangerous to your health.
Among a group of chronically stressed women (those caring for a spouse or parent with dementia), eating foods high in unhealthy fats and sugar lead to concerning health effects, including a larger waistline, increased abdominal fat, more oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance.2
In this case the food alone wasn't the problem… it was the combination of junk food and stress that was dangerous, as low-stress women who ate similar foods did not experience such profound changes over the course of the study.
The study's lead author, Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of California at San Francisco Department of Psychiatry, said:3
"Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress.
There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet – for example, it could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed."
At the same time, junk foods will only give you a moment of reprieve. After the initial pleasure wears off, you may find yourself battling mood swings, irritability, and other unpleasant emotions on top of the stress, courtesy of the sugar, trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and whatever other synthetic ingredients you may have consumed.
On the other hand, by choosing healthy foods you can actually impact your mood on a positive note, helping to relieve tension, stabilize blood sugar, and send your stress packing.
10 Best Foods to Eat for Stress
Had a long day at the office? Kids acting out all day? Feeling a financial crunch or relationship strain? Grab your fork and dig in to the following stress-busting superfoods.4
1. Green Leafy Vegetables
Dark leafy greens like spinach are rich in folate, which helps your body produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. One 2012 study found people who consumed the most folate had a lower risk of depression than those who ate the least.5
Not to mention, research from the University of Otago found eating fruits and vegetables of any sort (except fruit juice and dried fruit) helped young adults calm their nerves.6 Department of Psychology researcher Dr. Tamlin Conner said:7
"On days when people ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling calmer, happier, and more energetic than they normally did."
2. Organic Turkey Breast
Turkey is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) that your body converts into serotonin. Research shows that argumentative people who consumed tryptophan become markedly more pleasant, with researchers noting:8
"Tryptophan significantly decreased quarrelsome behaviors and increased agreeable behaviors and perceptions of agreeableness."
Pumpkin seeds, nuts, and free-range organic eggs are also rich sources of tryptophan.
3. Fermented Foods
The secret to improving your mental health is in your gut, as unhealthy gut flora can have a detrimental impact your brain health, leading to issues like anxiety and depression. Beneficial bacteria have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain via your vagus nerve.
For instance, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to have a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.9
Women who regularly ate yogurt containing beneficial bacteria had improved brain function compared to those who did not consume probiotics.10 Specifically, they had decreased activity in two brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation:
• The insular cortex (insula), which plays a role in functions typically linked to emotion (including perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience) and the regulation of your body's homeostasis
• The somatosensory cortex, which plays a role in your body's ability to interpret a wide variety of sensations
The fact that this study showed any improvement at all is remarkable, considering they used commercial yogurt preparations that are notoriously unhealthy -- loaded with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavorings, and sugar. Most importantly, the vast majority of commercial yogurts have clinically insignificant levels of beneficial bacteria.
As explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor with a postgraduate degree in Neurology, toxicity in your gut can flow throughout your body and into your brain, where it can cause symptoms of poor mood, autism, ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, and a whole host of other mental and behavioral disorders.
With this in mind, it should be crystal clear that nourishing your gut flora (by eating fermented foods and avoiding processed foods and sugar) is extremely important to support a positive mood.
4. Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon
Found in salmon, sardines, and anchovies, or supplement form, such as krill oil, the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play a role in your emotional well-being. There are a number of vendors, like Vital Choice, that have documented radiation free salmon.
One study in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3,11 while past research has shown omega-3 fats work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects.