Six ways food can relieve stress and boost your health at the same time
Instead of diving into the biscuit tin, eat your way to a better mood with these easy options.
What’s your favourite comfort food? Chocolate? Chips? Why is it we crave unhealthy foods when we’re stressed out? Scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney may have found the answer. Their study found that stress overrides the brain’s natural response to satiety, boosting cravings for sweet and fatty foods. Ironically, it’s exactly these kinds of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods that further elevate the levels of cortisol – our primary stress hormone.
But instead of diving head first into the biscuit tin at the first sign of stress, we should (unsurprisingly) be eating something else instead. The key nutrients when it comes to stress resilience are the B vitamins and magnesium, which play an important role in mood regulation. Studies have also shown diets including plenty of fibre and omega-3 fatty acids help keep inflammation at bay, high levels of which are linked to stress and anxiety. And of course, we can’t forget the gut. A study by University College Cork found that consuming two-to-three servings of fermented foods a day (such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and yoghurt) led to a strong decrease in perceived stress among the participants.
Here are six easy ways to incorporate more of these stress-busting foods into your diet.
Boost your B vitamins
Unlike the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, the B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning we can’t store them in the body, so we need to get enough from our food on a daily basis. There’s mounting evidence that B vitamins can tackle stress, from helping to regulate mood to the production of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Food sources of the various B vitamins include meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy as well as legumes such as lentils and chickpeas.
For a healthy lunch brimming with B vitamins, take two large romaine lettuce leaves and spread each with hummus. Add a slice of cooked chicken, some chopped cucumber, red capsicum, shredded carrot or whatever you have in the salad drawer. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of black pepper, roll up and cut each in half. You can use a cocktail stick to secure if the lettuce keeps flapping open.
Stress and magnesium levels in the body are so inter-linked scientists refer to it as the “magnesium and stress vicious circle”. Stress increases magnesium loss, causing a deficiency; and in turn, magnesium deficiency enhances the body’s susceptibility to stress. Knowing this, it makes sense to keep topped up by eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as leafy greens, avocados, bananas, brown rice, almonds and pumpkin seeds.
Make this “magnesium milkshake” for breakfast, or have as a late afternoon snack, and you’ll perk up in no time. In a blender grind up a few almonds and pumpkin seeds to a fine powder, then add a ripe banana, a quarter of an avocado, a handful of spinach leaves, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and 200ml of semi-skimmed milk. Blend until smooth and drink immediately.
Up your omega-3
A recent study involving 138 midlife adults found that increasing omega-3 intake led to lower overall levels of cortisol and inflammation when the participants were subjected to stress, and higher levels of anti-inflammatory activity during their recovery. Add this to the already long list of proven health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and it’s a no-brainer as part of a healthy diet.
The best food source of omega-3 is oily fish, but with seafood being so expensive these days, there’s really no better option than tinned sardines. By eating all those little bones you also get a useful hit of calcium. To elevate simple sardines on toast to something truly delicious, squash a couple of sardines (preferably the ones in olive oil) over some whole grain toast, top with sliced tomato, squeeze over lemon juice, add a sprinkle of red chilli flakes and some chopped flat-leaf parsley and finish with a grind of black pepper.
Fermented foods are often referred to as “psychobiotic”, such is the strong connection between a healthy gut and a healthy mind. Fermented foods aren’t everyone’s cup of kombucha, but start by making a simple kimchi – it’s really just a spicy cabbage pickle.
Place 1kg of thinly sliced carrot, fennel and cabbage in a large bowl. Add 75g caster sugar and one tablespoon of salt and massage with clean hands for five minutes until liquid is starting to be released. Cover and leave aside for two hours. Make a spicy paste by combining one tablespoon of red chilli flakes, three cloves of finely grated garlic, 50g finely grated ginger, four teaspoons of fish sauce, three teaspoons of soy sauce and five finely sliced spring onions. Add the paste to the vegetables and mix thoroughly.
Pack the mixture into a large, sterilised storage jar, pressing down firmly. Pour over any liquid remaining in the bowl to cover the vegetables completely, add some water if necessary. Leave open at room temperature for an hour, then put the lid on and place in the fridge. The kimchi can be eaten the next day, but the flavour will develop over the following weeks. Keeps for six months in the fridge.
Make a stress-busting salsa verde
Two of the more surprising stress-busting foods are garlic and parsley. Both are packed with antioxidants, the body’s first line of defence against oxidative stress, which can lead to a range of health issues including stress and anxiety. Happily these two ingredients form the basis of a classic salsa verde, the perfect companion for grilled meat or fish.
Place a large handful each of flat-leaf parsley and basil in a food processor along with a couple of peeled garlic cloves, six anchovy fillets and a tablespoon of capers. Process until finely chopped. Then with the processor running on low, add about eight tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a tablespoon of lemon juice until well combined. Season with salt and pepper and allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving. Will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a day.
Adaptogens are specific herbs, roots and other plant compounds that are thought to help our bodies manage stress and recover after stressful situations. They’ve long been used as traditional remedies, for example ginseng root, is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to increase “qi”, which roughly translates as life energy.
Turmeric and ashwagandha (winter cherry) are two adaptogens thought to be particularly beneficial for stress. A study from 2019 looked at the potential therapeutic effects of ashwagandha on adults with self-reported high stress and found a significant reduction after taking ashwagandha extract for 60 days, with lower recorded cortisol levels, especially in the morning.
Another adaptogen, turmeric, has also shown promise as a stress-reliever thanks to the curcumin it contains, a powerful plant chemical known to help support serotonin levels in the brain. You can buy combined turmeric and ashwagandha teabags from most good health food shops, or online. Note, ashwagandha should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.