The Best Foods to Relieve Stress (and Some to Avoid)

The foods you eat may make a difference in your stress level. While some may be beneficial, others may not work to reduce stress.

Table with various fresh produceStress can impact you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and your neck can tighten. The physical symptoms can be manifestations of what’s going on internally.

There are many ways to manage stress and reduce its effects, including self-caredeep breathing techniques, or meditation. Plus, diet and nutrition may also affect your stress levels.

While eating certain types of food may help diminish stress levels, consuming others may keep stress at its peak.

Foods that reduce cortisol

Cortisol is widely known as the stress hormone because of the way it helps the body handle stress.

StudiesTrusted Source have shown that cortisol helps the body mediate its fight, flight, or freeze response. Cortisol is also known toTrusted Source regulate metabolism, inflammation, and immune function. The body’s ability to properly control stress and subsequently cortisol levels can impact your health in a number of ways.

Here are some foods that can be beneficial in lowering your cortisol levels:

  • Dark chocolate. Whether in a candy bar or steamy mug of hot chocolate, this favorite has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
  • Bananas. Not only can bananas provide a great source of energy, but research showsTrusted Source they can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress levels that are associated with increased cortisol.
  • Garlic. While garlic is often used as a seasoning, a study involving mice found that garlic lowered the levels of several stress-related hormones, including cortisol.

Fermented foods

Fermentation can help heightenTrusted Source the antioxidant properties in many foods. Antioxidants, in turn, can lower oxidative stress in the body, increase immune function, and even play a role in healthy longevity. Eating fermented foods and foods high in antioxidants can benefit stress levels in a number of ways.

Here are some fermented food options:

  • Papaya. Fermented papaya is often used in juices or smoothies. Once fermented, papaya has been foundTrusted Source to reduce inflammation and even reduce oxidative stress-induced cell damage.
  • Kimchi. Full of fermented vegetables, kimchi is also packed with antioxidants. A mouse study also foundTrusted Source that kimchi may improve memory.
  • Yogurt. Yogurt has probiotics and good bacteria that boost gut health and lower stress and anxiety levels. In fact, according to a 2012 study, probiotic yogurt improved the antioxidant status in people with type 2 diabetes.

Foods with vitamin C

Research indicatesTrusted Source that vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant that battles the effects of oxidative stress. In addition to reducing anxiety levels, vitamin C has also been shown to help regulate heart rate and blood pressure. These foods high in vitamin C may also have a similar impact on stress levels:

  • Oranges. One studyTrusted Source indicates that this citrus fruit is not only a rich source of vitamin C but also contains potassium, folate, and calcium. In addition, it has anti-inflammatory properties and is beneficial for cardiovascular health.
  • Grapefruit. Another citrus fruit, grapefruit is also shown to beTrusted Source high in secondary metabolites, which are associated with a reduced risk of cancer and malignancies.
  • Broccoli. Crunching on this green vegetable can help lower oxidative stress. In addition to vitamin C, it containsTrusted Source folate.

Theanine-rich drinks

Theanine is an amino acid that has been shown to reduce stressTrusted Source in both mice and humans.

It’s found in abundance in powdered green tea, also known as matcha tea. This theanine-rich drink may lead you into a state of relaxed alertness.

While matcha tea is a particularly concentrated source of theanine, other teas derived from the Camellia sinensis plant — like regular green tea or black tea — contain this compound as well.

Still, black tea tends to beTrusted Source slightly higher in caffeine and slightly lower in theanine, and may, therefore, be less effective in reducing stress than green teas.

Stress-relieving herbal teas

Though research on their effectiveness is sometimes limited, some herbal teas like chamomile, lavender, or lemon balm may help reduce stress as well.

If you want to learn more, check out this article.

Foods to avoid

Comfort foods can sometimes make you feel better because they taste good and may make you feel more at ease in the moment. However, their perceived effects can be short-lived.

When it comes to how diet may affect stress levels, many comfort foods are found on the list of foods to avoid, as they contain compounds or ingredients that have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.

For example, diets high in sugar have been linked to emotional impairment, including anxiety and depression. Similarly, one study notesTrusted Source that trans fatty acids may have a detrimental effect on inflammation and stress.

Caffeine has been shownTrusted Source to increase stress and anxiety levels in secondary school children, and according to older research, it may also have negative effects on stress and anxiety levels in adults who consume a lot of it or in people sensitive to its effects.

Processed foods, which can include breads, microwave meals, chips, and candy, were foundTrusted Source to affect feelings of anxiety and overall mental health.

A few favorites that fall into these categories include:

  • Ice cream. Smooth and creamy, ice cream is also full of sugar.
  • Energy drinks/caffeinated coffee. These items contain caffeine and often sugar.
  • Pretzels. This crunchy, salty treat is a processed food.
  • Hot dogs. While a comforting food, hot dogs are also a processed food.
  • Fried chicken. Trans fats are often found in fried foods.

Though you don’t have to cut these foods out of your diet completely, it may be a good idea to limit your intake, especially if you feel like they may be affecting your stress levels.

Sometimes diet and nutrition alone are not enough to make a difference with the stress you’re experiencing. The good news is there are other resources available to help you in your journey to wellness. The key is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, and know when it’s time to ask for assistance.

Sometimes, help from your family, friends, or social or spiritual community may be enough to get you through a stressful time. However, sometimes it may be advisable to seek professional help.

The following symptoms are indicators that additional help from a professional may be needed:

  • Stress and worry are interfering with your ability to function in your everyday life — working, attending school, or your social life.
  • The stress or anxiety you’re experiencing are too hard to manage on your own.
  • You’re dealing with symptoms of severe depression.
  • You’re using other coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or other substances, to deal with stressful feelings.
  • You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or suicidal behaviors.

Next steps

Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can help your body stay strong and healthy. They can also be beneficial mentally, by helping to lower cortisol levels and working against the impact of oxidative stress. Reduced inflammation also accompanies streamlined cortisol levels.

Fermented foods help enrich the antioxidant properties of foods, which assists your body in lowering oxidative stress and strengthening immunity. Vitamin C also counters the negative effects of oxidative stress while helping to regulate heart rate and blood pressure. And theanine-rich items, like green tea, have soothing and relaxing properties.

If none of the specific items listed strike your fancy, there’s an abundance of available choices that are healthy and helpful. To find products that work for your palate, you may want to check food labels. They will give you details on vitamins and minerals, as well as sugar content. You can try to focus on low sugar items. Even consider buying fewer processed foods and more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables if you can.

The method you use to prepare your food is something that can be helpful to consider. Baking fish or chicken instead of preparing it fried could lead to less trans fat intake.

Besides diet, other stress-relieving tips include:

  • You can enjoy a nice, warm bath or a refreshing shower.
  • Taking a walk in nature may allow you to take in the surroundings and get the blood flowing.
  • Consider listening to soothing music or your favorite tunes.
  • You could try meditation. Mindfulness can relax your body and mind.
  • It’s a good idea to get a restful night’s sleep.

A note on accessibility

It’s not always easy, convenient, or affordable to get fresh fruits and vegetables. The lack of these items in your diet can impact your physical, mental, and emotional health.

The official poverty rate in 2019 was 10.5% of the United States population. While that percentage is down slightly from 11.8% in 2018, it still accounts for 34 million people living in poverty. These people may experience food insecurity, which means they have a hard time feeding their families. Not knowing where the next meal is coming from has been shown to cause significant stress and psychological distress in children.

Additionally, people in lower-income communities may live in food deserts or food swamps, meaning access to healthy, fresh food is severely limited. A well-stocked grocery store may not be available for miles. That can even mean limited access to frozen items.

If you’re currently in this situation, there are other food options available that can be helpful in lowering stress levels. Canned foods packed in water can be nutritious choices.

Aside from food, therapy at a low cost is an option. Free guided meditation options are available online. If computer access is a concern, libraries frequently offer the opportunity to use their desktops if you obtain a free library card. Exercise outdoors is also a beneficial option that has been shown to lower stress levels. You may consider starting with just 10 minutes a day to get the blood flowing.

 

If you or someone you know are exhibiting these behaviors, it’s important to seek help. A licensed therapist, a trained psychiatrist, or a support group can be highly beneficial.

Help is available right now:

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Medically reviewed by Karin Gepp, PsyD — Written by LaKeisha Fleming — Updated on July 25, 2021

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