Stress and anxiety are in full swing for so many of us right now. As if our "normal" life doesn't already have a fair share of balls to juggle, every one of us is living in a state of anything but normal with a dozen extra balls thrown into the mix. I'm hardly going to suggest that changing your diet is like waving a magic wand...and when you eat right - poof - everything gets better. But I can say that eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong foods can help manage stress and anxiety - often quite significantly.
Manage Stress & Anxiety With These Foods
In my private client work, I find that most people have no idea how good they could feel if they only ate healthier. Usually, people mention to me that they are thinking clearer and sleeping better before they notice any sort of weight loss. This is always a great sign that someone is getting their nutrition house in order.
Usually, though, it's not the good stuff people are eating that drags them down. Everyone knows the basic benefits of eating lots of fruits and vegetables and drinking plenty of water.
It's the bad stuff we need to avoid that creeps up on us and makes us feel miserable a lot faster than all the good stuff. The cards are definitely stacked with an unfair advantage toward unhealthy foods having a greater effect on our body than healthy food.
For example, after you eat a great, healthy meal loaded with nutrients and all the right foods, you may or may not notice how good those foods are food your body. A big green salad with some olive oil is good for your heart and reduces inflammation, but your body isn't going to give you a report card after you finish that meal. Only after you eat like this consistently for days or weeks will your body let you know that it's doing good.
Eating the right foods helps to control weight, yes, but also improve mood, quality of sleep, digestion, inflammation and so much more!
On the flip side, after you eat a meal that's mostly fried, processed, or sugary (despite how good those foods might taste when you're eating them), your body is likely going to give you some kickback by making you feel sluggish, jittery or bloated within an hour.
Since these foods are incredibly addictive and cheap, they keep people coming back for more - making the cycle of eating junk food hard to stop regardless of how much stress and anxiety they may be responsible for contributing to.
How Our Bodies Interpret Stress & Anxiety
When we experience stress, anxiety, or anything that taxes our body emotionally, our body stands up and pays attention - at least initially. Acute stress, such as showing up late to an important appointment because you were stuck in traffic or getting into an argument with a friend or spouse increases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline - putting your body into a "fight or flight" mode. After stress dies down, your hormones go back to their normal levels.
When we experience chronic stress, however, things change. Examples of chronic stress include being personally affected by a natural disaster, going through a divorce, dealing with the deal of a loved one, or even waking up multiple times a night to care for an infant.
Stress or anxiety related to life events like this doesn't go away overnight. On a physiological level, cortisol and adrenaline can go into overdrive unless the situation is managed in the best way possible. When our stress hormones are continually released there are side effects, including weight gain, inflammation, heart disease, etc.
To our body, there is no difference between physical and physiological stress. If we are constantly eating unhealthy foods that assault our body from the inside out, we're doing just as much damage as we would if we were dealing with another form of chronic stress - such as those mentioned above.
Eating poorly when dealing with chronic stress only compounds the problem, making it harder to come out from under.
Diet & Stress
It may not be immediately apparent that diet affects stress or anxiety levels. After all, a big bowl of ice cream or a bag of chips might hit the spot after a spat with a friend or getting turned down from a job. A once-in-a-while indulgence is not a big deal. But the immediate gratification of eating these foods regularly is always outweighed by the long-term consequences. Your body can't hide it.
Most of us already know that eating foods that are fried, processed, highly refined, or sugary should be avoided especially when we're experiencing stress or anxiety. But what about the foods we should eat more of?
Get Plenty of Tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to produce the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin helps us regulate our mood, manage perceived stress, and maintain good memory and cognitive function. Even a small decrease in the levels of dietary tryptophan in people who are prone to depression or have a family history of depression can decrease mood.
You may have heard that foods like turkey are a great source of tryptophan. While many foods, including turkey, contain tryptophan, it's doesn't convert to serotonin very easily. Plant-based foods, however, do! If you want to maintain optimal levels of tryptophan in your diet to help manage stress and mood in your life, eat more of these foods:
- Leafy greens
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
- Ground Flax Seeds
Eat Foods High In Phosphorus
The mineral phosphorus is found in most foods, but eating foods especially high in phosphorus has been shown to be beneficial for people dealing with anxiety. Phosphorus is also helpful in strengthening bones and teeth, repairing muscle, improving brain function and help with water retention.
Eat more of these phosphorus-rich foods:
- Brazil Nuts
- Sunflower Seeds
Eat Foods High In Potassium
Foods that are rich in potassium are helpful with nervous system function and water retention. A diet low in potassium can also lead to constipation, muscle stiffness, high blood pressure, and mood disorders, such as depression.
Eat more of these foods to help balance your potassium levels.
- Tomato (all variations - raw, paste, sun-dried)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Dried Fruit
- Lima Beans
Eat Foods with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids have a direct impact on our brain function, specifically in the area of memory and depression. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to significantly decrease inflammation in the body as well.
Omega-3s aren't found in food as abundantly as phosphorus or potassium, but a little goes a long way. Here are a few foods rich in omega-3s you should try to eat more of:
- Flax Seeds, ground
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Kidney Beans
The Bottom Line
The easiest way to use your diet to help manage stress and anxiety is to trade in a diet filled with processed foods for a diet loaded with unprocessed foods. You'll naturally increase phosphorus, potassium, and omega-3 levels, among other nutrients that help to naturally alleviate stress and anxiety. If you're on a budget, here are 50 of the healthiest foods you can buy that won't break the bank.