a tray of colorful food

7 Nutrients That Help Combat Stress

According to The Seattle Times last month, “60 % of U.S. adults are feeling daily stress and worry, new Gallup poll shows.” In fact, Gallup data cued from March and early April 2020, show that worry and stress increased in an unprecedented manner compared to historically stable rates. Compared to July–August 2019, stress rose 14 percentage points to 60%, worry rose 21 points to 59% and daily enjoyment plunged 20 points to 61%.

Though stress and worry are feelings everyone experiences at one time or another, economic and health fears brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are believed to have sparked the spike in anxious Americans. Stress causes physiological changes and over time can lead to chronic health conditions.

Chronic Stress and Its Health Impacts

Chronic stress elevates the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol causes a cascade of physiological changes such as muscle wasting, depletion of vitamins, decreased insulin production, sodium retention and enhanced elimination of potassium. Over time, these physiological changes can increase our risk for chronic health conditions. Stress-related chronic health conditions include high blood pressure, obesity, increased susceptibility to colds and flu, digestive distress such as bloating, constipation or diarrhea, depression, anxiety, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Nutrients that Mitigate Stress-related Effects

Diet interventions can reduce stress-related effects. Specific nutrients play an important role in stress management by reducing the level of stress hormones and stress-related effects caused by physiological changes.

The nutrients that play the most important role include complex carbohydrates, omega 3 fatty acids, proteins, Vitamins B and C, magnesium and selenium.

1. Complex carbohydrates are a precursor to serotonin, a brain chemical that keeps us calm and boosts our concentration and productivity. Complex carbohydrates are also a good source of fiber and B vitamins that help release energy from food.

Good sources of complex carbohydrates include:

  • Lentils
  • Beans and peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Berries
  • Brown rice
  • Whole grains such as quinoa, old-fashioned or steel cut oats, whole wheat, lentil or chickpea pastas, and bread made with 100% whole wheat flour

2. Omega-3 fatty acids promote optimal brain function and enhance mood by boosting serotonin levels and our memory.

Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines
  • Flaxseeds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds

3. Protein, which is made up of amino acids, promotes satiety and, along with exercise, can help preserve our muscle mass, which in turn boosts our metabolism. The four types of amino acids are tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine and theanine, and they play an important role in mitigating the health impacts of chronic stress.

Tryptophan boosts serotonin levels. Tyrosine and phenylalanine increase alertness and vitality. Theanine increases our mood and cognitive performance and promotes relaxation.

Good sources of these specific types of amino acids include:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Dairy
  • Green tea (a good source of theanine)
  • Lima beans
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Turkey
  • Whole grains

4. B vitamins including folic acid, vitamins B5 and B12 help maintain energy and mood, improve coping mechanisms, relieve stress, anxiety, panic and depression.

Good sources include:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Bananas
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Kidney beans
  • Spinach and kale
  • Whole grains

5. Vitamin C lowers blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol while boosting the immune system.

Good sources are:

  • Fruits, such as guava, oranges, papaya, strawberries, tomato and kiwi
  • Vegetables, including bell peppers, kale and snow peas

6. Magnesium promotes muscle relaxation and regulation of heartbeat. Magnesium also helps to lower stress by keeping a person in a calm state and prevents blood pressure from spiking.

Good sources include:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Black beans
  • Leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard and kale
  • Pumpkin seeds

7. Selenium is an antioxidant which helps prevent cell damage and stress related health conditions. It also improves mood.

Good sources include:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Lean protein such as pork chops and chicken breast
  • Seafood such as yellow fin tuna, oysters, firm tofu and shrimp
  • Shitake mushrooms
  • Whole wheat pasta

Other Tips for Eating During Times of Stress

Add probiotics for digestive health. As stress can cause gastrointestinal discomforts including cramping, abdominal bloating, diarrhea and constipation, probiotics can be helpful. Probiotics can help stabilize the balance between good and bad gut microflora. Food sources of probiotics are kefir, yogurt, kimchee and miso soup.

Swap dessert with one ounce of dark chocolate. Usually dessert isn’t a good choice when you are stressed, but dark chocolate may be an exception in moderate portions. Dark chocolate elevates serotonin levels, is a good source of antioxidants and minerals essential to mental and physical health. Stick to a one-ounce serving of dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa.

Remember to drink enough water. Staying hydrated decreases stress symptoms and can decrease cortisol levels. Aim to drink at least half your weight in ounces of water a day.

Avoid refined sugar. Refined sugar is the kind in sugary beverages, cookies, cakes and candy. It causes a spike in blood sugar and then a quick drop often described as a “crash.” This zaps energy levels, and research shows that too much refined sugar may raise levels of depression. Also, refined sugars have no nutritional value, are high in calories and contribute to weight gain.

Limit alcohol. Alcohol can help or hurt stress levels. In moderation, it can help calm nerves, but drinking too much can contribute to depression and can be a major contributor to many chronic health conditions.

Avoid too much caffeine. Although numerous medical studies indicate caffeine is beneficial to overall health, too much can make us jittery and can interrupt sleep. Limit caffeine intake to 300 mg per day or less. One cup of coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine. Avoid coffee in the afternoon as it can interrupt sleep.

It's also important to create a routine for eating, sleeping and exercising, plan your meals ahead of time, have healthy snacks on hand and stock your pantry with healthy foods.

Grocery List Suggestions

  • Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries
  • Vegetables including spinach, kale and broccoli
  • Proteins such as salmon, tuna and sardines, turkey, shrimp, tofu, eggs, unflavored Greek yogurt
  • Lentils, chickpeas and other related beans
  • Walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds
  • Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher)
  • Green tea

Stacy Trogdon, RDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator with the Overlake Diabetes Education and Outpatient Nutrition clinics.