Eating can be such an automatic reaction that we sometimes forget to pay attention to what we are actually putting in our bodies. Often, due to stress-related circumstances like a rapid-fire schedule, a heavy workload, or relationship pressures we might fall into emotional eating, which can sometimes provide calming sustenance, hence ‘comfort foods’. Although these comfort foods may feel good going down, if not eaten in moderation they could add to the stressors.
Before you succumb to using food as a temporary emotional fix, try the best stress-reducing foods available to rejuvenate, recharge, and rebalance your system for optimal performance.
Punched in the Gut
You may constantly hear about the dangers of stress and how this systemic reaction could take its toll on your health, but you may not be fully aware of how deep it can really go. Recognizing the ugly truth about stress just might help you re-evaluate your life choices, which include what you choose to eat.
When experiencing the emotional upheaval of stress, there is a reason you might feel like you’ve been “punched in the gut.”
According to a stress study by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it was found that “...stress impacts...the microbiota-gut-brain-axis, providing a pathway by which stress may get “into the belly” to influence health risk (1).”
The gut-brain axis is currently one of the most studied biological responses that, when imbalanced by stress, could result in a variety of symptoms which may include:
Stomach compromise, such as indigestion, acid reflux, and overall stomach pain
Headaches of all kinds, including migraines
Skin disorders like acne, rashes, and flare-ups of psoriasis or eczema
Joint pain due to systemic inflammation
Mood fluctuations due to serotonin compromise
One study of stress and the gut-brain axis cites presentations of migraines, stress hormones, and inflammation as a result of an imbalanced gut due to stress, concluding that, “The current evidence shows that the gut-brain axis may impact on migraine [headaches]...influenced by multiple factors such as inflammatory mediators, gut microbiota profile, neuropeptides and serotonin pathway, stress hormones and nutritional substances (2).”
This link between stress and the gut-brain axis shows how your system can respond in a deeply negative way when dealing with daily pressures. By incorporating more stress-reducing foods into your diet it could minimize your compromised gut response by strengthening it, rather than taxing it.
Foods high in gut-supporting probiotic properties are showing excellent results in reducing stress and the anxiety that comes with it.
A study titled, ‘Probiotic Consumption Relieved Human Stress and Anxiety Symptoms Possibly Via Modulating the Neuro-active Potential of the Gut Microbiota’ stated that “Our results showed a potential link between probiotic-induced gut microbiota modulation and stress/anxiety alleviation in stressed adults, supporting that the gut-brain axis was involved in relieving stress-related symptoms (3).”
Some of the best probiotic foods are:
Miso (fermented soy)
Kefir (fermented probiotic milk)
Kimchi (fermented Korean cabbage)
Kombucha (popular fermented tea)
Yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt (without heavy sugars like chocolate or excessive fruit)
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the major components in your cellular walls. This nutrient has been linked to a long list of health benefits that support the blood vessels, lungs, heart, and immune system. It has also been shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce stress.
Scientists from the Laboratoire régional de nutrition humaine, Hôpital de la Cavale Blanche, in Brest, France studied mental stress in men and how omega-3 fatty acids may help. It was concluded that “Supplementation with n-3 fatty acids [omega-3 rich fish oils] inhibits the adrenal activation elicited by a mental stress, presumably through effects exerted at the level of the central nervous system (4).”
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
Salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod, oysters, herring, trout, and tuna
Adapt with Adaptogens
Adaptogens are properties in certain foods and herbs which, various research has shown, can help your body stimulate stress protection and return to homeostasis (stable health equilibrium).
Evidence-based work of adaptogens and stress-protection was published by researchers Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman of the Swedish Herbal Institute Research and Development department which stated that “Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity (5).”
*Please note that before starting any kind of herbal supplement, you should speak with your physician first. Many supplements can have adverse reactions with certain medications or can be dangerous if you consume too much.
Stress-reducing foods and herbs that contain adaptogens include:
Raspberry leaf tea
Mushrooms (especially cordyceps)
Calm Your Cortisol
One of the major contributors to stress is the level of cortisol you produce. Cortisol is a hormone in your body responsible for your reaction to stress. It correlates with the flight or fight response generated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
For example, when early man was on the hunt, cortisol would trigger a series of systemic functions that included adrenaline release, increased glycolytic metabolism, blood pressure rise, and inflammation all needed to attack or retreat. When applied to today’s stresses, cortisol could be released during many situations including intense work pressure, driving a car, emotional confrontations, a health scare, or a combination of one or more of these.
A normal release of cortisol is a highly effective coping tool but when your body is constantly producing this hormone your stress level can increase exponentially. This overproduction could result in weight gain, headaches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, cardiovascular compromise, and even triggers associated with autoimmune diseases.
In addition to confronting and changing your stressful situations as well as maintaining a good exercise protocol, there are stress-reducing foods that may help calm your cortisol release as well.
Green tea - contains L-theanine, an amino acid linked to stress reduction and mental alertness.
Dark chocolate (low or no sugar) - contains high amounts of flavonoids, plant pigments that buffer adrenal cortisol release response.
Whole fruits and vegetables - fight cell damage caused by stress.
Whole grains - oats, wheat, rye, and spelt are whole grains linked to stress reduction.
Legumes - include beans and lentils that promote gut health for stress control.
Many of the foods mentioned above can be associated with a Mediterranean eating pattern. This way of eating is one of the most revered choices of food combinations for optimal health, which includes stress reduction.
A Mediterranean eating pattern includes high plant-based choices, whole grains, clean seafood, and healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil. It does not include heavily processed meats, refined grains like white bread or pasta, refined sugars, trans-fats, or refined oils.
A large multi-center study that includes research from the University of Brasília, Ghent University, University of Granada, Spanish National Research Council, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, and the Queen Mary University of London found that adhering to the Mediterranean eating pattern “may counteract the effect of stress on inflammatory biomarkers which may contribute to decreasing the risk of future mental health (6).”
Create a Lasting Change
The best stress-reducing foods can easily be implemented into your diet. Try these choices for at least twenty-one days (the gold standard for changing embedded behavior) and see if your stress levels respond. Consuming these foods is an excellent step toward real change that, when incorporated with other healthy choices like good exercise, regular sleep, and meditation, could make a significant difference for a higher quality of life.
At AFT coaching we help guide you toward stress reduction through advanced nutrition education as well as optimal physical training that fits your individualized needs. This means that your specific goals are front and center rather than boxed into a group approach.
We adhere to four components for good nutrition which are:
Controlling energy balance
Achieving health, body composition, and performance goals
Honest and outcome based results
It can be overwhelming to transform your life all by yourself. Let AFT coaching help lead you to the “you” that’s been waiting to come out.
Our parent company, AF Training Solutions, was founded in 2008. Since then, we’ve grown into one of the largest personal training and coaching organizations in the country. Currently, we operate the fitness departments for about 100 health clubs across the United States. As an organization, we have always had two main areas of focus; the customer experience and company culture. Over the years, we have invested heavily in people, process, and technology to ensure that our customer experience is second to none.