Nutrition for Decreasing Stress Levels
Updated: Jan 7
Written By: Rebecca Goodrich MS, RDN, LDN
Stress can come in all different forms. Whether your stress is contributed to a recent conversation that you had with someone or a recent injury, your body will react. The way we cope with stress can come from a wide variety of different reasons. The techniques we use to handle our stress can vary from person to person. It is important to acknowledge where our stress is coming from so that we can take a healthier approach to confront it. It is important to note that chronic stress has been associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease (CVD). In this blog post, we will be focusing on how nutrition may play a role in stress and certain techniques that can help you to decrease those levels.
Coping With Stress
How do you cope with stress? Does feeling stressed out over something make you want to run? Does it make you want to yell? Does it make you want to turn to comfort food? Is there another way you cope with stress? Studies have shown that consuming high fat, high sugar, and calorically dense foods have been used to decrease stress levels (1). The reason for choosing comfort foods is partly due to the increase of cortisol, a stress hormone (2). Due to the potential of developing chronic diseases from consuming these foods frequently, it is advised to incorporate more of a healthier eating pattern (especially) during stressful situations.
Cortisol and Stress
Since we know that cortisol is affected during the stress response, it’s no wonder that we end up choosing foods that are of less quality such as high fattening and high sugar items. Chips anyone? One study suggested that after administering two high carbohydrates and one low protein meals compared to a low carbohydrate and a high protein meal (in subjects prone to stress), displayed a decrease in cortisol levels (3). Another study reported that after providing mostly glucose (not fat or protein) one hour prior to a stressful event, heightened the stress response in healthy subjects (4). These two studies demonstrated how the food choices we make during a stressful situation can either exacerbate or temporarily decrease the stress response. As mentioned previously, choosing lower quality foods to help manage stress may help temporarily but may also contribute to metabolic diseases in the future.
Nutrition and Stress
It is important that we focus on what foods can be helpful during stressful situations. By being more mindful (as much as we can during stressful situations), we can prevent ourselves from furthering the stress response. While the research is still considered to be limited, one study showed that using certain herbal extracts such as ginkgo Biloba, decreased both diastolic and systolic readings after a stressful event (1). Other herbs such as kava and valerian root have also been shown to improve sleep quality and decrease anxiety.
If turning to comfort food under stressful situations is common for you, it is recommended that you incorporate nutritious foods throughout the day to prevent exacerbating the response. Consuming good sources of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help decrease inflammation. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish (cold-water fish), flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, plant oils, and eggs.
Stress can be seen in many different areas of our lives. Stress can be triggered for so many reasons and can come from a psychological component to a physiological component. The important thing to remember here is that we can manage our stress through proper nutrition and by becoming more in tune with our bodies. Consuming mostly plant-based foods over high sugar and high-fat food can help avoid making the stress response worse. From a preventative standpoint, adapting to a healthier lifestyle overall is highly recommended. If you ever find yourself in a stressful and non-manageable situation, consider journaling or even speaking with a therapist to process your thoughts. Allowing a professional to help you can make all of the difference.
Hamer, M., Owen, G., Kloek, J. (2005). The role of functional foods in the psychobiology of health and disease. Nutrition Research Reviews 18, 77-88 https://doi:10.1079/NRR2005103.
Dallman, MF, Pecoraro, N., Akana, SF., Fleur, SL., Gomez, F., Houshyar, H., Bell, ME., Bjatnagar, S., Laugero, KD., Manalo, S. (2003). Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of “comfort food.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Sep 30;100(20):11696-701. https://doi.10.1073/pnas.1934666100.
Markus, R., Panhuysen, G., Tuiten, A., Koppeschaar, H. (2000). Effects of food on cortisol and mood in vulnerable subjects under controllable and uncontrollable stress. Physiol Behav. 70(3-4):333-42 https://doi:10.1016/s0031-9384(00)00265-1.
Gonzalez-Bono, E., Rohleder, N., Hellhammer, DH., Salvador, A., Kirschbaum, C. (2002). Glucose but not protein or fat load amplifies the cortisol response to psychosocial stress. Horm Behav. 41(3):328-33 https://doi:10.1006/nbeh.2002.1766.