Whether it’s a looming deadline, overflowing inbox or the anticipation of heading home for the holidays, stress can strike at any time. And when it hits, sometimes comfort food and high-fat, high-sugar treats seem like the best way to find relief. (Hi, cookies and chips!)
In fact, most people say they snack more under stress, says Torey Armul, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But that’s not the worst part. “Stress also increases the hormone cortisol, which can boost appetite,” she says, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Yikes!
You can turn your diet habits around, though, and actually use food to your calming advantage. Read on to find out how meals can affect your mental health.
The Gut-Brain Connection
By now, you probably know that our microbiome, aka the trillions of bacteria that call our gut home, plays a role in everything from digestion to immunity to sleep. Well, it can also affect your mood and brain health.
“We’ve come from a place of compartmentalization where the gut exists here and the brain over there,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, MD, author of the new book, The Grain Brain Whole Life Plan: Boost Brain Performance, Lose Weight, and Achieve Optimal Health. “We now recognize that the body is an integrated whole. There’s a powerful relationship between what’s going on in the intestine, how we feel and how we interpret the world around us.” In other words, your breakfast of choice could put you in a positive or negative mindset for the day, depending on the foods you choose.
The brain and the gut talk to each other via the gut-brain axis and this communication pathway depends on the healthy bacteria in your stomach. When the one-cell layered lining of your gut gets compromised, “things inside the gut can get out and into the bloodstream, stimulating your immune system and causing inflammation,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “And inflammation is the cornerstone of mood issues, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and virtually every chronic degenerative disease.”
In the brain, inflammation compromises both the growth of new brain cells and the creation of synapses (which connect brain cells to each other), according to Dr. Perlmutter. It also impacts mitochondria, your cell’s powerhouse and can lead to cell death. All pretty poor news for your mental health.
Eat to De-Stress?
Research shows that social stress is associated with higher levels of inflammation and an unhealthy microbiome. “When there’s chronic or big stress, cortisol increases. It changes the bacteria and other organisms in the gut, directly increasing the permeability of the intestinal lining,” says Dr. Perlmutter. What’s worse, the inflammation this creates can affect how the body produces serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter). And experts estimate that 90 percent of serotonin is manufactured in the gut.
By eating the right foods, you can offset a leaky gut, which will help you feel better — mentally and physically. Foods high in fiber and good bacteria help rebuild your microbiome, decrease inflammation in the body and nourish a healthy gut-brain connection by protecting the body against toxins, carcinogens and oxidative stress. Reducing inflammation in the body also means you’ll feel stronger emotionally. And the act of eating itself increases happiness. “Eating releases oxytocin, which creates feelings of well-being,” says Armul.
For a daily dose of feel-good hormones and a quick mood boost try adding more of these seven foods to your diet.
7 Foods for Stress Relief
Similar to yogurt, this fermented milk product is full of good-for-you probiotics like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. “Probiotics are the bacteria that colonize your gut and help crowd out unhealthy bacteria that can lead to disease,” says Armul. These good-for-your-gut probiotics also help to maintain the integrity of the stomach lining and help prevent leaky gut symptoms, says Dr. Perlmutter. (Remember: A healthy gut often equals a healthy brain.) He also notes that kefir is rich in antioxidants, which protects your cells against oxidative stress.
This root vegetable (aka Mexican turnip) adds more than just a satisfying crunch to your salads. It’s a good source of prebiotic fiber. “There’s a difference between fiber in general and the notion of prebiotic fiber,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “Prebiotics nurture the good gut bacteria we already have. It’s the fuel they use to grow.” Other sources rich in prebiotic fiber are onions, garlic and dandelion greens.
You know that beans are full of protein and fiber. But, did you know that beans can also make you feel joyful? “There are certain proteins that come from beans, but not dairy and poultry, that are a source of dopamine, a pleasure hormone,” says Armul.
4. Fatty Fish
Here’s another reason to get your fill of DHA, a healthy omega-3 fatty acid. It reduces inflammation and eliminates toxins in the body. According to Dr. Perlmutter, DHA acts upon an important protein pathway (Nrf2) that produces antioxidants and detoxification enzymes to combat soaring levels of stress in the body. By eating more fatty fish (like salmon), your body learns to activate this de-stress tactic, without waiting until you’re in the midst of a super anxious state.
5. Leafy Greens
Leafy green vegetables aren’t just high in fiber, they can also increase levels of serotonin in the body. “Serotonin is linked to mood and it rises when you eat foods rich in folate like leafy greens,” says Armul.
Fermented vegetables like kimchi are a potent source of probiotics. In addition to fortifying your intestinal lining, Dr. Perlmutter notes that probiotics increase BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps stimulate the growth of new brain cells. If the spicy pickled Korean cabbage isn’t your jam, try pickles, fruits or vegetables pickled in brine (not vinegar) for another probiotic punch.
This powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich spice tops every superfood list. And for good reason: The mustard colored seasoning comes from the same family as ginger root. According to Dr. Perlmutter, curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, produces antioxidants to protect the body’s mitochondria and helps maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Research also shows that curcumin boosts DHA levels in the brain.
Time It Right
Planning when you eat these foods could also aid in finding some zen. Dr. Perlmutter suggests allowing your body time to fast by occasionally skipping breakfast and eating most of your calories before 3 p.m. Armul recommends setting yourself up for de-stressing success by planning for a tough week ahead. “Stock up on nutritious food, pack a healthier lunch and don’t bake a batch of brownies,” she says. Consider that your prescription for calm.