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    Nutrition and Stress: Foods to Help Manage Stress and Mental Well-Being


    Jan 9, 2024 5 Minute Read

    Stress takes its toll on your life. The connection between nutrition and stress is often overlooked, but there are many healthy foods for stress relief.

    Reach harmony with mind. Close up of tray with fruits in the bed while a young woman practiving yoga in the background

     

    ‌In today's fast-paced world with endless demands, stress has become a normal part of life for many people. This can take a toll on mental well-being and negatively impact overall health. Chronic stress has been linked to weakened immunity and may increase the risk for certain conditions, like gut disorders and even heart disease. Fortunately, you can manage your stress with key strategies that help prevent it from interfering with your quality of life.

     

    While most people think of practices like exercise, self-care and meditation for stress management, the link between nutrition and stress is often overlooked. We'll explore this relationship and discuss the best foods to help support your body with effective stress management.

     

    Nutrition and Stress: What's the Connection?

    Food can impact stress levels in many ways. The link between your gut (or digestive tract) and your brain is called the gut-brain axis. This refers to the communication between your central nervous system (involving the brain) and the enteric nervous system (relating to your gut or digestive tract). If you've ever felt "butterflies" in your stomach or had a "gut feeling" when trying to make adecision, you've experienced this communication firsthand.

     

    A healthy gut microbiome (the collection of microorganisms living in your digestive tract) can positively influence mood and how your body handles stress. Since diet is a primary influencer of your body's microbiome, you have a lot of control over this area.

     

    Food also plays a pivotal role in your body's levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. The "fight or flight" response your body experiences during both short and long-term stress can cause a persistent elevation of cortisol. This can lead to health problems, such as a weakened immune system, poor sleep and digestive issues. The good news is that eating the right foods can help regulate cortisol levels, giving you a better stress response.

     

    What Are the Best Foods for Stress Relief?

    Many foods and nutrients can impact the health of your microbiome and levels of cortisol in your body. This makes food a crucial part of supporting your body's ability to handle stress well.

     

    Here are some foods to help support your mental state and offer stress relief:

     

    • Probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are types of bacteria and yeasts that nourish the health of your gut microbiome and convert food into essential nutrients. Prebiotics are a type of fiber (or indigestible carbohydrate) that serve as a form of fuel for probiotics. Eating prebiotics and probiotics may positively influence your mood and stress resilience by supporting a healthy and normal relationship between the gut-brain axis.

       

      • Examples of probiotic foods and beverages: yogurt with live and active cultures, kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi.

      • Examples of prebiotics: garlic, apples, oats, chia and flax seeds, leeks, asparagus and onions.

         

    • Foods rich in fiber. Like prebiotics and probiotics, fiber promotes a healthy microbiome, which can aid mental well-being. In addition, fiber helps support balanced blood sugar levels. This is vital to minimize unstable blood sugar levels, which can contribute to mood swings and exacerbate stress. Eating a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet that is high in fiber can help stabilize blood sugar levels and may improve your mood. Just be sure to increase your fiber intake gradually over a few weeks to allow your digestive system to adapt. This is because drastic increases can promote more gas, bloating and/or cramping.

       

      • Examples of high-fiber foods: nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, and whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa and products made with whole wheat.

         

    • Foods rich in stress-relieving vitamins and minerals. Consuming the recommended daily amounts of vitamin C and magnesium is essential. Each of these nutrients plays an important role in stress management. Adequate intake of vitamin C helps regulate cortisol levels, while a deficiency in vitamin C is linked to stress-related diseases. Magnesium is known as a calming nutrient and has also been found to lower the stress response. Given that stress increases magnesium loss in the body, it's crucial to make sure you're getting enough in times of stress as well as in everyday life.

       

      • Examples of foods rich in vitamin C: citrus fruits, tropical fruits, tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries.

      • Examples of foods rich in magnesium: nuts, seeds, beans, bananas and whole grains.

         

    • Sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which is significant as stress can raise inflammation in your body. Omega-3 fats also help lower cortisol levels during stress. They can help promote a positive mood while reducing the risk of depression.

       

      • Examples of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: fatty fish like salmon and tuna, walnuts, chia and flaxseeds.

         

    • Adaptogenic herbs: Adaptogens like ashwagandha, rhodiola and ginseng are natural stress-fighting agents. They assist the body with adapting to stressors and enhancing resilience. You can consume these herbs in pill form or as a tea. Other herbal teas, such as chamomile and lavender, promote relaxation and mitigate stress.*

       

    In addition to obtaining vitamins and minerals from your diet, many of these nutrients can also be taken in supplement form. It's best to talk with your doctor before starting any new supplement regimen.

     

    Lastly, hydration is also an important part of managing stress levels. Being even mildly dehydrated can intensify feelings of anxiety and stress by raising cortisol levels. Drinking plenty of water and other hydrating drinks throughout the day can support overall mental well-being.

     

    Finding Healthy Stress Relief

    Nutrition plays a vital role in managing stress and promoting mental well-being. When it comes to foods for stress relief, a well-rounded diet rich in fiber, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids can enhance your resilience and help you better navigate the demands of modern life. With a bit of planning and strategic grocery shopping, stress relief is possible. If you need further stress support, check out Rite Aid's stress solution center.

     

    *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

     

    These articles are intended for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.

     

     

    Sources:

     

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    • American Heart Association. (2023, September 26). Stress and heart health. Stress and Heart Health. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health

    • Rutsch, A., Kantsjö, J. B., & Ronchi, F. (2020). The gut-brain axis: How microbiota and host Inflammasome Influence Brain Physiology and pathology. Frontiers in Immunology11https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2020.604179

    • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2022, July 25). The microbiome. The Microbiome. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/microbiome/

    • Stachowicz, M., & Lebiedzińska, A. (2016, September 3). The effect of diet components on the level of cortisol . SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00217-016-2772-3

    • Yaribeygi, H. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal16(1), 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480

    • ‌National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019, August). Probiotics: What You Need To Know. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know

    • Davani-Davari, D., Negahdaripour, M., Karimzadeh, I., Seifan, M., Mohkam, M., Masoumi, S., Berenjian, A., & Ghasemi, Y. (2019). Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. Foods8(3), 92.

    • Myhrstad, M. C. W., Tunsjø, H., Charnock, C., & Telle-Hansen, V. H. (2020). Dietary Fiber, Gut Microbiota, and Metabolic Regulation—Current Status in Human Randomized Trials. Nutrients12(3), 859. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12030859

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    • ‌Madison, A. A., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Renna, M. E., Rosie Shrout, M., Malarkey, W. B., Lin, J., Epel, E. S., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2021). Omega-3 supplementation and stress reactivity of cellular aging biomarkers: an ancillary substudy of a randomized, controlled trial in midlife adults. Molecular Psychiatry26(7), 3034–3042. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-021-01077-2

    • Liao, L., He, Y., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese Medicine13(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9