11 Best Foods to Help Reduce Stress
Stress is sometimes unavoidable, but research suggests that certain nutrients, such as complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamin C, vitamin B, magnesium, and selenium, may reduce the stress hormone cortisol
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
Can you use your diet to help fight stress?
Food and stress have a complex relationship. Not only can what you eat impact your stress levels, but being stressed can increase your need for certain vitamins and minerals, according to a 2016 review in the Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences. So eating right may help improve your stress-related symptoms. Nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamin C, vitamin B, magnesium, and selenium, actually seem to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to the 2016 review. So you’ll want to consider adding these nutrient-filled foods to your grocery cart for extra stress relief (and be sure to avoid these anxiety-inducing foods, too).
Make friends with the fishmonger because salmon may counteract the effects of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which is why it is one of the best foods that reduce stress. “The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon may offset the effects of these hormones,” says Shahzadi Devje, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian in Toronto, Canada. “This helps reduce anxiety and improve your response to stress.” This doesn’t mean, however, that eating salmon for dinner tonight will halt your stress— it means eating enough of the fish is beneficial in terms of long-term stress management. Before heading to the store, here’s what you need to know about buying farm-raised vs. wild-caught salmon.
This green veggie contains folate, a B vitamin that is a precursor to dopamine, the get-happy hormone. “The effect of this hormone on the brain induces a feeling of pleasure,” Devje says. Your brain releases dopamine when you experience pleasure. A 2017 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that people with depression had lower levels of folate in comparison to those without depression. The study can’t prove that the low folate was the cause of the depression—just that the two were linked—but it may help to make sure you have an adequate intake. (Here’s how to tell the difference between folate and folic acid.)
Tucking into a warm bowl of oatmeal could make you feel more relaxed and calm, per the 2016 review in the Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences. “Eating complex carbs increases the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that reduces stress hormones,” Devje says. Although oats haven’t been studied specifically as a way to help relieve anxiety, they are a good source of tryptophan which the body converts to serotonin.
Most people would probably agree that chocolate is one of their favorite foods that reduce stress. Just unwrapping a piece of dark chocolate could put a smile on your face, but some research suggests that eating it may enhance those feel-good effects. “Growing evidence suggests that the antioxidants in cocoa help relax blood vessels, helping to lower blood pressure and boost circulation,” Devje says. One 2017 study found that 20 g per day of dark chocolate could have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular health.
Who doesn’t love this comfort food? Turns out it’s totally legit to crave starches like potatoes when stressed. It’s called hedonic hunger, or eating for pleasure rather than to fuel your body. “We don’t need the calories, but since we’re hardwired to be attracted to high-calorie foods because they give us energy, we tend to seek out fatty or sweet foods when we’re stressed,” explains Martica Heaner, PhD, an exercise physiologist and adjunct associate nutrition professor at Hunter College in New York City. Instead, reach for potatoes, which contain fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and other nutrients. Heaner also suggests sweet potatoes for a stress fix. Try a few shakes of nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor and a sprinkle of herbs and spices.
When we’re frazzled, our muscles tighten up, we can’t think clearly, we have trouble sleeping, and our blood pressure spikes. One nutrient that can help ease those symptoms is magnesium, but when we’re stressed, our magnesium levels plummet. “Dark, leafy vegetables such as spinach are nutrient-dense foods that contain high levels of magnesium,” says David Nico, PhD, author of Diet Diagnosis: Navigating the Maze of Health and Nutrition Plans. The reverse is also true: low magnesium levels due to other factors can cause people to experience psychological effects like depression. (Check out the 7 causes of stress you never knew existed.)
Fire up the kettle and nestle in for a comforting cup of stress relief. “The active nutrient found primarily in the green tea plant is the amino acid L-theanine,” Nico explains. A study published in Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin found the anti-stress benefits of the L-theanine in low-caffeine green tea, which relaxes the mind without contributing to a drowsy effect on the brain. Another bonus: Green tea isn’t likely to give you jitters the way coffee can.
Stress often results in the “flight or fight” mode, which is taxing on the adrenal glands. “Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin B5, which supports adrenal gland function, which is critical in stress management,” Nico says. Looking for options besides foods that reduce stress? Try one of these 7 ways to relieve every type of stress.
Peeling an orange is a good distraction from stress, for starters. Oranges and other citrus fruits also contain myo-inositol, a naturally occurring form of B vitamin that’s found in high levels in the brain and nervous system. “Cell membrane, muscle, and nerve function rely on myo-inositol,” Nico says. “Myo-inositol supports emotional health and a positive mood.” A study in
Speaking of L-theanine, this superfood is full of it. “Matcha green tea contains up to five times as much L-theanine as regular green tea,” explains Molly Morgan, RD, CDN, the owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions. Not only does this frothy beverage lower your stress and preserve alertness, but it’s also chock-full of anti-aging and disease-fighting antioxidants. (Learn the 12 signs you’re more stressed than you realize.)
Crunchy veggies are some of the best foods that reduce stress, according to Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and creator of Nutrition Nuptials. Carrots, apples, or celery will all do the trick. “The crunch not only provides a sense of relief, but chewing these crunchy foods helps relieve jaw tension, which can be a major area where stress builds up in the body,” says Enright. All that chewing can help us redirect our focus and help melt stress away. For more calming ideas, try these 37 expert ways to make managing stress much easier.
- Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences: "Nutrient and Stress Management"
- Shahzadi Devje, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian in Toronto, Canada
- Journal of Psychiatric Research: "The association of folate and depression: A meta-analysis"
- International Journal of Tryptophan Research: "L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications"
- ECronicon Research: "Effect of the Dark Chocolate Consumption on Some Markers of Oxidative Stress, Endothelial Dysfunction and Inflammation of a Healthy Population"
- Obesity Science & Practice: "A narrative review of the construct of hedonic hunger and its measurement by the Power of Food Scale"
- Martica Heaner, PhD, an exercise physiologist and adjunct associate nutrition professor at Hunter College in New York City
- David Nico, PhD, author of Diet Diagnosis: Navigating the Maze of Health and Nutrition Plans
- Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin: "Anti-stress Effect of Green Tea with Lowered Caffeine on Humans: A Pilot Study"
- Molly Morgan, RD, CDN, the owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions
- Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and creator of Nutrition Nuptials