A rough day at work, a houseful of chores and bickering kids can leave you feeling frazzled. You're tempted to reach for the pretzels or chocolate, but you know it's not good to reach for something to eat when you're totally stressed out, right? Not always! Nutrition experts say that certain foods can actually help us stay calm. Here are some of their stress-combating suggestions:
Start the day with breakfast
Missing meals, especially the first one of the day, can leave you with cravings and extreme hunger that actually fuel your stress, says Alison Acerra, RD, national manager of nutrition and wellness for Guckenheimer, a national food service organization. Tip: Reach for a balanced breakfast, complete with high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat. Try whole-grain cereal atop Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts.
Avoid blood sugar spikes
"When your blood sugar levels are unstable, your stress hormones go haywire, as does your mood," says Susan Barendregt, a functional nutritionist in Viroqua, Wis. "You want to reach for foods that will provide you with minerals and other nutrients needed to fuel the body's natural processes that keep it in equilibrium."
To keep blood sugar levels in check, avoid sugary refined-carbohydrate foods like cookies, cakes, white bread and muffins. Instead, go for foods with protein and healthy fats, which are satisfying without spiking your blood sugar. Have a salad with grilled chicken breast and sliced avocado for lunch, and snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips. Plan to eat small meals (every three to four hours) that include a good source of protein, fiber and healthy fats.
If you're stressed, skip the coffee and soda. In addition to giving you the jitters, the high level of caffeine in these drinks can interfere with your normal sleep cycles, which will only exacerbate the stress you're already feeling, says Ivy Branin, a naturopathic doctor in New York City. Instead, turn to tea, a study-proven remedy for stress symptoms. Black tea has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, the brain's "stress hormone", while compounds in green tea can help lower blood sugar levels. And researchers have discovered that passionflower tea is as effective at curbing anxiety as a well-known prescription medication.
Think vitamins C and B
Foods such as citrus fruits and leafy greens can help reduce the stress you're experiencing because they support your adrenal glands. These are the stress-handling glands that often get taxed after repeated and chronic stress, says Jenny Westerkamp, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at CJK Foods, a Chicago-based chef-crafted healthy meal delivery service.
Stock up on fish
Your seafood counter is another place to go for stress reduction. Salmon has high stores of protein and omega-3 fatty acids that help promote brain health and decrease production of cortisol. Meanwhile, tasty shellfish -- such as oysters, clams and crabs -- are a great source of zinc, which helps support the immune system and adrenal glands.
Choose whole grains
Whole-grain items, such as brown rice, oats and wheat contain L-tryptophan, the amino acid essential in serotonin production (an essential substance that helps with relaxation and happiness) and key B vitamins. Another great serotonin-boosting food: Sweet potatoes, which are loaded with vitamin B6.