If you’re struggling with stress then you might be looking into multiple behavioral solutions to solve the problem. Perhaps you’ve considered therapy, changing your lifestyle or quitting your job…
All these things can work but sometimes the best solution is just to look after yourself better. Some sources of stress can’t be avoided and in fact a little bit of stress can be considered a sign that you’re living a challenging and fulfilling life.
Instead of drastically changing your life or trying to think your way of stress then, you might instead want to consider the use of diet in order to help you combat the symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the top stress reducing foods and how they work.
How Can Food Fight Stress?
At this point you might be asking yourself how stress reducing foods can possibly work. Sure, we’ve all heard of stress eating but that doesn’t actually solve stress, right?
Correct. In fact ‘stress eating’ is only likely to make matters worse as you end up adding ‘weight gain’ to your list of problems.
Stress reducing foods do not include the things that you eat when you’re feeling low. Cake and ice cream are not stress reducing foods, they’re just guilty pleasures when everything else seems to be going wrong.
Instead, stress reducing foods are foods that can help you to fix your neurotransmitter profile and thus feel better.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are released whenever two neurons communicate. They help to carry electrical currents across the ‘synapse’ (gap) between neurons and thus allow them to communicate. At the same time though, these chemicals also contain information of their own and alter the way that that communication is interpreted and acted on. If there’s dopamine in the mix you will view that ‘transmission’ as important and will be more likely to form a memory/seek to reproduce that behavior. If there’s serotonin then you will be more likely to feel happy while experiencing that interaction. If there’s norepinephrine then you will feel wired up and will be more likely to be excitable and focused.
Stress is caused by neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline in differing combinations. It’s a pretty complex process and there are a lot of neurotransmitters probably that we don’t even know about. Basically, that’s how it works.
When someone experiences chronic stress though or depression, this can often be a result of not only what they’re going through but also imbalances in neurotransmitters. Often this comes down to low serotonin which is correlated with depression, stress, fibromyalgia and all sorts of other unpleasant problems.
Stress reducing foods then can work by giving us back our neurotransmitters in the right quantities. That’s because our foods contain the precursors or building blocks of neurotransmitters and thus can help us to ensure we have the right balance.
Getting it Right
So taking all that into account you might now be interested in rushing out and eating some food with serotonin in it. Nom nom!
Only that’s not how this works. For starters, there is no such thing as food with serotonin in it. The best chance you have is food with tryptophan in it which is a natural precursor to serotonin. Tryptophan becomes 5-HTP in the body which in turn becomes serotonin and thus helps to reduce stress.
So you go out and eat all the tryptophan you can, right? Like turkey. Nom!
Unfortunately no, that’s still not how stress reducing foods work. While some articles might tell you to simply stock up on tryptophan and perhaps to supplement with 5-HTP, the reality is that you shouldn’t discriminate when it comes to your neurotransmitters.
You might have been told that cortisol is the stress hormone and that you should get rid of it but in fact it has its uses. Cortisol is one of the neurotransmitters that helps you to wake up in the morning for instance, it helps to keep you switched on and alert and it can even protect against post-traumatic stress disorder. Cortisol also reduces inflammation and this is really important seeing as inflammation is also correlated with stress, depression and other problems.
Then there’s the fact that changing your neurotransmitters just isn’t a straightforward process. Remember we said that there were probably loads of neurotransmitters we don’t know about? That’s potentially a problem. As is the fact that no neurotransmitter works in a vacuum – raise one and you will probably alter a bunch of others too.
Instead then, you should look at using stress reducing foods differently. That means eating foods that act as precursors to all your neurotransmitters. These include foods that are high in amino acids in particular which form the building blocks of the monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin). You should also make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamins and minerals.
The Best Foods for Reducing Stress
The best way to get these all important substances is through your diet. That’s because our food provides the most ‘bioavailable’ sources of amino acids, minerals and vitamins in combinations that work for our bodies. This isn’t a coincidence – our bodies evolved from eating these foods and so they’re adapted to thrive on them. Try to artificially elevate specific neurotransmitters and you actually just risk making matters worse.
So what are some foods that provide you with lots of amino acids and relevant vitamins and minerals? The following would provide a good place to start:
Eggs are one of the only foods with a complete amino acid profile. That means they contain all the essential amino acids that you need to get from your diet – but you have to eat both the yolk and the white. Their high cholesterol content meanwhile is good for testosterone production (and not actually bad for you) while they also contain large amounts of choline – a precursor to the stimulatory non-monoamine neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Fish is high in lean protein meaning you get lots of amino acids but at the same time it is also high in omega 3 fatty acid which is just super good for your brain and a common component of the best stress reducing foods. How does this tie into everything we’ve talked about? Well, because omega 3 fatty acids encourage cell membrane permeability – meaning that things can get in and out of your brain cells more easily… such as neurotransmitters.
Avocados are high in all sorts of really good stuff, including vitamin C and B5 which can help to increase neurotransmitters as well as good fats (great for brain health) and testosterone increasing substances.
Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin B6 which helps to regulate neurotransmitter release and which is found in many brain boosting nootropic supplements. They’re also really high in magnesium which is another favorite mineral among those trying to improve sleep, elevate their mood and more.
Beef is a great source of all kinds of neurotransmitter precursors and is also high in substances like creatine and CoQ10 which help to boost the performance of mitochondria (the energy plants of our cells). Organ meat is particularly nutritious and grass-fed tends to be more nutrient dense too.
As well as more omega 3 fatty acid, nuts are also high in zinc. Zinc may also play a crucial role in mood regulation. Low zinc has been correlated with depression (1) and with low serotonin. It is thought that zinc plays an important role by helping the stomach produce carbonic anhydrase – an enzyme that breaks down protein into amino acids and that way allows the body to get all the neurotransmitters it needs. Beef is also high in zinc by the way. Notice how when you eat the right stress reducing foods, you get all of the ingredients you need right there in one go? That’s why they’re so much better than relying on supplements. One of the reasons anyway…