As a holistic nutritionist, stress is my clients’ No. 1 complaint. Stress itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some stressors can actually make you stronger and happier. In fact, studies are now beginning to shed light on the fact that stress itself isn’t the killer — it’s the perception people have of stress that determines their fate.
If you view stress as negative, it’s more likely to harm you than if you view it as positive. It’s how we interact with stress that makes the difference. One of the biggest keys is to provide the best possible environment for when stressful situations arise. From a nutritionist’s point of view, that means eating in a way that sets up our physiology for managing the stress response. Keeping your mood boosted and your body balanced through food is among the best ways to keep stress from turning toxic.
Here is my starting lineup of foods that fight stress.
Turning to chocolate in a stressful moment might seem like a joke, but chocolate has many legitimate reasons to be on this list. A good-quality, dark chocolate (at least 75 percent cacao) is a great source of minerals. Magnesium and other trace minerals offer support to the nervous system, which is vital to maintaining mood. The right amount of minerals ensures that cells are able to communicate and maintain balance. Plus, the natural polyphenols in chocolate are naturally stress relieving and can boost feel-good hormones.
I’m often asked what the best healthy comfort food is. My answer: quinoa. A savory quinoa dish can offer a comforting satiety without the carb overload that comes with a traditional comfort food like mac and cheese. Quinoa is more protein than carb, so it gives you that same feel good feeling without the carb load — and subsequent fall. Additionally, quinoa contains flavonoids that act as a natural antidepressant. I love a warm bowl of quinoa with a sprinkle of salt and a touch of ghee on cold rainy day.
Mushrooms are one of my favorite lesser-known superfoods. They’re one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin D. One of the main roles of vitamin D is converting and regulating the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. Many mushrooms are also potent antioxidants shown to have significant effects on cancer cells. Also high in vitamin B6, they further the production of serotonin and neurotransmitters, helping to maintain positive mood and reducing stress naturally.
Wild Sockeye Salmon
No stress-relieving, mood-boosting menu is complete without salmon, which is rich in healthy fats called omega 3s. The nutrients found in wild salmon help protect the brain and therefore increase mood. Salmon is also super high in vitamin B12, which is vital for warding off depression and staying mentally healthy. A diet high in fatty fish like salmon is credited with providing far north populations with the nutrients they need to thrive in cold, dark winters.
Science is increasingly exploring the intimate relationship between the gut and brain and reaching new conclusions. Many medical professionals, Western and otherwise, now support the idea that mood and mental well-being are intricately connected to the gut biome. No one can argue that probiotic foods are the ultimate mood boosters. It’s been shown that the microbes in your gut might actually be responsible for the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. In fact, some scientists have suggested that there are more neurotransmitter receptors in the gut than the brain itself! There are a lot of ways to get probiotics through supplementation and fermented foods. My absolute favorite is coconut kefir. Not only do you get the mood-boosting microbes, you also get the mineral and electrolyte content found in coconut. In my opinion, it’s one of the tastiest ways to kill two birds with one stone.
When clients ask me where to start, I often get a raised eyebrow when they hear my answer. Drink more water! Something so simple is absolutely lost on people. We’re often caught up on the latest big superfood and forget it’s the simple things that count (I’m often guilty as well; don’t worry). When our body isn’t adequately hydrated, the stress hormone cortisol begins to elevate, causing stress on the body and brain. Drinking plenty of high-quality, toxin-free water is the first step to maintaining the best mood possible. All sorts of crazy stuff, from hormones to antibiotics and chemicals, are found in tap water, so making sure you’re eliminating these harmful substances from your water is key. Once you have a clean water source, think about electrolytes! We sometimes forget that our water can be devoid of the minerals responsible for making sure our cells can use it versus simply eliminate it. The easiest thing to do is add a pinch of sea salt to filtered water.
Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens are among the best foods that fight stress. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collards are nutrient powerhouses that provide a whole host of vitamins and minerals to support your system and boost mood. One of the big players is folate. This vitamin found in greens helps your body produce dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical that can help keep you calm. To get the most bang for your buck, lightly cook your greens and pair with healthy fats for ultimate absorption.
Just taking a whiff of an aromatic citrus fruit is enough to elevate your state. I sometimes keep dried citrus peels around my kitchen just to freshen the space. Citrus benefits mood in all sorts of ways. The sour flavor helps stimulate the liver which, in Chinese medicine, is one of our main emotional hubs. A sour flavor traditionally helps clear stagnant emotions in order to let the system feel unburdened. Citrus fruit is also super high in vitamin C, one of the most potent antioxidants; it helps rid the body of inflammation. This in turn helps keep your cells at top performance, which positively affects stress response and mood.
Brazil nuts have more selenium than any other food. I find that many people are deficient in this trace mineral, which plays a big role in mood regulation. Selenium is scientifically proven to lift mood and prevent depression through clinical studies. One way it might do this is by helping increase our serotonin level. It can also help regulate a dysfunctional thyroid, which has also been implicated in depression, and is high in other minerals that support the nervous system. Though we need just a small amount of selenium, our food is often completely devoid. Just one brazil nut a day can provide you with adequate selenium and make a world of difference.
Dry Red Wine
Yes, you can drink wine and be healthy. Grapes have antioxidants proven to improve mood and decrease stress, and those with the most potent antioxidant profile are the ones used in wine. In fact, I’d argue that a glass of wine is far more favorable to a bunch of grapes due to sugar content. A polyphenol found in wine called resveratrol is the No. 1 component that gives red wine its health-promoting reputation. Resveratrol has been shown to boost mood, decrease cancer risk, and improve longevity. As long as you drink no more than two glasses of dry wine (read: super-low sugar) per day, it should do more good than harm. Most wine shops will be able to point you in the direction of good-quality dry wines.
There’s also considerable amount of research supporting the idea that enjoying a drink with friends can increase mood considerably without the damaging effects we normally tie to alcohol consumption.