Eat to Beat Stress

Forget popping pills. According to the latest research, certain foods (and a certain way of eating) can reduce your stress hormones, inducing calm.

By Thea Singer
food stress relaxation calm picture
Photograph: Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Stress is exhausting. But there’s a surprisingly easy way you can beat this type of energy crisis: Consume the right kinds of foods. We’re not talking about swallowing supplements or the latest relaxo-drink or even a nice glass of Pinot. Instead, new research reveals that certain menu items can make you calmer by lowering your production of stress hormones; dampening your physiological response to threatening thoughts and situations; and acting as natural tranquilizers. And these foods are easy to incorporate into your daily eating: Check out our three-day, 1,500-calories-a-day plan here, which puts all the ingredients together.

Steady-Course Carbs
When you’re stressed, a hormone called epinephrine (aka adrenaline) makes your heart beat fast and your blood pressure soar. At this point your body can swiftly move blood and nutrients (energy!) to the places that need them most—say, to your thigh muscles if you’re running from a tornado or to your brain cells if you’re solving a complicated problem under a tight deadline. If your stress continues, your body stays revved up and your fuel stores become depleted. In an attempt to restock those supplies, many people reach for quick-energy foods like sugary snacks. And that’s a problem: Foods that raise blood sugar fast may make your epinephrine levels climb, according to research conducted at Harvard University. A continued flow of stress hormones, including epinephrine, can put you in a physiological state that lowers your energy supply. And so begins a cycle in which you almost constantly feel drained.

What’s better? Adopt a low–glycemic index diet. This eating plan, originally developed to help diabetics maintain a steady level of glucose, also appears to reduce the release of stress hormones in the body. The glycemic index (GI) rates carbohydrates on a scale of 1 to 100 according to how quickly each food raises blood sugar. Carbs that score high (70 and up), such as doughnuts, potato chips and many prepared breakfast cereals, are like a sugar-shot to the system. Those with low scores (55 and under), such as noninstant oatmeal and beans, are digested slowly and raise blood sugar gradually.

In an experiment conducted by David Ludwig, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard University, subjects who ate a high-GI breakfast experienced a huge jump in epinephrine in their bloodstreams during the five hours following their morning meal; those who’d eaten a low-GI breakfast showed no such spike.

On the GI diet, you replace high-glycemic index foods with low-glycemic
ones. You can also bring down the score of a meal by adding protein, which slows the rise of blood sugar. Good sources include eggs, beans, tofu, poultry and dairy products such as goat cheese, 1 percent milk and low-fat yogurt. Preliminary evidence suggests that another component of yogurt—probiotics—may also help reduce stress. Mice fed these “good” bacteria showed lower levels of a stress hormone in experiments led by Javier A. Bravo, PhD, at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at University College Cork in Ireland.

A Juice That Curbs Jitters
It’s early—the paper hasn’t even been published yet. But at the Society for Endocrinology conference this April, Emad Al-Dujaili, PhD, senior lecturer in biochemistry at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, presented a study showing that drinking 500 milliliters (about two cups) of pomegranate juice a day for a week might lower levels of stress hormones. The juice also appeared to reduce the subjects’ blood pressure on both the systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom) measures before and after exercise.  

A Bar of Calm
Al-Dujaili and his colleagues at Queen Margaret University have also found that dark chocolate—which is rich in free-radical-scavenging phytochemicals called polyphenols—lowers levels of cortisone, a relative of the stress hormone cortisol, in urine. Participants in the study ate 20 grams (about 0.7 ounce) of dark chocolate every day for two weeks, nibbling on it throughout the day to keep polyphenol levels steady in their bodies.

Estrogen Mimic
While the usefulness of ground flaxseed in suppressing hot flashes is debatable, these seeds, which contain an estrogen-like compound, may well help reduce women’s stress levels, according to research by J. David Spence, MD, professor of neurology and clinical pharmacy at Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario. Spence found that postmenopausal women showed lower levels of cortisol in their blood after a stressful situation if they had been eating 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of ground flaxseed daily for three months. All types of ground flaxseed produced positive results, but the one that elicited the greatest effect—golden flaxseed—was the highest in the phytoestrogen lignan. Estrogen is known to moderate the production of cortisol. Golden flaxseed is widely available online and is sold at markets such as Whole Foods.

Healthy Treats
Scientists have found that a few nut products, eaten consistently, can lower blood pressure and heart rate during stressful events. Pistachios, walnuts and walnut oil produce this effect by reducing our blood vessels’ response to stressful events, says Sheila G. West, PhD, associate professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Vascular Health Interventions Laboratory/Stress and Nutrition Research Program at Penn State University. In West’s four-week studies with pistachios, participants ate as little as 1.5 ounces of the shelled nuts a day; in the walnut studies, they ate 1.3 ounces a day plus one tablespoon of walnut oil.

Soothing Sips
Chamomile extract reduces anxiety among people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, according to a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. It has been suggested that the calming effects of chamomile may come from the binding of one or more of its antioxidant compounds to benzodiazepine receptors—the same receptors that tranquilizers like alprazolam (Xanax) attach to. You can buy chamomile extract at health food stores and online, but many people find drinking the tea, which has the same chemical composition, soothes them right away. Other kinds of tea may help you de-stress as well: Some evidence suggests that green or black tea can aid relaxation.

Want to help protect your body against the effects of stress? Then think about hormesis. This is a process in which cells subjected to mild, intermittent stressors—chemicals, temperature change, even exercise—activate defense ­processes that make them not just hardier but also longer-lived. Certain foods, it turns out, spark hormesis, too, including turmeric, ginger, garlic, onion, ginseng (Asian and Amer-ican), sage, rosemary, wild-blueberry juice and purple grape juice.Consider adding these ingredients generously to your meals, but don’t use the same one every day, advises Suresh Rattan, PhD, DSc, a biogeron-tologist at Denmark’s Aarhus University. He says it’s the surprise factor that makes these foods effective, so if you use, say, garlic on a Monday, wait at least one day before eat-ingit again, to prevent your body from adapting. “The good effect comes during your body’s recovery period,” says Rattan. Here’s the payoff: Next time you face a stressful situation, your body may experience less damage.

Click here for our 3-Day De-Stress Diet

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of More.

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First Published Mon, 2011-10-10 10:56

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