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

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 November 9, 2011

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