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.

First Published November 9, 2011

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