Most of us struggle with stress. It’s an overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling that can affect every aspect of our lives. Stress can be physically painful, emotionally burdensome and mentally exhausting. And outside of the occasional bubble bath or restorative yoga class, most of us don’t really know how to strategically relieve stress and support the body in recovering from it.
What is Stress, Really?
When we’re stressed out, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Nicknamed the “stress hormone,” cortisol acts as a quick jolt of energy that helps the body cope with a given stressor, primarily by reducing inflammation and regulating blood pressure. But like most things in life, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Too much cortisol in the body—the product of ongoing stress—harms rather than helps, as it increases inflammation and raises blood pressure, making stress feel even more intense and consuming.
Alleviating stress is often a multilayered effort—like ensuring you’re getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and investing in healthy relationships. But one of the most useful (and often overlooked) tools for recovering from stress can be found in a surprising place: the kitchen.
Food can be a powerful antidote for stress. While some foods can help the body flush out extra cortisol, others can boost the so-called “happy chemicals” in the brain—serotonin and dopamine—and restore equilibrium in the body and mind.
Here are the top ten foods that can help you relieve stress and cultivate calm.
1. Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids—plant compounds with a whole host of amazing health benefits, including the ability to lower cortisol release. Aim for dark chocolate that’s 70-85% cacao, as it’s also rich in fiber and essential minerals.
2. Greek Yogurt: You may have heard of the brain-gut connection—the discovery that digestion, mood, cognition, and overall well-being are intimately connected. Greek yogurt supports both parts of this connection: the probiotics and prebiotics in Greek yogurt help to lower cholesterol and balance blood sugar, assisting with both gut health and mental health.
3. Seeds: Seeds are packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, which support cellular structure and function. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are foundational for making hormones that regulate inflammation. Flax and chia seeds are dense in healthy omega-3s—try them sprinkled on Greek yogurt with cacao nibs for a stress-busting breakfast.
4. Leafy Greens: Leafy greens like fresh kale, Swiss chard, and spinach contain folate, a vitamin that helps produce the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
5. Citrus Fruits: The adrenal glands use vitamin C to release cortisol, so our bodies need more vitamin C in times of stress. Oranges, papaya, and mango are all excellent sources of vitamin C that help to balance out the body on both a biochemical and physiological level.
6. Lentils and Beans: Because ongoing stress can cause inflammation in the body, it’s common to get sick during stressful seasons of life. Luckily, lentils and beans are high in polyphenols, plant compounds with antioxidant properties that can help protect against disease. Lentils and beans are also high in fiber, which supports a healthy gut and helps manage blood sugar levels.
7. Avocados: Avocados are a great source of the essential vitamins and minerals that the body needs to thrive, like vitamins C, E, K, and B-6, as well as riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and potassium. They also provide lutein, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids.
8. Complex Carbohydrates: Although carbohydrates often get a bad rap, it’s the type of carbohydrate that really matters. Processed carbs found in packages and jars often contain other ingredients that stress the body’s digestive system. But minimally processed carbohydrates found in plant sources—think quinoa, sweet potatoes, barley, oatmeal, and wheat bread—are excellent for your health. Complex carbohydrates boost serotonin levels, one of the two key “happy chemicals,” and consequently elevate mood and reduce stress.
9. Nuts: Nuts are full of nutrients, B vitamins, healthy fatty acids and magnesium. Magnesium in particular plays an important role in regulating the body’s response to stress. The reason is that chronic stress depletes the body of magnesium, and low magnesium levels intensify stress, thus creating a vicious cycle. Magnesium balances the body’s stress-response system, and studies suggest increasing magnesium intake may reduce anxiety, ease stress, and minimize the response to fear.
10. Artichokes: Like nuts, artichokes are rich in magnesium, a mineral that helps regulate how the body responds to stress. Artichokes are also full of fiber and prebiotics—both of which aid in better digestion—as well as nutrients known for stress reduction such as vitamin K, potassium, and vitamin C.
While it’s impossible to avoid stress altogether, eating nutrient-dense foods is a powerful and effective way to support your physical, emotional, and mental health in the midst of stress. By eating whole, clean foods—and minimizing your intake of highly processed foods—you’re helping your body and mind bounce back from stress so that you can live a healthy, abundant life.
Want more nutrition advice tailored to you? Get matched to a Wellory nutritionist and receive meal-by-meal recommendations to create a healthy, sustainable routine that’s catered to your goals.