Food, Mood and Stress

We’ve all felt stress at some time or another; that feeling when the pulse races and the stomach’s tied up in knots? That’s stress. Believe it or not this is a normal response to a threatening situation. When the situation passes the body returns to baseline and no harm is done. However, when stress is felt on a regular basis, perhaps because of a heavy work load or taking care of a sick parent, there is little chance to slow down and recharge. With the continued onslaught from the stress hormones our health and immunity may be impacted, leading to a feeling of being ‘burnt out’. It makes sense that this is a time when choosing the most nourishing and health supporting foods would be ideal, however, this is not often the case! When stressed, it is more common to choose the foods that ‘comfort’ us but perhaps don’t support us nutritionally. Foods that are sweet, salty and high in fat are usually the foods of choice; not to mention the hits of caffeine to keep us going when mentally and physically exhausted. These foods might provide a quick fix of comfort and sustenance but more often than not the feeling is short lived, and we’re left feeling tired and wired. So what are we to do? Fortunately, Nature has provided a bounty of foods that support the body during stressful times; providing us with the much needed nutrients that nourish the body while replenishing the ones that have been depleted.

Below is a list of my top ten stress busting foods. Overall, any fresh, whole foods with minimal processing (the foods found on the perimeter of the grocery store) like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish nourish us the best. However, my top 10 stress busting foods include extra components that are particularly supportive when we’re stressed out. In this respect we really are what we eat! The top 10 stress busting foods provide high amounts of the vitamins and minerals that are sometimes depleted during stress and are extra supportive of the group of organs that control our hormones and do double duty when we’re stressed. Foods that support our mood are also vital, and a few of the top 10 foods provide key nutrients that boost our own ‘feel good brain chemicals’ the neurotransmitters. Serotonin and dopamine are the two key neurotransmitters involved with mood. Choosing the right foods may make the difference between mental alertness and grogginess. With a little forethought and planning we can arm ourselves with an array of foods that will relax us and decrease our stress!

o Salmon

Containing Omega 3 essential fatty acids and the amino acid tyrosine, one of the building blocks for dopamine, salmon truly packs a stress busting punch. Not only are omega 3’s excellent for heart health they have also been shown to boost mood and reduce anxiety (1), while dopamine is a key chemical component in improved alertness and concentration. Omega 3’s cannot be made by the body so must come from our diet. Not a fish fan? Walnuts and flax seeds also contain a good amount of omega 3 oils.

o Green Tea

Not exactly a food but worth a mention nevertheless. Green tea contains high levels of the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine has been shown to help relax the brain and improve mental alertness, thus helping a person stay alert but relaxed (2, 3). Green tea is also packed-full of antioxidants for an added bonus. Try a cup of green tea for a great afternoon pick me up.

o Milk

Were you ever given a glass of warm milk before bedtime? Well, it turns out there was a good reason for this. Not only is milk a good source of bone-building calcium, it is also high in the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is important for producing serotonin, the calming and relaxing neurotransmitter, so a glass of milk will enhance the feeling of relaxation and calm – very good during stressful times. This is also true of thanksgiving turkey!

o Spinach

Popeye knew the many benefits of eating spinach. Spinach is bursting with stress busting goodness in the form of folic acid and magnesium. Research suggests that low levels of folic acid may cause levels of calming serotonin to drop (4), while too little of the mineral magnesium, may lead to fatigue and migraines. 1 cup of cooked spinach provides a good boost of folic acid and magnesium.

o Brown Rice

Brown rice and unprocessed, high fiber carbohydrates in general, are slowly absorbed providing sustained energy for the long haul. This is great during times of stress when there is a tendency to reach for sweet foods which often lead to sugary energy crashes 30 minutes later. Carbohydrates support the brain in producing serotonin, but the more slowly the body absorbs the carbohydrate (as with brown rice, for example) the more steadily serotonin may flow. Brown rice also contains inulin which is a favorite food of the healthy bacteria found in the gut. When the body works overtime during stress, immunity is often depleted. By providing the right foods for a happy and healthy internal environment we can really give our immunity a boost. 70% of our immune cells are in the gut so it’s important to keep it healthy! Artichokes, onions and garlic also contain high levels of inulin.

o Brazil nuts

Brazil nuts are an excellent source of the mineral and antioxidant, selenium. In fact, they contain 100 times more selenium than any other nut! According to scientists from the Department of Psychology at the University of Wales in Swansea, a deficiency in selenium may be associated with increased anxiety, depression and fatigue. 1 oz (6-8 kernels) contains 70% of our daily needs for selenium.

o Berries

Some of the best foods come in small packages and blueberries, blackberries, raspberries are no exception. Rich in antioxidants, manganese and vitamin C, these fruits are truly nutrient dense. Berries are a great food for boosting the immune system during stress. Put them in smoothies, enjoy them with cereal or eat them on their own.

o Asparagus

Many of the elements that build the liver, kidneys, skin, ligaments and bones are found in green asparagus. Asparagus is also high in the antioxidant enzyme glutathione which helps the liver function at optimum levels. Anything that has a positive effect on your liver, the body’s main organ of detoxification, has a positive effect on your mood and your ability to deal with stress.

o Garlic

Garlic contains a detoxifying chemical called allicin, which gives garlic its characteristic taste and smell. When you can get rid of some of the circulating toxins that build up from stress, you naturally feel better and more energized. Allicin is also a powerful antiviral and antifungal which is great for a depleted immune system (5).

o Avocadoes

Avocadoes are packed full of healthy fats, vitamins and minerals and multiple antioxidants. The thick, creamy texture can easily satisfy a frantic food craving. They are a good source of potassium which is an important mineral for lowering blood pressure as well as copper and iron. Copper and iron are necessary for red blood cell regeneration and the prevention of nutritional anemia – one common cause of fatigue and inability to cope effectively with stress.

For optimal health and longevity, the nutrition bottom line is to eat fresh and unprocessed foods as often as possible. But remember STRESSED spelled backwards is DESSERTS, which reminds us that choosing our foods shouldn’t be stressful either! Enjoy!


1. Yehuda S., Rabinovitz S., Mostofsky D.I. (August 2005). “Mixture of essential fatty acids lowers test anxiety”. Nutritional Neuroscience 8 (4): 265-267. Maney. Doi: 10.1080/10284150500445795.

2. Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja L, Ohira H (2007). “L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses”. Biol Psychol 74 (1): 39-45.

3. Lu K, Gray M, Oliver C, Liley D, Harrison B, Bartholomeusz C, Phan K, Nathan P (2004). “The acute effects of L-theanine in comparison with alprazolam on anticipatory anxiety in humans”. Hum Psychopharmacol 19 (7): 457-65.

4. Williams E., Stewart-Knox B., Bradbury I., (April 2005). “Effect of folic acid supplementation on mood and serotonin response in healthy males”. BJN 94, 602-608

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