A looming deadline at work. Your mother-in-law’s impending visit. Getting the kids’ science fair projects out of the way—the night before they’re due. No matter your current stage of life, it’s likely that you experience stress on a regular basis. And while some stress can be good—inspiring you to make a change in your life, or lighting the fire you need to get something done—getting stressed too often and staying stressed for too long is detrimental to your health.
When we’re constantly stressed, our body remains in fight-or-flight mode, which triggers a host of physiological responses, including an increase in cortisol levels. And while that’s helpful in situations like facing a wild grizzly bear head on, remaining in that stressed-out, fight-or-flight state over a long period of time can lead to health issues ranging from weight gain to increased inflammation (which is the root cause of most diseases) to elevated blood sugar. Chronic stress is also a cause of adrenal fatigue, a condition that happens when the body and adrenal glands struggle to keep up with the demands of external stressors, and can lead to symptoms like depression, inflammation, and poor focus.
As if that wasn’t concerning enough, the reality is that it isn’t just our environments or tough situations that cause stress. Indeed, certain foods can have the same negative impact on the body. So if you want to reduce stress levels and decrease your risk of disease, learning how to naturally relieve stress can help—as can steering clear of the following foods:
Which Foods Should You Avoid When Feeling Stressed?
If you want to reduce stress, sugar is one of the first ingredients to cut out of your diet. When you’re stressed, the body releases more cortisol, a hormone responsible for helping us manage both stress and blood sugar levels. That’s because when you eat sugary foods, blood sugar levels spike, and the body must release more cortisol to balance blood sugar. The problem is that increased cortisol can also cause sleep issues, decreased immune response, headaches, and unhealthy food cravings. Additionally, rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels cause feelings that are similar to stress, including anxiousness and fear.
By eliminating foods with added sugars—like pastries, flavored yogurt, and soda—and eating more whole foods, you’ll keep your blood sugar stable, which means fewer mood swings, reduced stress, and a happier body.
2. Artificial sweeteners
Sugar is bad enough on its own. But all too often, food products aren’t even sweetened with the real thing—instead, they’re packed with artificial sweeteners. These artificial sweeteners can lead to health problems like headaches, metabolic disease, and cardiovascular disease. But they can also result in an addiction to sugary foods by retraining your taste buds, causing you to seek out even more sweet (and largely unhealthy) foods.
If that wasn’t bad enough, artificial sweeteners also have side effects that can lead to stress. Aspartame, for example, is found in more than 6,000 foods and drinks and in 500 prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and it causes migraines, mood disorders, and manic episodes. And just like other types of sugar, these artificial sweeteners don’t do your blood sugar any favors. Skip the sugar and fake sweeteners and try these natural sweeteners instead.
3. Processed carbohydrates
Processed, refined carbohydrates might taste good to your tongue, but they’re not doing anything for your body. For starters, they have no nutritional value and are actually worthless calories. And they also lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels that can cause you to feel moody and irritable.
Many processed carbs, particularly standard packaged foods, are high in sodium. And aside from making you extra thirsty, that extra sodium causes your body to retain more fluid, which then forces your heart to work harder to keep the blood pumping. It can also increase blood pressure, making you feel bloated and generally unwell, which can certainly increase your stress levels.
4. Fried and Fast Foods
Did you know that fried foods can cause stress? Your body has to work harder to digest fatty foods like pizza, ready-to-eat meals, chips, snack bars, and pastries.
Also, since fried foods are cooked with fats at extremely high temperatures, they are likely to contain so-called trans fats:
- Trans fats have been shown to increase the ratio of LDL (bad cholesterol) to HDL (good cholesterol) in the blood.(1)
- They are associated with an increased risk of diseases such as heart diseases,(2) diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
- Foods high in trans fats can cause inflammation and with that, cause stress in your body.
A glass of wine might help you feel more relaxed after an intense day, but have much more than that and you’re likely negating any of alcohol’s health benefits and, instead, adding more stress to your life. That’s because drinking alcohol can increase the production of hormones that will leave you feeling anxious and more stressed than before you began imbibing. It can also increase blood pressure and heart rate and trigger those same stress-like symptoms within the body. Lots of alcoholic drinks are also packed with sugar, which means you’ll be getting a double whammy of stress-causing ingredients—first from the alcohol and then from whatever way-too-sweet mixer is used in your cocktail.
And if you think you’ll just sleep off the stress, that’s unlikely. Alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns, so while you might fall asleep more easily than usual, you won’t get the deep sleep that’s necessary to feel refreshed. The result is a cranky morning after and—you guessed it!—more stress.
6. Excess caffeine
If you can’t function without your morning cup of Joe, you don’t need to give up coffee completely. But if you’re regularly drinking several cups each day, you’re likely going to find yourself feeling more stressed than you’d like. Too much caffeine can spell trouble for your adrenal glands by overstimulating the body. And because it stimulates the nervous system, caffeine can cause a rise in blood pressure and heart rate that will ultimately increase feelings of anxiety. In fact, if you suffer from anxiety, one of the first things you should do is cut out caffeine.
Finally, it’s important to remember that caffeine isn’t found in just coffee. It’s also in soft drinks, certain types of tea, energy drinks, over-the-counter pain relievers, and even chocolate.
5 Best Foods for Anxiety and Stress Relief
Eating smart can help you relax and deal better in hectic situations. Grab these 5 foods for anxiety and stress relief:
Nuts, and walnuts, in particular, are real power foods and the ideal snack when you are stressed.
Walnuts have many health benefits(3): they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of depression. Walnuts also contain tryptophan. This amino acid is used in the production of the “feel-good hormone” serotonin. Eating a handful of nuts a day is a simple way to improve your mood. And people who are happy tend to be less stressed. You can enjoy them as a snack, but you can also sprinkle them over your salad or your breakfast oatmeal.
And speaking of oatmeal… it’s much more than just the perfect breakfast for runners . If you have a busy day of meetings ahead of you, then a bowl of oatmeal is just what you need. Oatmeal is packed with fiber, which causes blood sugar levels to rise slowly and steadily rather than spiking. This means that oatmeal can keep you feeling satisfied until your lunch break.
Add sliced banana to your oatmeal, sprinkle some cinnamon on top and stir in a spoonful of honey. This helps reduce your stress level while strengthening your immune system at the same time.
3. Green leafy vegetables
When you don’t have much time for lunch, it’s really tempting to just get a pizza or burger delivered. But next time try eating a salad.
Why? Green leafy vegetables like spinach contain plenty of folic acid. Your body needs this B vitamin to build the neurotransmitter dopamine, which can help relieve and ease symptoms of depression. Also, a light salad won’t sit heavy in your stomach like a greasy burger. You’ll feel more energized in the afternoon and cope with stressful situations better.
How do you feel about blueberries? The deep purple fruit is especially high in anthocyanins (antioxidants). These have been found to have many benefits for your health, especially in terms of stress relief. Blueberries also contain vitamin C, which boosts your immune system. People who are stressed tend to be sick more often.
Can’t find fresh blueberries at the supermarket? Pick them yourself when they are in season and freeze them, or buy already frozen blueberries. You can mix them whenever you want with your warm oatmeal.
5. Dark chocolate
Ever heard the saying, “A piece of chocolate a day, keeps the doctor away”? There actually seems to be some truth to this, at least in terms of dark chocolate.(4) The polyphenols (phytochemicals) contained in cocoa beans are shown to reduce the level of stress hormones (especially cortisol) in your blood. So the next time you are up to your neck at work, enjoy the sensation of a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 70% cacao) melting in your mouth.
Summary: Stress-Causing and Stress-Relieving Foods
Healthy food is fuel for your body.
So if your daily life is hectic, avoid these stress-causing foods:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Processed carbohydrates
- Fried and Fast Foods
Start increasing your intake of stress-relieving foods:
- Green leafy veggies
- Dark chocolate
A final remark: It doesn’t mean that you never can drink a soda or a beer again, or that you’re never again allowed to eat fries or pizza. As with everything: the dose makes the poison.
It’s about being aware of what you’re feeding your body.