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10 Foods to Help Relieve Stress

Try these to help calm you and improve your mood

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Maria Korneeva

What you eat has a great deal to do with how you feel, notes nutrition scientist Penny M. Kris-Etherton. “When you’re under stress, you may crave a glazed doughnut dipped in sprinkles — but tempting as it is, it won’t help your spirits and will probably leave you feeling grumpy and fatigued,” says Kris-Etherton, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University. You need calming foods that relieve stress and improve your mood. Here are 10 of them.​

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1. Sweet potatoes

These orange gems are rich in complex carbohydrates that stimulate the brain to produce serotonin, a type of chemical that can serve as a mood stabilizer. Researchers note that compounds in sweet potatoes help lower levels of the hormone cortisol, which is involved in regulating the body’s response to stress. Sweet potatoes are also rich in magnesium, often considered one of the best minerals for promoting calmness and improving mood.​ 

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2. Spinach

This leafy green is a good source of magnesium, a mineral associated with reduced levels of stress and anxiety. In addition, the leaves are rich in vitamin C, which the body can’t produce on its own. A lack of C has been linked to increased stress levels. Spinach also contains abundant amounts of folate, also called vitamin B9, as do kale, broccoli and cauliflower. Folate stimulates the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that helps brain cells communicate with each other. Use these nutrient-rich veggies in salads or as raw snacks — cooking can deplete some of their benefits.​ ​

Woman shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarket. Healthy eating lifestyle concept.
Oscar Wong

3. Avocados

The pale-green flesh found beneath a tough shell is a good source of a family of B vitamins that play a role in producing brain chemicals to reduce stress and boost mood. Some of these naturally occurring chemicals also help prevent anxiety and relieve irritability. In addition, avocados provide lutein, a nutrient important for both brain health and eye health. Lutein improves memory as well as problem-solving ability. Avocados contain unsaturated fat, the kind usually called good fat because it can help improve blood cholesterol levels and stabilize heart rhythms. Serve avocado chunks in a colorful salad or mash the pulp for a buttery spread.​ 

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4. Winter squash

​All types of winter squash, including fall favorites such as pumpkin, butternut, acorn, delicata and Hubbard, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health as well as heart health. Part of a family of polyunsaturated fats, omega-3s help protect against the devastating effects of chronic stress, which can damage the region of the brain responsible for memory. For an added treat, clean the seeds of pulp in cool water, pat them dry and roast them with some olive oil and a bit of salt. ​ ​

5. Yellow bell peppers

Although oranges are considered the go-to food for vitamin C, yellow bell peppers contain almost twice as much of this vital nutrient and less than half the sugar. Vitamin C supports the immune system and helps regulate levels of cortisol, the hormone the body releases when under stress. Bell peppers tend to dry out easily; store them in the vegetable compartment of your fridge, and include a damp paper towel to help prevent moisture loss.​ ​

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Creativ Studio Heinemann

6. Black-eyed peas

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is said to bring good luck, but they do far more than that; these beauties benefit you throughout the year. Actually a pale beige bean with a noticeable black spot, black-eyed peas and their relatives — lentils, soybeans, lima beans and peanuts — are rich in nerve-soothing thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine is sometimes called an anti-stress vitamin because it strengthens the immune system and bolsters the body’s ability to withstand stress. Cooks debate the necessity of soaking black-eyed peas before cooking (canned black-eyed peas don’t need to be soaked). Whether you do or not, spread the dried beans on a baking sheet, toss out the shriveled ones and any bits of grit, and you’re good to go.​ 

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7. Eggs

Whether you choose to serve them soft-boiled, hard-cooked, scrambled or coddled, eggs benefit your brain and nervous system. People under stress often feel irritable, angry and fatigued. Here’s where the humble egg comes in. An egg yolk is packed with more than 20 percent of the daily recommended amount of tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce serotonin. In turn, serotonin, a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain, seems to ease stress and promote a feeling of calm, notes an article in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience. Bonus: Egg yolks are also a stellar source of vitamin D, linked to protecting against memory loss and forgetfulness.​ ​

8. Beets

Feeling edgy and stressed? Reach for a serving of magnesium-rich beets to add to your plate. Magnesium helps increase levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that plays a major role in regulating mood. A shortfall of serotonin can cause anxiety, fatigue and irritability. According to an article in the journal Nutrients, symptoms of magnesium deficiency are similar to those of stress. Stress can cause magnesium loss and, in turn, a magnesium deficiency could increase the body’s susceptibility to stress. To prepare beets, boil, steam or roast them, and don’t bother peeling. Choose either red or golden beets; they provide the same benefits.​ ​

9. Broccoli

This fast-growing annual vegetable is a great source of vitamin C. In fact, broccoli outranks oranges by 2 to 1 in the C department: 100g of cooked broccoli has nearly twice as much C as 100g of an orange. Why is C important? A lack of this vitamin has been linked to increased levels of stress. In addition, although it doesn’t make the top list of magnesium-rich foods, broccoli supplies a creditable amount of this mineral. A shortage of magnesium could make the body less able to withstand the effects of stress.​ ​

10. Almonds

Grab a handful of almonds before you rush out the door in the morning. Your day may be more stress-free than you expected. Almonds are a rich source of B vitamins, which help the body manage stress. Eat them either with or without the skins; the choice is yours. Tired of almonds? Swap them out for pistachios or walnuts. Both can help ease your racing heart when you’re under pressure. Whichever nuts you choose, if you are watching your weight, remember to limit yourself to just a handful a day because they’re all high in calories.

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