With stress levels on the rise, more and more Americans are seeing their mental and physical health take a hit. From work and school to relationships and finances, there are so many contributing factors. Even if it seems manageable, unwavering stress is nothing to brush off. The burden of chronic stress can give rise to a host of issues, including anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, irritability, fatigue, and even a weakened immune system. Of course, practices like meditation, exercise, and adequate sleep are all science-backed ways to reduce stress and boost our resiliency. However, food plays an important role too!
While we wholeheartedly advocate for a well-rounded and balanced approach to managing stress, if you’re unsure about where to start, focusing on dietary adjustments can be a powerful place to begin supporting your body through times of stress. Why? Because we all have to eat! So, why not make intentional (science-backed) choices that support your stress levels in a nutritious and delicious way?
Ahead, the best stress-reducing ingredients to add to your diet for a happier, healthier you.
Stressed? Load Up Your Diet With These Stress-Reducing Superfoods!
Backed by science, here are the best foods to support your stress levels for improved mental, physical, and emotional health.
If you turn to chocolate during times of stress and anxiety, you may be on to something. Yep, it turns out cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, is one of the best superfood ingredients to bust stress. According to research, opting for chocolate with a cacao content of 70% or higher can positively benefit stress, mood, memory, mental health, inflammation, and even immunity!
Rich in flavonoids (potent antioxidant compounds), cacao has been shown to fight free radicals, repair oxidative damage, and even boost the brain’s response to stress. Plus, recent data shows these positive mental health changes are associated with improved gut health!
That said, not all chocolate is created equal. Aim for a cacao content of at least 70% — and remember, the higher the cacao content, the more potent the stress-reducing properties! You’ll also want to be mindful of other ingredients, like milk, sugar, and additives. Reach for unsweetened or naturally-sweetened varieties made with non-dairy milk and real ingredients, when possible!
Healthy store-bought chocolates include brands such as: Hu Kitchen, Endangered Species, Green & Black, Loving Earth, and Pana Chocolate.
How to enjoy it:
- Add a spoonful of raw cacao powder to your smoothie
- Mix cacao nibs into your baked goods or dessert recipes
- Sprinkled chopped paleo chocolate chunks onto your yogurt bowl or chia pudding
- Enjoy a serving as a healthy snack along with mixed nuts and berries
By now, you’re probably all too familiar with adaptogens. But, if you’re new to this topic, no worries! All you really need to know is that adaptogens are some of the best stress-regulating nutrients backed by science. Just as you’d imagine, adaptogens help the body ‘adapt’ to stress and bring the body back to a state of balance (or homeostasis). Among the top plant and botanical sources (including Reishi mushroom and Ginseng) is Ashwagandha.
When used consistently, ashwagandha has been shown to alleviate stress and anxiety, benefit sleep, and improve overall well-being. This plant compound contains various flavonoids and phenolic compounds that help lower cortisol and moderate the activity of the HPA axis to reduce stress levels and support the nervous system. Not to mention, recent data shows it’s neuroprotective, helping to reduce inflammatory cytokines and exhibit a positive effect on mood and cognitive function.
But, like most things, it’s not a one-and-done type of deal! Adaptogens like ashwagandha take time to work, so it’s best to incorporate them into your daily routine.
- Add a serving of Ashwagandha powder to your smoothie
- Make a calming cup of Ashwagandha tea
- Mix a serving into your protein ball batter or dessert recipe for a superfood boost
- Add a sprinkle to your golden milk turmeric latte recipe
What aren’t oats good for? Aside from being one of the tastiest breakfast foods (we’re looking at you, overnight oats and baked oats), they’re also a powerful stress-reducing ingredient! As a complex carb, oats help the brain make serotonin, an important “feel-good” neurotransmitter that helps regulate and boost our mood. They’re also loaded with fiber to balance your blood sugar and full of B vitamins to benefit your energy — two factors that play a big role in stress!
While there are endless ways to enjoy oats, here are some of our favorites:
- Use non-dairy oat milk as the base for your smoothie or chia pudding
- Prep a batch of overnight oats for a healthy, stress-reducing breakfast
- Use them as a healthy flour alternative in your banana bread or baked goods
Along with other vitamin C-rich foods such as strawberries, citrus, broccoli, guava, bell pepper, and papaya, you’ll want to load up your diet with kiwi fruits! Kiwis are one of the highest fruit sources of vitamin C, one of the best stress-busting nutrients.
In addition to strengthening the immune system and supporting healthy aging, research suggests vitamin C can help regulate stress hormones. In a recent 2022 study, vitamin C supplementation was found to improve blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective stress responses. And because vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, loading up your diet with kiwi can help fight free radicals in your body and prevent future damage!
Enjoy sliced kiwi mixed with your favorite yogurt, add it fresh or frozen to smoothies, juice it in your green juice mix, or snack on it plain alongside nuts or mixed berries.
Feeling stressed? Pour yourself a calming cup of chamomile tea. Though light and dainty, this medicinal flower packs a powerful stress-reducing punch. Based on numerous research studies, chamomile may help reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and induce a feeling of calm.
The next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, brew a cup and enjoy it with a drizzle of honey or splash of lemon. You can even make a warming chamomile latte by blending chamomile tea with your favorite steamed non-dairy milk, such as almond or oat milk!
#6 Broccoli Sprouts
If you thought broccoli was a top superfood, wait until you hear about the benefits of broccoli sprouts. While it may be the ‘baby’ version of broccoli, don’t let that fool you — broccoli sprouts contain up to 100 times the amount of sulforaphane than mature broccoli. Why is this important? Well, as a potent phytonutrient (found in various cruciferous veggies), sulforaphane contains some major health benefits. And, as you may have guessed, it’s beneficial for stress! Sulforaphane has been shown to exhibit antidepressant and anxiolytic-like effects while also decreasing inflammation and lowering cortisol.
So, mix them into your salad, add them as a topping to toasts, sandwiches, and wraps, and stir them into dips or spreads. However you enjoy them, you’ll want to load up on this stress-busting green!
Whether you’re looking to reduce stress, soothe anxiety, calm inflammation, or support overall mood and mental health, turn to turmeric. Thanks to curcumin, turmeric’s active compound, loading up your diet with this bright and beneficial superfood could be a simple solution to combating stress and more.
Need some stress support? Try this tasty Golden Milk latte made with superfoods like turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger.
- 1 cup oat milk, or milk of choice
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground ginger
- 1 tsp coconut oil
- Drizzle of honey
- Optional coconut whipped cream to top
Step #1: Add the milk to a saucepan over medium heat. Once warm, add the rest of the ingredients and whisk.
Step #2: Pour into a mug and serve with a dollop of coconut whipped cream.
Unlike coffee, which can actually induce a stress response, matcha appears to have the opposite effect. That’s right, it helps to keep us cool, calm, and collected! Rich in brain-boosting properties like L-theanine and EGCG, matcha has been shown to benefit mental health. According to research, matcha has been found to benefit mood and mental health by activating serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain. From soothing stress and anxiety to boosting concentration, focus, and memory, there are so many reasons to mix matcha into your diet.
Rich in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a tasty and effective way to combat feelings of stress. Both vitamin D and omega-3 fats are linked to increased serotonin, our aforementioned ‘happy hormone.’ Vitamin D is needed to help convert tryptophan into serotonin, while omega-3 fatty acids (as those found in salmon) help the body utilize it.
#10 Pumpkin Seeds
Jam-packed with magnesium, zinc, and tryptophan, pumpkin seeds may be the stress-busting secret you’ve been searching for. For starters, magnesium helps stimulate GABA receptors in the brain, inhibit the stress response, and soothe the nervous system as a whole.
All this to say, you’ll want to keep these small but mighty seeds on hand during times of tension! Add them to your trail mix, blend them in your pesto or smoothie, or use them as a soup, salad, or sandwich topper.
Build An Anti-Stress Diet With A Balanced Plate
A simple healthy diet hack to reduce stress? Keep your plate balanced! Whether you’re enjoying a meal or whipping up a snack, keeping your plate balanced is key. Here are the top nutrients to prioritize:
#1 Prioritize Protein-Rich Foods
If you want to beat stress, load up your diet with protein-rich foods! High-quality protein sources, such as nuts, seeds, wild-caught seafood, and lean meat, can positively affect your mood and mental health with little effort. Aside from reducing cravings, boosting energy, and balancing your blood sugar, protein-rich foods help supply the body with essential amino acids needed for mood-boosting hormone and neurotransmitter production.
#2 Add Healthy Fats
Adding healthy fats to your diet (such as nuts, seeds, and avocado) can make for a calmer, less stressed you. Truthfully, healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, are some of the most essential nutrients for brain health and mood. They’ve been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation, boost cognitive performance, and of course, offer powerful protection against the long-term effects of stress.
#3 Keep it Gut-Healthy
By this, we mean prioritize fiber and probiotic-rich whole foods! While it may seem odd, gut-healthy foods are some of the best foods for stress and mental health. In fact, about 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, not to mention the 100 trillion (or more) microbes and bacteria living in our intestines. Between regulating GI function and other serious health conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression, the gut-brain connection has a major influence on mood and mental health!
Some great options include: fruits, veggies, whole grains, probiotic-rich yogurt, sauerkraut, and legumes.
#4 Make Your Carbs Complex
When reaching for carbs, opt for a complex source like sweet potatoes or oats. Rich in dietary fiber, complex carbs help balance blood sugar and stimulate serotonin production.
High-quality sources include: quinoa, millet, beets, oats, legumes, and sweet potatoes.
Is Your Diet the Secret to a Less-Stressed You?
Based on the research, loading up your diet with these superfood ingredients might just be the secret stress-supporting hack we all need. While stress is inevitable — and even healthy, in moderation — having ways to manage chronic, long-term stress is key to reducing serious health conditions and supporting overall health. And focusing on your diet is a simple, effective, and tasty trick! Ready to melt (or blend, chop, and cook) your stress away? Give these stress-reducing ingredients a try.