When life is uncertain, it creates fear, anxiety, and internal unrest. Last week I talked about how using soothing essential oils can impact the emotional center of our brain and help get us out of “fight or flight” and into a place of relaxation. There are also many relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation that can do the same. But did you know that the foods you eat can also feed your stress or calm your nerves?

When stress strikes, many turn to junk food, alcohol, or coffee for comfort. Yet, despite the temporary emotional lift they might provide, these are the very foods that can contribute to anxiety and add more stress to your body.

Eating refined carbohydrate-rich and sugar-laden foods spike your blood sugar and give you a burst of energy or a “sugar high” but will leave you feeling lifeless later. In fact, excess intake of simple carbohydrates can impair your ability to handle stress and can trigger feelings of worry, anxiety, and sadness. The sugar blues are a real thing!  

There’s also a lot of evidence that artificially created trans fats, like those found in fried foods or commercial baked goods, are disastrous for your brain. These fats have been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Junk foods also contain numerous flavor enhancers, most notable is MSG, which are known as excitotoxins. Excitotoxins are chemicals that overstimulate our neuron receptors. These toxins have been implicated in psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression. Soups, snacks, sauces, gravies, many low-fat and vegetarian processed foods are  often packed with these “flavor enhancers” in an effort to make them taste irresistible. 

Be careful about what you drink as well. Many low sugar or sugar-free drinks get their sweetness from artificial sweeteners that could be linked to anxiety and depression. Alcohol is notorious for helping to calm the nerves and many drink to cope with stress. However, alcohol itself is hard on the body and may actually compound the effect of stress and exacerbate anxiety. Additionally, even a little bit can mess up your sleep which is critical during stressful times.

Luckily, there are many foods that can help ease stress and moderate anxiety by boosting calming brain chemicals and reducing stress hormones. 

Try these suggestions for calming the system, instead of fueling it.

1.Pack in the protein at every meal.  Protein is needed to supply amino acids that are essential for calming the nervous system. Amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, which are closely tied to feelings of calm and happiness and also help to regulate anxiety.  Eating a diet with plenty of eggs, fish (especially fatty fish including anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, and sardines) and grass-fed meat and poultry can provide your body with the needed amino acids. Plant proteins such as quinoa, beans, raw nuts, and seeds, are also good sources of amino acids. Pumpkin seeds, in particular, may help raise levels of serotonin, and chia seeds are rich in a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) which can lower levels of cortisol and reduce stress.  You should aim to get a serving of protein at every meal.

• Food swap: Instead of pouring out a bowl of cold, carbohydrate loaded, cereal, opt for nutrient dense Paleo Pumpkin Muffin.  What can be more comforting this time of year than the taste and smell of sweet pumpkin?  Make a batch and refrigerate for a quick breakfast or late afternoon snack.

2.Fuel up on fats. Healthy fats in the form of fatty fish, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and grass-fed butter not only give you that creamy comfort we are all looking for when feeling overwhelmed but can also protect against stress.  A study in mice found that eating more fats actually protected them against the effects of chronic social stress. We all know that foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are essential for brain health, but they can also help your body reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

Food swap: Next time stress has you reaching for a bowl of ice cream, try this rich and creamy chocolate avocado pudding. Both chocolate and avocados are natural stress busters and can help to reduce anxiety and boost our mood. The naturally occurring antioxidants in dark chocolate and the b vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats in avocados help to support your nervous system and slow cortisol production.

3.Indulge in carbs but keep them complex. Not only do complex carbohydrates come packaged with many of the vitamins and minerals we need to get us through a stressful time, but they also help boost serotonin levels in the brain. Complex carbohydrates are also rich in fiber and can help you feel more balanced because they stabilize blood sugars. We can all benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables, but root vegetables, in particular, can fill that need for something dense and sweet while providing many nutrients needed that can quiet the nervous system.  

Food swap: Instead of indulging in French fries cooked in trans fats and drenched in table salt, try making your own sweet potatoes fries. Sweet potatoes may actually help lower the stress hormone cortisol. 

4. Limit or avoid that morning cup of joe. Excessive caffeine can stimulate your “fight or flight” response and cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. This can leave you feeling jittery, nervous, and contribute to anxiety. In fact, there is evidence that quitting caffeine can be more beneficial for anxiety than taking prescription anti-anxiety drugs. If you love the taste of coffee and want to switch to decaf, make sure it is organic and free of the chemical residues often used in the decaffeination process. Green tea is also a good choice. Although green tea has small amounts of caffeine, it is also high in an amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine can have a relaxing effect on the body through its impact on serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.

• Food swap: My morning indulgence includes a cup of hot Mud! MUD/WTR is a blend of mushrooms and spices that help to give me natural energy and focus without jitters and anxiety. The mushrooms combined with organic spices give a boost to my immune system. I whip up my Mud with a little bit of organic coconut cream and a teaspoon of monk fruit sweetener and every day feels like a holiday.

5. Finally chew your food! The simple act of chewing your food can reduce stress and enhance your mood.  Chewing not only begins the process of digestion but also helps to put the body in a relaxed state. The rhythmical act of chewing helps to relax the brain and can reduce stress by blocking the release of stress hormones. How many times you chew your food depends on the type of food you eat, but “drink your solids and chew your liquids” is a common principle encouraged by many holistic practitioners.

• Tip: Mindful eating. Try putting your full attention to chewing and the eating process instead of multitasking.  Focusing on your food instead of your phone, the TV or your work will enhance your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients, which will, in turn, have a positive impact on your health. 

I know when we are stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed it can be hard to change your food choice. But remember foods can have a powerful influence on your stress hormones and your brain chemicals. At each meal, you have a choice to eat foods that nourish your body and build resilience to stress or fuel it.



Susan Brady
is a Physical Therapist,
Nutrition Consultant and
Doctor of Integrative Medicine.
She has been treating women with osteoporosis for over 30 years and is dedicated to helping people achieve
lasting good health and vitality.

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