Managing stress: Can food and nutrition help?

Taiya Bach and Beth Olson
A healthy diet with a good dose of enjoyment may help us smile and manage that stress a bit better.

One of the overlooked factors that can play a role in managing stress and improving our mental health is nutrition. Stress—whether a sudden or big life event, or just the stresses of our everyday busy lives, can cause our immune systems to be weaker.

A healthy diet promotes a stronger immune system, and creates physical well-being, which decreases our risk of developing chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. Being stronger and healthier in turn allows us to be more independent, mobile, and improves our quality of life. All of these things may help us to be happier and less likely to feel down or depressed.

Research has shown that you are more likely to be healthy and feel happy if your diet is lower in processed foods that are high in fat and sugar. Choose more “whole” foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with enough foods that have protein.

In addition, certain foods and nutrients can help boost the ”brain-calming” hormone serotonin, and decrease the “stress” hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Foods that help us feel better may be our “comfort” foods, like a hot bowl of oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, or Mom’s apple pie. Sometimes foods are comfort at certain times of the day, like a hot cup of tea in the morning or a cookie and milk at bedtime.

Other foods that might be helpful to managing stress:

  • Foods with Omega-3 fats: Think oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and trout, or foods like walnuts, chia and flax seeds. Omega-3 fats help decrease inflammation and promote brain health.
  • Complex Carbohydrates: Carbs have gotten a bad rap recently, but complex carbs found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread are slowly digested to keep a steadier supply of fuel to your brain.
  • Protein foods: Animal foods are excellent sources of protein, and includes meats, eggs and dairy. You can also consider plant sources of protein in your meals-such as beans or lentils. Nuts and seeds, perhaps in a trail mix, are a great pick-me-up snack high in protein.
  • “Probiotic foods”: Probiotics have gotten a lot of good press lately!  We don’t know exactly which probiotic foods (foods that promote a healthy gut) might help with stress and mood. However, probiotic foods like yogurt and fermented foods (sauerkraut and pickles) would be probiotic foods worth trying, if you don’t already eat them.

Almost any nutrient deficiency can cause a problem with our immune system. Large doses of single nutrients haven’t been shown to help with the immune system, but rounding out your diet if you think you might not be getting enough of a nutrient with a multi-vitamin might be helpful. Consult with your health care provider about any supplements that you take. 

An area of nutrition we sometimes overlook is to enjoy your food!! There is so much news focused on the new, miracle food of the day, and lots of news to make us feel guilty for enjoying certain foods. It’s important to have a healthy diet, and eat a wide variety of foods-and not too much of any one nutrient or food. But it’s also important to take time when you can, to sit down and enjoy a meal with your family, to relax with friends and share food and laughter. Enjoy Grandma’s special stuffing at Thanksgiving, or your child’s favorite cake on their birthday, or whatever food means a lot to you. A healthy diet with a good dose of enjoyment may help us smile and manage that stress a bit better.

Taiya Bach
Beth Olson

Taiya Bach and Beth Olson are associated with the Department of Nutritional Sciences, UW-Madison

UW Extension