Best and Worst Foods for People Looking to Reduce Stress

There’s no debating it — Americans, in general, are an incredibly stressed out bunch. Thirty-three percent have reported living with extreme levels of stress, while 77 percent have said that they regularly experience physical symptoms (fatigue, high blood pressure, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, breakouts or other skin issues, etc.) that are caused by stress.

Another 73 percent have also reported experiencing psychological symptoms (irritability, nervousness, a lack of energy, mood swings, etc.) brought on by stress. When it comes to reducing stress in their lives, many people look at lifestyle factors like exercise, reducing time at the office, spending more time outside or with family, or taking up a new, relaxing hobby.

While these changes can all help minimize stress and the physical and psychological symptoms that often come with it, they might not be as effective as you’d like them to be if you’re not also keeping your diet in check.

Contrary to popular belief, the foods and drinks that you consume on a regular basis can play a major role in your feelings of stress and anxiety. If you’ve dialed back every other aspect of your life and are still feeling stressed out on a regular basis, it might be time to take a closer look at what you’re eating and drinking every day.

Listed below are some tips that will help you assess your diet and make some changes to reduce stress in your life.

How Does Diet Affect Stress?

First things first, it’s important to clarify how the food and drinks people consume can influence their stress levels.

Certain types of foods can stimulate your nervous system and trigger your body’s fight or flight response. This leads to an increase in cortisol (stress hormone) production.

Best and Worst Foods for People Looking to Reduce Stress

When cortisol is high for extended periods of time, you may have a harder time sleeping and will be less resilient to the stressors of everyday life. Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to a condition known as hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction. This condition impacts your body’s ability to recover from stressful situations, both psychological and physical (injuries, illnesses, etc.).

When cortisol is chronically high, it can also lead to a variety of other physical issues throughout the body, including:

  • Suppressed immune system
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Insulin resistance
  • Reduced libido
  • Loss of bone density

As you can see, your diet can play a major role in cortisol production. It’s impossible to avoid stress (and the cortisol spikes that come with it) altogether, but it is important to find ways to lower cortisol and through dietary changes to avoid falling into a state of chronic stress.

Stress-Causing Foods to Avoid

Now that you know more about how food can impact your stress levels, you’re probably wondering which foods are the most common culprits. Listed below are some foods that have been proven to increase stress in the body:

1. Sugar

If you’re dealing with elevated levels of cortisol, sugar is the last thing your body needs. Cortisol plays an important role in managing blood sugar levels and, when you eat a sugary food or drink a sugary drink, your body has to release more cortisol to compensate and bring your blood sugar back down.

When you’re constantly spiking your blood sugar with high-sugar foods and drinks, you may also be triggering mood swings and feelings in your body that mimic those you experience when you’re stressed. Feelings of anxiety and fear often accompany rapid fluctuations in blood sugar.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

Think again before you start to swap out your daily soda for a sugar-free diet alternative. Artificial sweeteners can be just as problematic as pure sugar for people who are chronically stressed.

Some artificial sweeteners like aspartame have been found to trigger mood disorders and even manic episodes in some people. If your mental health is already in a delicate state, artificial sweeteners definitely aren’t going to do you any favors.

3. Processed Carbohydrates

Refined, processed carbohydrates (cookies, crackers, chips, doughnuts, etc.) are popular comfort foods that lots of people turn to when they’re feeling stressed out.

The problem with these foods is that they’re usually loaded with sugar, which, as you already know, causes dramatic blood sugar fluctuations that can wreak havoc on your mood and cortisol levels.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol is another common thing that people will reach for at the end of a long day. While it may make you feel more relaxed in the moment, alcohol can also increase the production of stress hormones in the body. This can cause you to feel more anxious and stressed than you did before you went to pour yourself a glass.

Best and Worst Foods for People Looking to Reduce Stress

Alcohol can also trigger heart rate and blood pressure increases, which, in turn, can trigger stress-like symptoms in the body. Many alcoholic beverages are also loaded with sugar, which will just make matters worse if you’re already feeling stressed out.

5. Caffeine

Finally, caffeine is another substance that spikes cortisol and increases stress. Caffeine can be particularly troublesome for people who struggle with HPA-axis dysfunction since it can overstimulate and put additional stress on the body.

In small doses, caffeine from coffee or tea can be fine. But, if you’re drinking cup after cup throughout the day, you’ll most likely end up feeling more stressed out and anxious.

Foods to Include in Your Diet to Reduce Stress

While cutting out the foods mentioned above can help you reduce stress and anxiety, it’s also important to add in foods that increase your body’s resilience to stress and help you feel more at ease. Some of the best foods to consume in order to fight stress include:

  • Nuts (rich in neurotransmitter-balancing B vitamins)
  • Red bell peppers (rich in cortisol-lowering vitamin C)
  • Salmon (rich in the anxiety-reducing, mood-boosting omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA)
  • Spinach (rich in stress-reducing magnesium)
  • Dark chocolate (another good source of magnesium)
  • Herbal tea (a great alternative to coffee and great for combating anxiety-induced digestive upset)