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Foods that can help bust stress

16 July 2013

Ever found yourself, after you’ve been stressed out, reaching for a drink – alcohol or coffee – or craving some food you know is not that good for you? It’s a common experience.

Not only is that likely to exacerbate what’s already happening in your body, it also highlights what is now a common stressor in our modern lifestyle, and that is nutritional stress.

The good news is that just as exercise can reduce the chemicals and symptoms that come with stress, so also can what you eat. This can happen in two ways.

The first is to reduce or eliminate putting your body under nutritional stress. The second is to introduce certain stress-busting foods.

Many people begin their day something like this – a good cup of coffee and some highly processed food such as toast or sugar-laden cereal.

“By the time you reach work, that sugary cereal may have shut down your immune system,” says nutritional scientist and doctor Pamela Peeke (her website is

“The body can only work efficiently with about three teaspoons of sugar in the bloodstream at any given time. Anything over this and your immune system may be suppressed for anything up to six hours. (… did you know that the [United States] government’s recommended daily intake of added sugar is just 10 teaspoons for a woman and 14 for a man? But hidden sugar is everywhere and in such high quantities. For example, drink a can of cola and you’ve just gulped down seven teaspoons.) 

“Your body is also on high alert, thanks to the caffeine you drank. Caffeine stays in the body for six hours before it starts to deplete, all the time triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol,” Dr Peeke says. In fact sugar, caffeine and nicotine all stimulate the release of cortisol.

And that’s just breakfast. What about all the other cakes, doughnuts … the list goes on.

The first step is to avoid putting your body under nutritional stress by eating a healthy diet. The simplest way to think about eating healthily is to have a diet high in fibre, with foods such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and add lean protein.

What the body likes is around half its food intake made up of vegetables and fruit, around quarter whole grains and around quarter lean protein.

(A note about carbohydrates may be helpful. Carbohydrates such as simple sugars and many breads should be minimised. The body likes complex carbohydrates that the body absorbs slowly and steadily, measured by having a low glycemic index [GI]. Complex carbohydrates with a low GI not only help keep your blood sugar levels steady, but also induce the brain to release more of the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin. For more on GI see

And don’t forget water. Your body needs to be hydrated, and water is a great drink. Water also helps you cope better with stressful situations.

Then there are foods that are known stress busters.

A range of research has shown high benefits of fish oil, an Omega 3 lipid. That includes the fact that it can lower stress hormones such as plasma cortisol (see, for example, Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men,

The Omega 3 fats are healthy, but too low in most people’s diets. Omega 3- rich foods include fish oil, cold water fish such as salmon, tuna and halibut, nuts such as walnuts and almonds, flaxseed, and oils such as flaxseed and canola oil.

Really good news for some people is that dark chocolate may be another stress busting food. Researchers from Nestle Research Center in Switzerland examined the effects of 40g of dark chocolate on stress metabolism. At the end of the two-week study, the dark chocolate group experienced decreases in cortisol output compared to the control group. This study was reported in the Journal of Proteome Research, December 2009 (

Eating large amounts of fruit and vegetables may also reduce stress hormones and other stress indicators. Large doses of vitamin C can prevent illness by alleviating the body’s normal response to stress, according to a scientist at the University of Alabama, Dr Samuel Campbell.

The university’s study tested the effects of vitamin C on the adrenal function of laboratory animals subjected to stress. The researchers put laboratory rats under stress by immobilising them for one hour a day over a three-week period. The rats were fed 200 milligrams of vitamin C a day, the equivalent of several grams a day for humans. This dosage far exceeds the present recommended daily allowance of 60 milligrams. The study showed that vitamin C reduced the levels of stress hormones in the blood and also reduced other typical indicators of physical and emotional stress (

And finally, the old tip to give a stressed-out person “a nice cup of tea” (black tea at least) may well be good advice too. Andrew Steptoe and colleagues from the University College London discovered that subjects drinking four cups of black tea per day for six weeks had lower levels of cortisol after a stressful event compared to those who were administered a placebo (

Last updated on the 17th March 2016