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Eat Right, Drink Well, Stress Less: Stress-Reducing Foods, Herbal Supplements, and Teas

Making healthful food choices and using the right herbal supplements and teas can help individuals cope with the taxing effects of stress and restore health and wellbeing.

In This Article


Introduction

Stress can directly manifest in damaging effects on the body, and indirectly augment health problems. Additionally, there are many harmful physiological changes due to chronic stress (also see Defining Stress). Our abilities to make healthy food choices can also become compromised under stress. Instead of reaching for a tub of ice cream, knowing what healthy options are available, we can utilize the calming properties of herbal supplements and teas and healthful foods.


Calming Food and Herbs in Chinese Medicine: Integrative Nutrition

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts of nutrition not only highlights the choice of appropriate foods but also emphasizes the interactions between different active ingredients, as well as the relationship between food and the energy of the body. Wellness can be achieved through restoring a state of balance as discussed in Achieving Balance Through the Art of Eating: Demystifying Eastern Nutrition and Blending it with Western Nutrition. TCM links the “heat” syndrome (including palpitation, red face, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, and migraine/headaches) to stress, and prescribes “cooling” foods to decrease the stress-induced “heat” and restore balance.


Healthy Food Choices

One of the therapeutic modalities mentioned in Stress Management is to adopt a nutritious diet. Proper diet can counterbalance the impact of stress by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods, and reducing blood pressure.

Important Nutrients for Stress-Reduction

  • Vitamin C: Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges and other citrus fruits, can reduce stress and boost the immune system. Intake of this vitamin can help lower the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and blood pressure during high-anxiety situations.
  • Complex Carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can induce the brain to increase serotonin production and stabilizing blood pressure as a way to reduce stress.
  • Magnesium: Obtaininganadequate amount of magnesium is essential for avoiding headaches and fatigue. Oral magnesium can also successfully relieve premenstrual mood changes. Additionally, increased magnesium intake has been found to improve sleep quality in older adults. Healthy sources of magnesium include spinach or other leafy greens, salmon, and soybeans.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (such as flaxseeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce surges of stress hormones and also confer protection against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome.

 

Healthy Comfort Foods

  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate can not only satisfy your taste buds, but it can also help relieve stress at the molecular level. Additionally, cocoa can also improve cognitive function and mood. Researchers also found that daily dark chocolate consumption can be beneficial for individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety.
  • Oatmeal: Certain comfort foods, such as oatmeal, can reduce levels of stress hormones and also result in a boost in serotonin, which stimulates a feeling of calmness.

 

Herbal Supplements and Teas

Here are the herbs and teas that are commonly used for calming effect and reduce stress-related insomnia, anxiety or anger.

  • Chamomile is popular for its easy availability and wide range of healing properties. It is often used to relieve stress-induced symptoms such as insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Mint is commonly used to relieve stress and induce calmness. Peppermint oil’s relaxation-promoting properties on gastrointestinal (GI) tissue and its analgesic and anesthetic effectshave been found in past studies. However, individuals suffering from GI reflux, hiatal hernia, or kidney stones should practice caution when using peppermint oil therapy.
  • Barley tea has proven effective in relaxing the body. Its capability to relieve stress is thought to derive from its contribution of tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for sleep and synthesizing serotonin – a neurotransmitter essential in the regulation of sleep and mood.
  • Passionflower is marketed for its ability to treat sleep disorders, nervous tension, and anxiety. A recent study found that passionflower was as effective as oxazepam, a prescribed anxiolytic drug, in treating patients with anxiety disorders.
  • Valerian root is sometimes used for treating anxiety and insomnia. While contradictory scientific research exists, this herbal supplement is considered safe when used appropriately over a short time period of less than one month.
Note: For your safety, please consult a health practitioner before using any new herbs or supplements. Be cautious that many popular herbal supplements result in sedative effects and can result in adverse side effects when taken with alcohol or central nervous system depressant medication.

 

References

    1. INTRO — Stress and Food Choice: A Laboratory StudyPsychosomatic Medicine. In this 2000 study that experimentally investigated the effects of acute stress on food choices in a laboratory setting, researchers found that stress did not alter the overall intake of food but, “stress emotional eaters ate more sweet high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal than unstressed and nonemotional eaters.” The authors of the study concluded that stress “may compromise the health of susceptible individuals through deleterious stress-related changes in food choice.”
    2. VITAMIN C — Vitamin C: Stress BusterPsychology Today. A study of 120 individuals subjected to the stressors of public speaking combined with math problems found that the subjects given 1,000 mg of vitamin C reported experiencing less stressed during these tasks. Additionally, the group that did not receive the vitamin supplement had significantly greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher blood pressure.
    3. COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES — Diets for stress management slideshow: Stress-reducing foods, Slide 3: Complex CarbohydratesWebMD. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can help reduce stress by inducing the brain to increase serotonin production and stabilizing blood pressure.
    4. MAGNESIUM
    5. OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS — Diets for stress management slideshow: Stress-reducing foods, Slide 7: Oily FishWebMD. Fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (such as flaxseeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce surges of stress hormones and also confer protection against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome.
    6. DARK CHOCOLATE
      • Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and DiseaseAntioxidants & Redox Signaling.A 2011 study published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling reported that cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods. As a result of its high level of antioxidants, cocoa helps neutralize free radicals and reduce metabolic stress. Additionally, cocoa can also improve cognitive function and mood.
      • Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living SubjectsJournal of Proteome Research.In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Proteome Research, researchers found that daily dark chocolate consumption by individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety resulted in the reduction of urinary excretion of the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamine suggesting the benefits of dark chocolate for stress reduction. The researchers state that the “study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 g of dark chocolate during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of free living and healthy human subjects, as per variation of both host and gut microbial metabolism.”
    7. OATMEAL — Diets for stress management slideshow: Stress-reducing foods, Slide 2: Stress-busting foods: How they workWebMD.Certain comfort foods, such as oatmeal, can reduce levels of stress hormones and also result in a boost in serotonin, which stimulates a feeling of calmness.
    8. CHAMOMILE — Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with a bright futureMolecular Medicine Reports.According to a 2010 review article on the healing properties of chamomile, this herb is “commonly used for many human ailments such as hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids.” Its use consists of a broad expanse ranging from its ability to reduce stress-induced increases in plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels to its ability to alleviate anxiety and induce sedation (calming effects).
    9. PEPPERMINT — A review of the bioactivity and potential health benefits of peppermint tea (Mentha piperita L.)Phytotherapy Research.A 2006 review in Phytotherapy Research highlighted peppermint oil’s relaxation promoting properties on gastrointestinal (GI) tissue and its analgesic and anesthetic effects in the central and peripheral nervous system. Nevertheless, further research still needs to be completed with clinical trails of peppermint tea. While there is currently no reported negative effects of drinking peppermint tea, patients with GI reflux, hiatal hernia, or kidney stones should practice caution when using peppermint oil therapy.
    10. BARLEY — What are the health benefits of barley tea? LIVESTRONG.Barley teahas many health benefits ranging from its properties as an anti-cancer agent to its ability to induce the body to enter a more relaxed state. While its anti-carcinogenic characteristics are derived from the anti-oxidative compounds present in barley tea, its capability to relieve stress is thought to derive from its contribution of tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for sleep and synthesizing serotonin – a neurotransmitter essential in the regulation of sleep and mood.
    11. PASSIONFLOWER
    12. VALERIAN ROOT — Pharmacy Review: Herbal Supplements for StressAmerican Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.While valerian root is sometimes used for treating anxiety, conclusive evidence supporting its safety and efficacy is still absent from scientific literature. In Pharmacy Review: Herbal Supplements for Stress,the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine provides an overview of the current state of research surrounding valerian root in the following:“A study published in 1988 examined the use of valerian and propranolol on their effectiveness at reducing stress when healthy volunteers were placed in stressful social conditions. The authors concluded that valerian alone and in combination with propranolol may reduce stress in healthy volunteers. In another study, a valerian plus St. John’s Wart combination product was compared with diazepam in 100 randomized subjects with anxiety for 2 weeks. Baseline anxiety scores were similar between the 2 groups. The results showed that the combination dietary supplement decreased anxiety symptoms statistically more than the diazepam group (P = .002), and the dietary supplement group reported statistically greater relief from anxiety symptoms compared with the diazepam group (P = .007). Other studies, however, have been unable to show that valerian improves symptoms in patient diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Therefore, there is insufficient evidence at this time to judge the effectiveness of valerian at reducing stress or controlling anxiety. However, valerian is considered safe if used appropriately and for short-term periods (<1 month).”

By Shannon Wongvibulsin, BS Candidate, UCLA 2014
UCLA Center East-West Medicine, Staff Writer


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