Melissa Darlow, RD
Food choices are important solely for our physical health, right? Wrong. Current research demonstrates that the foods we eat also impacts our mental health including dealing with and managing stress.
In 2022 it was reported that 84% of Americans feel stressed at least once in a typical week, up from 78% in 2021. Chronic stress can lead to a plethora of physical and mental health issues, ranging from hypertension, heart disease, depression and anxiety. While mental health is a complex subject and is driven by numerous factors, mounting evidence supports that nutrition also plays a role in our mood, emotions, and stress
While there is still much to discover about the underlying relationship between nutrition and mental health, what is known is that certain types of nutrients and dietary patterns can support chronic stress. When dealing with stress, most people will put nutrition on the backburner and instead focus on quick, hyperpalatable foods. However, frequently consuming a variety of foods like fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains are known to be beneficial. This article will explore four types of nutrients you can add to your diet right now to help improve your mood, ease your anxiety and lower your stress levels.
Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in many functions within the central nervous system. Excess or chronic psychological or environmental stress has been found to impact micronutrient concentrations, including the depletion of erythrocyte magnesium. Research has found a bidirectional relationship between magnesium and stress where stress can increase magnesium loss leading to a deficiency, and in turn, magnesium deficiency can enhance the body’s susceptibility to stress.
Between daily acute stressors found in modern life and underlying long-term stress, it is beneficial to regularly include magnesium rich foods in the diet. Nuts, legumes, whole grains and fruits are all great sources.
A 1-cup serving of black beans contains 120 mg of magnesium, which is 29% of the Daily Value (DV refers to how much of a nutrient you should aim to consume per day based on a 2000 calorie diet). In addition, legumes are high in potassium, iron and fiber. Black beans and other legumes can be eaten as a snack, meal or even added into baked goods (hello black bean brownies).
Other excellent sources of magnesium are seeds, like pumpkin, flax and chia. A 1 ounce serving of pumpkin seeds contains 168 mg of magnesium, amounting to 40% of the DV. That’s almost half of your daily magnesium needs right there! Try adding these seeds to yogurt, oatmeal, or as a salad topping for an added crunch and nutrient boost.
- Omega 3’s
A recent study examined the omega-3 fatty acid levels and stress biomarkers of over 2,000 people suffering from stress related conditions. It was found that lower omega-3 levels were associated with an increased heart rate, and elevated cortisol and acute-phase proteins. When cortisol and acute-phase proteins are elevated, your body’s flight or fight and stress response are ramped up. Long term activation of the stress response can disrupt your body’s processes, leading to an increased risk of digestive problems, headaches, depression and more. Thus, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is important. Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids that your body cannot produce, therefore they must be consumed in the diet. The main biologically active sources of omega-3s are present in fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, trout and sardines, or fish oil supplements.
As feasible, getting omega-3s from your diet is recommended before going the supplement route, as whole food sources also contain protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Research suggests that frequent omega-3 consumption could reduce symptoms of anxiety and boost mood. If fish isn’t your thing – don’t worry. Omega 3 is also found in walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, edamame, and seaweed. Regularly eating omega-3 rich foods has been shown to not only help ease mental health symptoms, but also reduce inflammation and lower triglycerides.
Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin and folic acid is the synthetic version of folate. Folate is needed in the brain for the synthesis of hormones including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine which all impact mood. Research demonstrates that chronic stress can affect how the brain processes or produces serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are linked to anxiety and a decline in mental health status. Individuals experiencing chronic stress and depression were found to have lower blood folate levels than those without depressive symptoms. Since our bodies cannot make folate, we must obtain it through the foods we eat. Some foods naturally contain folate, such as dark leafy green vegetables (think spinach and kale), citrus fruits, eggs, and legumes. Other foods are fortified with folic acid, such as enriched breads, cereals, and flour. Folic acid can also be found in dietary supplements.
The recommended dosage of folates for adults is 400 mcg per day. You can meet ½ of your folate needs in a single meal. Eat one cup of cooked lentils, which contains 179 mcg of folate or 45% of the DV, with half a cup of cooked asparagus, which provides 84 mcg, or 34% of the DV. That combination alone provides over 70% of your daily folate needs! Bonus points if you pair it with a piece of omega-3 rich fish.
Carotenoids are the brightly colored pigments that naturally occur in foods. The most consumed carotenoids are lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene and beta carotene. There are over 700 different types of carotenoids that act as an antioxidant in the body. As an antioxidant, carotenoids work to protect our cells from free radicals or other substances that can damage our cell membrane.
Researchers have found that carotenoids possess anti-stress properties and help to reduce serum cortisol in the body. Frequent consumption of carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables not only helps with mental health, but also reduces the risk of developing several chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. A recent study on the impact of fruit and vegetable consumption on perceived stress levels found that the more fruits and vegetables consumed, the lower levels of perceived stress participants experienced. Carotenoids are found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as bell peppers, carrots, mangoes, spinach, yams, watermelon, pumpkin and more. Aim to consume at least 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day to reap the innumerable physical and mental health benefits of carotenoids.
While there are many nutrients that play a role in shaping our mood and wellbeing, evidence also supports that eating together with friends, family, or other loved ones has positive effects on managing stress and mental health. So, gather your friends and family and try incorporating some of these stress supportive nutrients into your next meal!