These Are the Best Stress-Relieving Foods You Can Eat, According to Doctors

Nourishing ingredients packed with nutrients to calm stress, repair your gut, and lower inflammation.

Between endless errands, coping with financial concerns, or solving the ultimate quandary of how to keep your home tidy while working full-time and/or raising a family, it's no wonder that stress symptoms are soaring these days. Chronic stress and anxiety can negatively affect your overall health—both physical and mental— in more ways than you might realize, and learning how to deal with it and prevent it in the future is an important form of self-care. 

Nutrition is one of the fundamental factors that can affect the way your brain and body handles stress, and the foods you put on your plate really can help you feel a little less stressed and a little more zen. A key piece of the food-meets-mood puzzle is actually your gut microbiome. According to Ian Smith, M.D., a physician, gut-health expert, and bestselling author, your gut health is very closely linked to your body's ability to manage stress. 

Foods for Anxiety: dark chocolate
Getty Images

The Link Between Food, Stress, and Gut Health

"The connection between anxiety and the gut runs deep," he says. "Distress or anxiety can trigger the immune system to send out signals to break down the gut lining. An imbalanced or damaged gut can then drive a chronic stress response, which stimulates our body to end fight-or-flight mode." The result? More gut damage. Clearly, it's a vicious cycle. The good news is that there are endless, probiotic-rich ingredients that'll help you eat your way to a happier, healthier gut—and hopefully lower your stress level in the process.

"Research has shown that all roads lead to the health of our gut microbiome—our well-being depends on it," adds Raphael Kellman, M.D., a physician of integrative and functional medicine in New York City. The microbes residing in our intestines are intimately connected to our mood, yes, but also our metabolism, immune function, digestion, hormones, inflammation, and even gene expression.

The most effective way to make over your intestinal bacteria is by changing what you feed them—and yourself. "Diet is key,” Dr. Kellman says. “It should include lots of fresh prebiotic foods with plenty of probiotic foods as well." Here are the top stress-relieving foods and nutrients that experts recommend that support your gut health—and therefore your mental health.

Stress-Relieving Foods and Nutrients

Salmon and Other Lean Proteins Rich in Omega-3s

A prime example is salmon, which contains plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. These have been shown to improve mood. Other lean proteins like chicken are great too: The amino acids they contain can help with mood, says Dr. Smith. Avoid meats with high amounts of saturated fat.

Fiber-Filled Fruits—Especially Berries

It’s all about fiber, folks. According to Dr. Smith, fiber is a massive driver of good bacteria in the gut and most Americans get way too little of it. The best way to get more fiber is to eat foods that are grown from the ground. This includes everything from nuts and seeds, to lentils and popcorn, to, of course, vegetables and fruits. Berries are an incredibly fiber-rich food source, especially raspberries, blackberries, and wild blueberries. Plus, some berries (like blueberries) have also been shown to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that can negatively affect your mood.

Oranges

Speaking of stress-busting fruits, oranges are rich in vitamin C—one orange contains 70 milligrams of the vitamin, filling almost your entire day's needs. Perhaps best known for its immune-boosting powers, vitamin C can help alleviate stress (even the aroma is calming). 

In one study that subjected volunteers to a stressful task, those who took the vitamin fared better on measurements of stress than those who received a placebo. The vitamin had a subjective effect on participants (subjects reported feeling better), and it also worked on the cardiovascular (heart) and neuroendocrine (brain and hormones) systems.

"Start your day with an orange at breakfast or have one as a tasty afternoon snack paired with almonds or yogurt," Bauer recommends. "Add one to your salad for a bit of tart sweetness, incorporate one into salsa, or use one as a topper for chicken or fish. Try tossing orange sections into smoothies—it's great paired with other vitamin-C-rich fruits, such as strawberries, lemon, mango, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, or grapefruit."

Chickpeas

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are rich in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that plays a role in the gut-brain connection, since the body uses it to help produce serotonin, a mood-stabilizing, feel-good chemical in the brain. Studies have shown that tryptophan depletion may be linked to anxiety. "It's just one amino acid (and the least abundant) that competes to get into the brain," Bauer explains. "And adding some carbs helps move the powerful amino acid along. Chickpeas provide tryptophan and slow-burning carbs, a winning combo for squashing stress in one convenient package."

This versatile legume also contains folate, a B vitamin that helps regulate mood; a cup of cooked chickpeas provides more than 70 percent of the daily recommended intake. Plus, the high protein (14.5 g per cooked cup) and fiber (12.5 g per cooked cup) content can help steady blood sugars and stabilize mood.

Eggs, Nuts, and Turkey

All of these ingredients also provide a tryptophan-heavy punch, which, again, is essential to making serotonin: a key good-mood enabler.

Chamomile Tea

Chamomile acts as a mild sedative, and it may ease muscle tension and tame anxiety or irritability. Chamomile is one of the most commonly used and best-known medicinal plants in the world. In fact, we sip more than one million cups each day," Bauer says. It's also caffeine-free, so you can drink a soothing cup of it before you head to bed. For a more flavorful way to destress, try a tea recipe that blends chamomile with cinnamon, apple cider, and lemon.

Steel-Cut Oats

A warm bowl of oatmeal has many health benefits. It delivers a solid dose of tryptophan, helping the body produce serotonin. “All types of oats are terrific, but I'm a fan of steel-cut in particular because they're minimally processed, which results in a slower increase in blood sugar and helps stabilize your mood," Bauer says. Oats also contain magnesium; people who are deficient in this essential mineral may be more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Magnesium has a large impact on our stress levels and sleep, helping to regulate a particular neurotransmitter that calms the mind. It’s also responsible for activating the benefits of vitamin D in the body. 

Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than quick-cooking oats. Two shortcuts: Use a slow cooker to whip up an overnight version, or prepare steel-cut oats in advance (on the stovetop or using the slow-cooker method), and freeze individual 1-cup portions. When you wake up, just pop a container out of the freezer, microwave it (you may need to add a splash of water or milk to thin it out), and enjoy it like regular oatmeal. Think you'll get bored of this breakfast staple? There are tons of delicious oatmeal recipes that are as simple as mixing up a batch and changing out your toppings.

Dark Chocolate

Great news: Chocolate contains polyphenols, which are great antioxidants that have been shown to improve brain function and mood. "But I really mean dark—not milk [chocolate]!" Dr. Smith emphasizes. The darker the chocolate, the less added sugar it contains—an ingredient that, sadly, has been found to impact mood and stress regulation more negatively than you might have thought.

Focus on Plant-Based Foods for Stress Relief


When it comes to stress-relieving foods, here's the bottom line: Eat a variety of mostly plant-based foods, and your gut health—and by extension your mental health—will be on its way to better shape. Limit foods that can exacerbate stress and anxiety (think: sugar, saturated fats, alcohol), and prioritize produce, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins and seafood. Vary the fruits and vegetables you're eating too, as each one will contain its own uniquely beneficial species of bacteria that your system needs to thrive.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles