Don’t Stress
Choose foods that help calm you down

By Joyce Slaton

The holiday season is often fraught with stress and indulgent foods, a combination that spells trouble for your body. Even though eating well helps us cope with the frenzy, it’s tempting to succumb to nutritionally bankrupt goodies that leave us feeling worse. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Certain foods can help prevent your body from releasing stress hormones and encourage the production of calming chemicals.

Stress Signals
Stress is an all-purpose term for anything that causes the body to activate its “stress circuit,” the process designed to mitigate upsetting events. Here’s what happens: First, the brain receives a disturbing signal, such as a loud noise. The hypothalamus immediately releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which causes the pituitary gland to release another hormone, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). ACTH tells the adrenal glands to release yet more hormones, including cortisol, while related neurological signals stimulate the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. “These hormones get your body ready to respond to a threat; it’s known as the flight-or-fight syndrome,” says Manhattan dietitian Carey Clifford, MS, RD. “Your blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature rise; your muscles get ready to tense.”

Although the purpose of the stress circuit is to amp up the body in times of danger, everyday stresses can exhaust your mental and physical resources. “It’s like your body is in high gear,” says Clifford, “and you’re always running hot. The body processes that occur during stress use up nutrients, so the more stress you feel, the more your body depletes its nutrients.”

When you’re stressed ...
5 foods to eat
Almonds
Broccoli
Brown rice
Kale
Poultry

5 foods to avoid
Alcohol
Candy
Cookies
Fast food
White bread

—J.S.

Complex Carbs Help
Foods that promote the release of serotonin and other soothing chemicals can help you regain your calm. Carbohydrates are your best bet toward this end. When you eat carbohydrate-rich foods, your body’s insulin level rises. That insulin in turn lowers the blood levels of the amino acids that compete with tryptophan, serotonin’s precursor. With those amino acids largely out of the way, more tryptophan is available to seep into the brain and be converted into serotonin.

Of course, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Highly refined carbs, such as those found in white pasta, white rice, bagels, and pastries, cause blood sugar levels to spike quickly. In response, your body releases insulin in higher levels to bring glucose levels back to normal. These hormones do their work quickly, glucose levels drop, and wham! You’ve just set yourself up to feel tired, cranky, and even more vulnerable to stress.

Instead, eat complex carbohydrates, found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. Unrefined carbs are also loaded with the vitamins and minerals you need to combat stress-induced nutrient depletion. “I tell my clients to eat higher-quality carbohydrate foods,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Miracle of Magnesium (Ballantine, 2003). “That means whole grains, such as millet and oats, as well as produce; the more brightly colored the better. Eating processed bread marked ‘whole wheat’ doesn’t count.”

Nutrients To Know About
In times of stress, certain nutrients are not just advisable; they’re vital. For instance, B6 helps transform tryptophan into serotonin; if the body’s B6 stores have shrunk, you won’t manufacture serotonin as efficiently. When you’re overanxious or tense, take in extra B6, either from supplements or by eating foods such as beef, lamb, poultry, green leafy vegetables, and legumes. Magnesium matters too because it helps the brain release and absorb serotonin. Consider taking supplements, or snack on magnesium-rich pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds.

Other nutrients fortify your body against stress. The B vitamins help your body maintain energy levels when you’re busy. Magnesium and calcium stores can run short when stress makes muscles tense too often, so get more of these minerals during tumultuous times by eating almonds, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, and beans. Potassium, abundant in milk, broccoli, and oranges, helps maintain blood pressure levels and regulate muscle contractions. And don’t forget your immune system: Vitamins A, C, and E, and minerals zinc and selenium can keep you from falling ill after a stressful period when your defenses are weak. You’ll find these nutrients in chicken, avocados, broccoli, spinach, carrots, and peppers.

Stress is tough. But by choosing the right foods, you’ll give your body the energy and calm needed to navigate the holiday season’s demands.

Joyce Slaton is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter in San Francisco.