When I ask people to name their biggest sources of stress, they always blame big components of their lives like work, family, finances and time. I call these "macro stressors." But they also have to consider "micro-stressors," or the minor annoyances that happen habitually throughout the day like running late to work, missing the subway, dealing with a traffic jam or getting wet during a rainy morning commute. These little stressors add up.
[See: 8 Ways to Relax -- Now.]
If you don't deal with both types of stress, your body will suffer an enormous physical toll, thanks to the fact that it still reacts to stress the same way it would if you were running from a lion: Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure and breathing increase and hormones like epinephrine and cortisol are released. Over time, that can lead to high blood pressure, blocked arteries, depression, anxiety and even weight gain.
But while there will always be traffic jams, a big project due at work and a family that needs you, you can do several things to help manage the fight-or-flight stress response, including eating certain foods. Here are seven nutrients to include in your meals:
This vitamin helps your body produce dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical in the brain that can help keep you calm. Foods high in folate include dark leafy green vegetables, edamame, avocado and legumes.
This mineral can help regulate your emotions and reduce fatigue, irritability and signs of depression. Sources of magnesium include seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and flaxseeds, as well as legumes, quinoa and spinach.
3. Vitamin D
Also known as the "happiness vitamin," sufficient vitamin D levels can boost happiness and mood. People with adequate levels of vitamin D also have a lower risk of panic disorders. Good food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and trout, as well as egg yolks and fortified milk and orange juice.
4. Omega-3 Fats
These healthy fats have anti-inflammatory properties that may counteract the negative effects of stress hormones. Fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are all sources of omega-3 fats.
If you've ever experienced digestive side effects while stressed, you know that your brain signals to your gut. Similarly, more research is showing how our guts also signal to our brains, with several studies showing that probiotics can reduce activity in areas of the brain that handle stress. Get your daily dose of probiotics by eating yogurt with live and active cultures, kefir or fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
These substances help to defend your body against stress. Antioxidants are found in most whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. A few in particular have been linked to lower stress levels including blueberries and dark chocolate, which can trigger walls of blood vessels to relax and help lower your blood pressure and reduce the stress hormone response.
Not drinking enough fluid puts stress on the body. If you are even a few cups of liquid short of your needs, your cortisol levels can increase. Stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle with you at all times, and aim to drink three or four full bottles per day. Monitor your hydration levels by checking your urine color (it should be a light yellow color like lemonade). If it's any darker, drink more.
Need some inspiration for incorporating these nutrients in your diet? Try these anti-stress meals and snacks:
-- Greek yogurt with walnuts, flaxseeds and blueberries
-- Egg and spinach omelet on a slice of whole-grain toast topped with kimchi
-- Kefir smoothie with spinach, berries, flaxseeds, almonds and a tablespoon of cocoa powder
-- Kale salad topped with canned salmon, avocado and pumpkin seeds
-- Whole-grain bowl made with quinoa, black beans, broccoli and avocado
-- Apple and 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds
-- Trail mix with 1/4 cup walnuts and almonds, 1/4 cup dried fruit and 2 tablespoons dark chocolate chips
-- Roasted edamame and dried cherries
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, is a registered dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and the owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition & Wellness. She helps people who are frustrated with dieting rediscover the joy of eating and develop long-term, sustainable lifestyle habits. As a freelance writer, speaker and spokesperson, she consults with a variety of companies and frequently appears in national media including NBC Nightly News, ABC News, Prevention, Health, SELF and Women's Health. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, or visit her blog.