HEALTH / FITNESS
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Stress management can be a powerful tool for wellness. Too much pressure is not just a mood killer, people who are under constant stress are more vulnerable to everything from colds to high blood pressure and heart disease. Although there are many ways to cope, one strategy is to eat stress-fighting foods. Read on to learn how a stress management diet can help.
Foods can fight stress in several ways. Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, actually boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. Finally, a nutritious diet can counteract the impact of stress, by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure.
All carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it's best to eat complex carbs, which are digested more slowly. Good choices include whole-grain breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas, as well as old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Dieticians usually recommend steering clear of simple carbs, which include sweets and soda. But these foods can provide short-term relief of stress-induced irritability. Simple sugars are digested quickly, leading to a spike in serotonin.
Oranges make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can reduce levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. If you have a particularly stressful event coming up, you may want to consider supplements. In one study, blood pressure and cortisol levels returned to normal more quickly when people took 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C before a stressful task.
Popeye never lets stress get the best of him - maybe it's all the magnesium in his spinach. Magnesium helps regulate cortisol levels and tends to get depleted when we're under pressure. Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach goes a long way toward replenishing magnesium stores. Not a spinach eater? Try some cooked soybeans, or a filet of salmon, also high in magnesium.
To keep cortisol and adrenaline in check, make friends with fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and protect against heart disease. For a steady supply, aim to eat three ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
Research suggests black tea can help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank four cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank a tea-like placebo. The real tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of cortisol after stressful situations. Coffee, on the other hand, can boost levels of cortisol.
Pistachios can soften the impact stress hormones have on the body. Adrenaline raises blood pressure and gets your heart racing when you're under stress. Eating a handful of pistachios every day can lower blood pressure, so it won't spike as high when that adrenaline rush comes.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium -- and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. In addition, guacamole offers a nutritious alternative when stress has you craving a high-fat treat.
Almonds are chock full of helpful vitamins. There's vitamin E to bolster the immune system, plus a range of B vitamins, which may make the body more resilient during bouts of stress. To get the benefits, snack on a quarter of a cup every day.
Crunchy raw vegetables can fight the effects of stress in a purely mechanical way. Munching celery or carrot sticks helps release a clenched jaw, and that can ward off tension headaches.
Carbs at bedtime can speed the release of serotonin and help you sleep better. Heavy meals before bed can trigger heartburn, so stick to something light like toast and jam.
Another bedtime stress buster is the time-honored glass of warm milk. Researchers have found calcium can reduce muscle spasms and soothe tension, as well as easing anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS. Dieticians typically recommend skim or low-fat milk.
There are many herbal supplements that claim to fight stress. One of the best studied is St. John's wort, which has shown benefits for people with mild-to-moderate depression. Although more research is needed, the herb also appears to reduce symptoms of anxiety and PMS. There is less data on valerian root, another herb said to have a calming effect.
Besides tweaking your diet, one of the best stress-busting strategies is. of course, to start exercising. Aerobic exercise is the most effective, because it increases oxygen circulation and produces endorphins -- chemicals that make you feel happy. To get the maximum benefit, aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week.