Can Diet Reduce Stress?

Don't believe everything you hear about stress-busting foods.. Nutrition Diva sorts fact from fiction to see which foods really can reduce stress and anxiety. 

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #333

The reason that these two scientists seem to be contradicting one another is that they are measuring completely different things. Ludwig is looking at the effect of diet on adrenal hormones, and Wurtman is describing the effect of diet on neurotransmitters. Of the two, neurotransmitters probably have a closer relationship to our mood. 

Nonetheless, I think the disadvantages of Wurtman’s approach outweigh the benefits. Eating refined carbohydrates may temporarily boost serotonin levels (after all, that’s probably why we crave them when we feel stressed!) But they also sent your blood sugar, insulin, energy, and appetite on a roller coaster ride. Riding that roller coaster on a regular basis is a good way to increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

See also: What is High Glucose?

Fortunately, as the Savvy Psychologist pointed out in our recent conversation about the food/mood connection, eating refined carbs are not the only way to boost those mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. A few minutes of aerobic exercise, exposure to sunshine, doing a nice favor for someone, or even simply smiling, are all proven ways to reduce your mental and emotional stress levels - without the negative effects of a carbohydrate binge. 

Does Good Mood Start in Your Gut?

And now, we're starting to uncover a surprising new food-mood connection. Believe it or not, the bacteria that thrive in our guts appear to affect both our adrenal stress hormones and our neurotransmitters. Translation: Prebiotic and probiotic foods may help reduce anxiety and depression, and improve our state of mind. 

What's this mean for you, since we're not yet able to to "prescribe" specific foods or probiotic supplements to treat or prevent specific mood disorders? (See also: Probiotic Confusion.)

The best strategy at this point is to cultivate diversity. The more different kinds of beneficial bacteria in your gut, the better. So rather than put all of your probiotic eggs in the yogurt basket (as it were), try to branch out with other types of fermented and cultured foods, such as fermented soy products like tempeh, natto, and miso. and lacto-fermented vegetables (which is the fancy new name for old-fashioned pickles). But wait, it gets even better: Cheese, beer, and red wine are also sources of probiotic bacteria.

On the prebiotic side of things, you can further encourage diversity by providing your gut bacteria with lots of different types of fiber. So, instead of relying on a single fiber supplement to meet your fiber quota, try to get your fiber from a variety of different grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. As is so often the case, eating a variety of whole foods offers more benefits than a diet made up of a short list of superfoods

See also: How Important is a Varied Diet?

Comments? Questions? Connect with me on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page!

Image of stressed woman eating lunch courtesy of Shutterstock.


Clay, R. Stressed in America. Monitor on Psychology 2011 Jan; 42(1):60

Grenham S, Clarke G, et al. Brain–Gut–Microbe Communication in Health and Disease. Frontiers in Physiology. 2011;2:94.

Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. et al. Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity. Biological Psychiatry 2014. Article In press.

Ludwig DS, Majzoub JA, Al-Zahrani A, Dallal GE, Blanco I, Roberts SB. High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity. Pediatrics. 1999 Mar;103(3):E26.
Schmidt C. Mental health: thinking from the gut. Nature. 2015 Feb 26;518(7540):S12-5.
Schmidt K, Cowen PJ, et al. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 May;232(10)
Tillisch K, Labus, J, et al. Consumption of Fermented Milk Product With Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity. Gastroenterology. 2013;144(7):10.



About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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