Any acute stressor triggers the same physical reaction to stress, like nerves before a presentation or finishing an article on a schedule. We all are subject to stresses in ordinary life. Concepts such as Acute vs Chronic Stress have been frequently discussed. The many and varied ways to reduce stress and the importance of reducing it have often been a subject of this column. Many people don’t know, however, that a varied and balanced diet can really help you deal with the physical responses your body automatically produces to daily acute stress. We all recognize the hormone, Serotonin, which is linked to our mood. But, did you know that 90 percent of Serotonin is produced in the gut – not in the brain? And, if the cells in the GI tract have access to the correct nutrients, they can produce more Serotonin. Apparently, it comes down to eating foods that contain an essential amino acid known as Tryptophan, which then produces Serotonin. We cannot make tryptophan naturally so we must ingest foods that contain it. Tryptophan can be found in food; Serotonin cannot.
The answer is not foods high in refined sugar. Such foods can actually impair brain function. Research on nutrition says that our bodies crave variety, a mix of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, protein, and carbohydrates in order to boost levels of balancing hormones, like Serotonin.
Some foods help reduce Cortisol, which is another well-known hormone linked to stress. Cortisol increases inflammation. Fruits like blueberries are full of antioxidants and vitamin C, which reduce levels of Cortisol in the body. Avoid inflammation-increasing foods such as refined sugar, alcohol, refined grains, trans fat, and saturated fat. Some dietary experts recommend use of 100% maple syrup and coconut sugar as substitutes.
Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter books will recall that Professor Lupin gave Harry Dark Chocolate whenever he was stressed. Dark chocolate also reduces Cortisol. Dark chocolate also has compounds called flavanols which are thought to relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, and decrease blood pressure. Milk chocolate and white chocolate do not do nearly as good a job as dark chocolate.
Fruits and vegetables boost Serotonin. Bananas in particular, boost Serotonin. Spinach, Swiss Chard, pumpkin seeds, edamame, avocado and potatoes are all good sources of magnesium, which reduces Cortisol and promotes good sleep. Oranges, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peas and cucumbers are rich in Potassium. Veggie sticks with hummus work as well.
Fish, particularly oily fish as we noted last month, can reduce anxiety and increase brain function. It is the Omega-3 fatty acid that works.
In summary, this is a list of the top Serotonin boosters. Remember any food that contains the essential amino acid, tryptophan will produce Serotonin. But the other top foods are: Salmon gets top marks for boosting Serotonin. Spinach is second (that includes Swiss Chard and probably most all of the leafy greens, including Kale). Seeds and nuts and soy products are also top on the list of Serotonin boosters.
When it comes to reducing Cortisol, the list is different. Dark Chocolate stays at the top and is probably the easiest to sell. But, don’t forget seeds (pumpkin, chia, flax, and hemp), avocados, bananas, spinach, broccoli, nutritional yeast and probiotics. Many of these are high in magnesium, even dark chocolate. Oh, and nuts (walnuts and almonds) help reduce high cortisol levels.
As much fun as it is to read about good foods to help manage stress, please don’t forget that practicing meditation or mindfulness, getting good sleep and moderate exercise are essential to keep your mind and body in balance during these chaotic times.