The Best (& Worst) Things You Can Eat When You're Stressed, From An RD
Stressful events are felt in the mind but also experienced by the body. They cause a cascade of biological reactions that rapidly release stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline.
Frustratingly, excess stress hormones can cause a slew of physical symptoms that may last for a while—even after the initial stress event ends. The good news? There are so many ways to support your body after a period of high stress, and eating nourishing foods is one of them.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to use food to recover and give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs after a stressful period.
Replenish your micronutrients after the stressful event (with a focus on minerals!)
Our body utilizes extra vitamins and minerals1 during stressful events as it prepares to defend itself. Replenishing our micronutrient stores is a great way to signal safety to our bodies and rebuild our reserves in case another event occurs. It can also help promote proper hydration, detoxification, and drainage; restore baseline circulation; and guide leftover stress hormones out of the body (walking may help with this as well2!)
One of the best ways to recover after encountering anxiety or stress is to sip a mineral-rich beverage. The following "adrenal cocktail" includes the essential vitamins and minerals necessary to support our HPA axis and adrenal glands, supporting us during the recovery period.
Adrenal cocktail for stress recovery:
- 4 ounces orange juice (vitamin C)
- 4 ounces coconut water (potassium)
- 1 pinch salt (sodium)
Balance your blood sugar
Blood sugar may become erratic during and after times of stress due to the fact that our stress hormones have a feedback system with blood sugar.
When our blood sugar dips, cortisol is released. Cortisol helps to signal to the body that sugar is needed and directs the body to increase blood sugar (even in the absence of food). During prolonged stress or repeated stress, blood sugar can start to crash and spike, leading to a vicious stress/ blood sugar cycle.
After a stressful event, it’s best to consume blood sugar-balancing meals that include protein, fat, and carbohydrates (and are rich in fiber) to help maintain steady blood sugar.
An example stress-recovery plate
Make sure you’re eating enough (and stick to cold foods if you have no appetite or feel nauseous)
Stress and anxiety can make us feel exhausted. But it's essential to eat within a few hours after stress to re-regulate blood sugar and send safety signals to your nervous system (to let our evolutionary brains know we are not starving!). It can be hard to eat while stressed, as one common side effect of anxiety may be nausea.4
For some, consuming warm and cooked foods may feel grounding and cozy. But if nausea is a concern, cold foods may be more palatable since they have less of a smell (and sometimes, taste). Try cold foods like smoothies and salads if you can't tolerate warm meals.
Choose anti-inflammatory fats and nutrient-dense protein
The standard American diet tends to be high in more pro-inflammatory fats, which can exacerbate the damaging effects of stress. By incorporating more healthy, anti-inflammatory fats, we can neutralize and lower the stress response in the body and brain, creating an environment for healing.
Protein-rich foods are also essential for reducing the inflammatory effects of stress on the body. During chronic stress, the body becomes depleted in "happy" neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. By consuming adequate amounts of protein, we can begin to replenish these neurotransmitters. Aim for at least 25-30 grams of high-quality protein per meal from foods like eggs, seafood, poultry, grass-fed beef, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and tofu.
Sip on ginger tea
Plus, ginger has antioxidant properties that work to protect our cells against free radicals and oxidative stress, which can have protective effects against chronic health conditions. Lastly, the warmth of ginger tea can feel soothing and grounding during periods of high stress.
What to avoid during and after stressful periods
Blood sugar fluctuations
Since we know that blood sugar fluctuations and stress go hand in hand, we want to avoid foods or patterns of eating that make it harder for our body to manage the glucose response.
Avoid foods that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates. These are digested very quickly in the gut, leading to a spike in blood sugar (followed by a "crash") and erratic cortisol patterns. Skipping meals can have a similar effect on blood sugar, especially during and after stressful events.
It is important to create a balanced and consistent meal pattern, even when changes in appetite are present. This may look like eating smaller, more frequent meals/snacks every three to four hours instead of skipping breakfast or lunch and consuming a large portion of food in the evening.
Alcohol and excess caffeine consumption
Although caffeine and alcohol have different effects on the body (caffeine is a stimulant, and alcohol is a depressant), they can both worsen stress and anxiety symptoms.
Caffeine can increase stress hormones10 and further deplete the neurotransmitters, hormones, and minerals that are rapidly utilized during periods of stress. Try to limit caffeine intake during and after stress, and avoid consuming it on an empty stomach. Alcohol, on the other hand, has a negative impact on sleep, which is an essential part of stress recovery.
Trans fats, high quantities of omega-6 fats from processed sources, and lab-made fats all have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body, which is what you want to avoid during and after stressful times.
Trans fats are found in commercial baked goods, shortening, fried foods, and margarine. Omega-6 fats are essential for the body, but the standard American diet contains much higher levels than necessary, which can actually create negative health effects11. Avoid high concentrations of these fats by limiting seed oils (sunflower, safflower, soy, peanut, and corn oil), fried foods, restaurant/takeout foods, and processed foods like packaged snacks.
While we usually do not have control over the external stressors in our lives, we can control how we respond to them. By replenishing our body with the nutrients it needs to recover appropriately, we can dramatically reduce the physical impacts of stress.
Focus on consuming whole/unprocessed foods, home-cooked meals, high-quality protein, and anti-inflammatory fats. And remember: Food should not be an added source of stress in your life. If changing your entire diet feels overwhelming, choose one or two of these foods or principles to start with, and you will be one step closer to whole-body recovery from stress.
Michelle Shapiro, RD is an integrative/ functional Registered Dietitian in NYC who has helped over 1000 clients reverse their anxiety, heal long-standing gut issues, and approach their weight in a loving way. Michelle has a virtual private practice where she helps clients work one on one towards these goals. She is the host of the Quiet the Diet podcast, where she helps listeners bridge the gap between body positivity and functional nutrition.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/#:~:text=Acute%20stressors%20see m%20to%20enhance,of%20inflammation%20and%20anti%2Dinflammation