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Mental Health

7 Foods to Ease Stress and Soothe Anxiety

Eat your way back to calm with these foods, which contain key nutrients to help relieve tension, promote relaxation and balance brain chemistry.

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Eggs contain choline, a nutrient that’s needed for the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that impacts the portions of the brain responsible for regulating mood and reducing stress. In one study, people with the highest anxiety levels also had the lowest blood levels of choline. Eggs also contain vitamin D, which helps ease both anxiety and depression. Other good sources of choline are turkey, beef, seaweed, soy and Swiss cheese. 

Try this: Mash peeled boiled eggs with avocado and minced red onion for a healthier egg salad; top a salad of grilled escarole, onions and olives with a soft-poached egg; layer fried eggs, sautéed kale and salsa on a warm corn tortilla. 

Kidney beans are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that increases serotonin and has a calming effect. Several studies have linked low dietary tryptophan with increased anxiety and stress, and consuming more dietary tryptophan has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. And kidney beans are rich in protein, also important for neurotransmitter production. Poultry, eggs, cheese and pumpkin seeds are also good sources of tryptophan. 

Try this: Purée kidney beans with chopped onion, minced garlic, olive oil and cumin for an easy dip or spread; simmer kidney beans, yellow onions and tomatoes in coconut milk spiced with turmeric and cayenne for a traditional African dish.

Sweet potatoes are rich in fiber and complex carbs, which help keep blood sugar levels steady to balance mood. Studies show high-glycemic foods like white bread, pasta, cookies and cakes are associated with increased risk of anxiety. Other high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs include beans, winter squash, artichokes, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, raspberries and blackberries. 

Try this: Cut sweet potatoes into strips, toss with olive oil and paprika, and roast until tender for healthier fries; simmer sweet potatoes, carrots and ginger in broth until tender, then purée with coconut milk and yellow curry.

Related: Sweet Potato Hummus Bowl

Brown rice contains a variety of B vitamins, crucial for the production of dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Thiamine (vitamin B1), has been shown to reduce anxiety and related symptoms, including headache, insomnia and nightmares, and in one study, adults who took a B-vitamin complex had fewer symptoms of anxiety and an overall improvement in mood. Other good sources of B vitamins: nutritional yeast, split peas, barley, oats, nuts and seeds. 

Try this: Stir-fry cooked rice with diced carrots, green peas, scallions, eggs and tamari for easy fried rice; sauté cooked rice in butter with thinly sliced mushrooms, onions and almonds; mix cooked brown rice with mashed avocado, spread on a sheet of nori, layer with radish sprouts and shredded carrots then roll up. 

Chard is high in magnesium, which modulates the release of stress hormones like cortisol and can reduce anxiety. Low levels of dietary magnesium have been
linked with increased anxiety, and a magnesium deficiency adversely affects probiotic balance in the gut and exacerbates symptoms of anxiety. Seaweed, pumpkin, peanuts, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, avocado and spinach are also high in magnesium. 

Try this: Sauté chopped chard with white beans, garlic and red pepper flakes; purée chard leaves with basil, garlic, olive oil and shredded asiago cheese for a nutrient-dense pesto. 

Related: Eat for Adrenal Health

Herbal tea. Chamomile contains chemicals that reduce stress; in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, people who took chamomile for eight weeks had a significant decrease in anxiety. Lemon balm and skullcap work with GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in calming anxiety. And in one study, passionflower was as effective at relieving anxiety as oxazepam, a pharmaceutical drug that helps treat anxiety and insomnia. Plus, herbal teas are a good substitute for caffeinated beverages, which can worsen anxious feelings and may even induce panic attacks. 

Try this: Mix cooled chamomile tea with orange juice and fresh thyme sprigs, and serve over ice; combine dried passionflower with dried hops, hibiscus and lavender then steep in hot water, strain and serve with raw honey.

Cashews are high in zinc, which is associated with the regulation of GABA and has an anti-anxiety effect. Zinc deficiency is common in several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, and studies show people with anxiety have lower levels of zinc. Other foods high in zinc: pumpkin seeds, adzuki beans, nuts, beef and chicken. 

Try this: Purée cashew butter with garlic powder, onion powder, dried dill and a splash of apple cider vinegar for a dairy-free ranch dressing; roast cashews, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions and green peppers until tender, then toss with cooked penne pasta and shredded Asiago cheese.