There’s a good reason why we call it “comfort food.” Greasy hamburgers, French fries, mac & cheese, and other usually high-calorie, fattening foods induce feelings of comfort. But just because something feels good doesn’t mean it actually is good. So, the next time your stress drives you to take comfort in food, instead of gobbling up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream straight from the container, consider enjoying these five foods that have been fact-checked for reducing stress.
Sit down, have a cup of tea, relax. That soothing advice has a long tradition in many parts of the world, but it’s only recently that modern science put it to the test. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Psychopharmacology, researchers showed that drinking black tea helps the body hasten its recovery from stress. Participants who drank black tea for 6 weeks had lower levels of cortisol and greater subjective relaxation compared with participants in the placebo group. But drinking low-caffeine green tea has also been shown to reduce the stress response, according to other researchers, thanks to key ingredients such as the amino acid theanine.
A glazed doughnut is mighty tempting to satisfy that carb craving, but a warm bowl of oatmeal is more comforting, and it won’t send you into a sugar crash. When you’re stressed and the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin is running low, carbohydrates are your ticket to boosting that hormone in your brain. But instead of simple, sugary carbs that cause spikes and dips in your energy levels, go for slow-digesting, complex carbs like whole grains to promote stable blood sugar levels. Old-fashioned, whole-grain oats are a source of tryptophan, the essential amino acid that metabolizes into serotonin and melatonin. These neurotransmitters help stabilize your mood and regulate your circadian rhythm.
Had a long stressful day? Ready to relax with that container of Ben & Jerry’s? Consider a cup of plain yogurt instead. Although yogurt may not be chockful of super fudge chunks, it does have lysine and arginine—two amino acids that work together to decrease feelings of anxiety and lower cortisol levels, according to results of a study in Biomedical Research. In addition, probiotics in yogurt with live active cultures may help reduce anxiety. Although there’s no definitive evidence yet that probiotics reduce anxiety in humans, numerous studies indicate that probiotics do modulate stress in animal models.
When you need to calm down and relax, don’t grab a beer or glass of wine—alcohol may relax you at first, but it can wind up disrupting your sleep. Instead, take great-grandma’s advice and drink a glass of warm milk. Besides the homey warmth of this true comfort food, milk has loads of B vitamins that reduce anxiety and improve mood. For instance, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) raises serotonin levels to perk you up. Will warm milk even help you chill out at work? One study showed that seriously stressed workers who were given a high dose of B vitamins reported significantly less strain and better mood after 12 weeks. Milk is also a good source of tryptophan, the metabolic precursor of serotonin and melatonin.
We really wanted to end this list with dark chocolate, which is full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and theobromine—the nearly magical compound that is purported to have all kinds of beneficial effects. (Have a little bit of dark chocolate if you wish, we won’t tell.) But, if you want to be good (as well as calm), have some asparagus, which is one of the best sources of folate (vitamin B9). Folate deficiency has been linked with depression and other cognitive problems. But raising folic acid intake (ie, eating asparagus!) may help restore the production of S-adenosylmethionine, a naturally occurring compound that contributes to the production of serotonin and dopamine. So if you want to reduce your anxiety, eat your asparagus.