Holidays are one of the most special— and stressful— times of year. The magic of the holidays is all too often coupled with anxiety, sleep deprivation, and a struggle to meet work and family obligations.
The next time you feel holiday stress creep up, eat your way calm by incorporating these seven foods in your diet:
Comfort foods with complex carbohydrates, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, can boost levels of serotonin, a feel-good hormone that helps you relax. When you have the time, go for the thick-cut, old fashioned (steel-cut) oats that require cooking instead of instant oatmeal -- coarse oats are higher in fiber and minimally processed so they take longer to digest, a definite advantage for regulating mood. For added staying power, add some protein like chopped nuts, chia seeds, or a tablespoon of nut butter.
Blueberries are a simple and tasty way to stay calm and healthy over the holidays. These powerful berries are an excellent source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps relieve stress. Studies suggest that vitamin C can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, when participants took vitamin C before a stressful task their blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) returned to normal more quickly. One cup of blueberries has 85 calories and almost 25 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin C. Plus, they are easy to eat. Just wash and add them to your favorite foods, like oatmeal, yogurt, high-fiber cereal, or a salad.
Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain pasta and bread, have several benefits to help reduce stress. The carbs in whole grains along with fiber provide a steady supply of serotonin, a feel-good chemical that can help you feel calm. Whole grain is also rich in magnesium, and magnesium deficiency can lead to anxiety. As nutritious as whole grains are, eating enriched grains once in a while can be beneficial too. Enriched grains are fortified with folic acid, and low levels of folic acid have been linked to depression. The general recommendation is to make half of your grains whole grains.
Citrus fruits pack a double punch when it comes to defusing stress. Not only are citrus fruits— like oranges and grapefruits— rich in the stress-busting antioxidant vitamin C, they are also a good source of glutathione. Glutathione protects the body from free radicals by fortifying immune health and boosting antioxidant protection. A recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that a daily 1000 mg oral supplementation of glutathione was found to increase glutathione levels in the blood and boost the immune system. When you’re stressed, your immune system is compromised, which can lead to more stress. Glutathione is found in fresh fruits, vegetables and some meats, but to get the benefit the food must be eaten in the “raw” form.
Fatty fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help prevent surges in stress hormones and protect against heart disease and depression. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has endorsed the fatty acids in fish as an effective part of depression treatment. Wild fish, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod, are low in mercury and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. For a constant supply of feel-good omega-3s, aim to eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fatty fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.
Pumpkin seeds are rich in magnesium, and too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, worsening the effects of stress. The mineral also helps regulate the stress hormone cortisol, to promote feelings of wellbeing. A one-ounce serving (about a handful) of pumpkin seeds provides 19 percent of your daily requirement for the mineral. You can eat pumpkin seeds whole, shells and all— in fact, the shells provide extra fiber. Other nuts and seeds high in magnesium include almonds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, cashews, flaxseed, pine nuts and pecans.
Next time you feel stressed, skip the caffeine jitters and go for an herbal tea. Herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free and many of them contain a range of calming components. Chamomile, mint, barley tea, passionflower, and valerian root are all herbal teas shown to have calming effects. However, since some of these teas can be pretty powerful, such as valerian root, talk to your doctor to see what might work best to relieve your symptoms.
Patricia Bannan is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian specializing in nutrition and health communications. She is the author of "Eat Right When Time Is Tight: 150 Slim-Down Strategies and No-Cook Food Fixes." Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.