Stressed out? What you eat can help! Here’s how to reduce stress with food, and redefine comfort food as healthy food that nourishes your body.

Chipotle Black Bean & Avocado Quesadillas | A Couple Cooks

This post is part of our Healthy & Whole series to inspire a lifelong passion for home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. See the entire series here.

We have a treat for you today: Katie Schmidt from the blog Whole Nourishment. Katie’s an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and first contributed to our Healthy & Whole series with this post on nutrition. Today she’s back sharing with us on how to eat in stressful times, and puts a whole new spin on comfort food! Thanks to Katie for the idea for this post – and don’t forget to check out our Stress Reducing Nourish Bowl recipe that we created to with her list of best foods for replenishing nutrients in times of stress. 

It’s a familiar pattern. You have a string of stressful days, begin to feel rundown, moody, or anxious, and you need comfort, fast! Food that soothes in the moment later leaves you feeling bloated, crampy, or constipated, and the anxiety returns. You might not even realize the self-justification dialogue running in the background: you deserve a reward for coping, right?

Stress is a quirky concept. We tend to think it’s something that happens to us, but it is often something we create from our perceptions and reactions to a situation. In other words, we have more control over how much we feel stressed than we realize, especially in terms of building up energy levels and protecting our immunity and mental wellbeing. Below, I’ll provide guidelines that help you redefine comfort food as food that honestly nourishes and position you to feel incrementally better when stressed, including:

  • How to healthfully “digest” stress using your food and lifestyle
  • How the health of the gut affects our ability to cope with stress, and vice versa
  • How diet can improve gut health, boost immunity, mood, energy, and protect our sanity
Roasted Cauliflower with Dates, Almonds & Tahini

Roasted Cauliflower with Dates, Almonds, and Tahini (Whole Nourishment)

Flee! Faster!

We all know about “fight-or-flight”, the body’s automatic initial reaction to perceived stressors. To ensure we respond defensively to danger, our body puts us in high-alert survival mode by raising stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. But our bodies were never designed to be on high-alert 24/7, like they so often are today. So when chronic stress leaves this fight-or-flight response in the permanent “On” position, it depletes energy and nutrient stores.

Translation: If we run from one stressful situation to the next without coming up for air to rest and replenish, we may think we’re “doing everything possible”, “necessarily sacrificing for our employer, partner, or family”, or even “being heroic”. But in reality, we’re running on empty, which causes risk levels to soar for anxiety, weight gain, and digestive issues. Failure to take good care of ourselves literally creates chemistry in our body that leads to unwanted eating behaviors, cravings, and illness.

Turn It Off!

So many situations in life are outside our control. Yet others are firmly in our control. We can put protective measures in place, both by what we eat and how we live our life, to turn off this stress response and turn on the restorative “rest and digest” state, the only state where our body can return to normal functioning. From a lifestyle perspective, studies point to the benefits of activities such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, practicing mindfulness, and being in nature, especially when practiced regularly. The temptation can be to do these “if there is time left”, rather than putting them first. Put them first. Trust how you and the rest of your day benefit as a result.

Brussels Sprout Coconut Curry

Brussels Sprout Coconut Curry (Whole Nourishment)

Restore Depleted Nutrients

From a dietary perspective, magnesium and Vitamins B and C are some of the first to go during times of stress. Restoring and maintaining a healthy store of these nutrients is crucial for sustaining energy, balancing mood and cognitive function, protecting immunity, and encouraging muscle relaxation. While vitamin companies try to manufacture quick fixes and market high-absorption, nothing beats the integrity of natural, whole, unprocessed foods. Some of the best sources of magnesium and Vitamins B and C come from including in the following foods in your diet:

  • Avocado
  • Cruciferous veggies including broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and
    kale (enjoy cooked, especially if you have thyroid problems)
  • Raw cacao and/or carob powder
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds
  • Citrus, including oranges, grapefruits, lemon, limes
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, oats, and brown rice

Sonja and Alex’s Stress-Reducing Avocado & Quinoa Nourish Bowl is full of these nutrients and the perfect meal for stressful times.

Stress Reducing Avocado & Quinoa Nourish Bowl | A Couple Cooks

Our Gut + Stress

Fun fact: we have ten times more microbes in our body than human cells. Studies indicate the balance of bacteria in our gut is crucial to our health and ability to respond to stress. We not only “digest” stress in our head and heart, but also in our stomach. Our intuitive sense of a situation or our gut feeling quite literally comes from our gut. Also referred to as the “second brain”, our gut is home to a part of the nervous system responsible for making the majority of serotonin, the happy protective hormone. With our gut having the ability to feel, sense, think, and remember much like our cognitive brain, it influences our mental state. A healthy gut helps us cope with stress by producing serotonin to regulate mood and cognitive function, digest food to absorb nutrients, support immunity, regulate metabolism, weight, and more.

But the brain-gut connection goes both ways. On one hand, changes in the brain related to stress and anxiety can cause undesirable changes in the quality and quantity of gut flora. For example, one study of college students revealed a decline in good gut bacteria on exam day. On the other hand, an imbalance in the gut can directly influence the part of our brain that governs our response to stress. For example, one study showed 60% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) also had anxiety and depression.

Leek and Lemongrass Soup

Leek and Lemongrass Soup (Whole Nourishment)

Gut-Friendly Diet

A whole foods, plant-centric diet rich in fiber and beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods improves the quality and quantity of the good bacteria in our gut, and helps protect our body and mind during times of stress. Finding ways to incorporate these foods and practices into your regular diet will support the long-term health of your gut.

  • Eat whole foods + lots of plants.
  • Minimize processed, refined, packaged products, which don’t benefit the good bacteria and feed the bad bacteria.
  • Focus on fiber, in particular: sweet potato, pumpkin, winter squash, cauliflower, artichoke, radicchio, chicory, onions, garlic, leeks, oats, green tip bananas, and legumes.
  • Enjoy fermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, other pickled vegetables, and miso; kombucha; kefir and yogurt with “live active cultures” (sheep/goat’s milk or coconut).
  • Pursue a healthy lifestyle; adequate sleep and other lifestyle activities mentioned above are equally important. Be mindful that long-term use of birth control, antibiotics, steroids, and pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin can damage the integrity of our gut flora.

A Few Tips to Get Started

Some of these guidelines for a gut-friendly diet and restoring depleted nutrients might be familiar. Others might feel foreign and difficult to implement. Here are a few final tips for making adjustments to improve your diet:

  1. Start with the familiar and go slow, one change at a time. Identify just one suggestion in this article that feels manageable. Success early on builds motivation and momentum to continue on your journey. We gain more clarity and insight when there are fewer new variables added in at once. This is especially important to remember for you multi-taskers!
  2. Be creative and experiment with how to implement a change. There may be more than one way. See what does and doesn’t work, and stick with it. When it’s right, the change should feel enjoyable as should the process of discovery. Success often hinges on the small tweaks we make to our behaviors and attitudes, rather than the major overhauls. This isn’t about sacrifice, loss, or being stoically rigid.
  3. Get help. Forming new habits can sound a lot easier on paper in the moment than in practice. Many people committed to making diet and lifestyle changes find it helpful to work with a coach for support and step-by-step guidance that is tailored to their needs.
Sweet Potato Gratin

Sweet Potato Gratin (Whole Nourishment)

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you'll want to make again and again.

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  1. I’m loving this series! I so easily forget how many ways there are to improve your mood and stress levels with food. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I have long loved Katie’s blog with its plethora of mouthwatering, healthy recipes that will be as kind to your gut as they are to your tastebuds. It’s great to see you guys partnering up on this inquisitive post – and just in time before the holidays start taking their toll!

  3. Really enjoyed this read.

    “…long-term use of birth control, antibiotics, steroids, and pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin can damage the integrity of our gut flora.” Can you link the source for this? Thanks.

    1. Thank you Tara, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      There are numerous peer-reviewed journal articles linking these drugs to a compromised gut. Also well-known Integrative and Functional Medicine practitioners such as Dr. Mark Hyman and Christiane Northrup have written about this connection.

  4. A great way to redefine ‘comfort food’ I have a job that I find incredibly stressful and I am constantly ‘treating’ myself to ‘comfort food’ but invariably this food is fatty/sugary/unhealthy. When I should be doing as you suggest, eat ‘comfort food’ that nourishes and enriches me, thanks for the reminder and I have signed up to follow your blog!

  5. I found it helpful when you said that you could consider focusing on fiber-enriched food like sweet potato and pumpkin to support the long-term health of your gut. This is a good tip for me since my husband has been complaining about gut problems for the past 2 weeks. I want to cook healthy recipes for him, so I will do your tips and find blogs that offer great recipes.