Eat more when you're stressed? You're not alone. More than a third of the participants in a national survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health said they change their diets during stressful times.
And many of us are quick to turn to either sugary foods or highly refined carbohydrates such as bagels or white pasta when the stress hits.
"There can be a bit of a vicious cycle," says David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard University and a researcher at Boston Children's Hospital. "When we feel stressed we seek foods that are going to comfort us immediately, but often times those foods lead to surges and crashes in hormones and blood sugar that increase our susceptibility to new stresses."
Now, of course, we can't control lots of the events and circumstances that lead to stress. But, Ludwig says, "our body chemistry can very much affect how that stress gets to us."
He points to a study he and some colleagues published in the journal Pediatrics several years back.
They gave teenage boys different types of breakfast meals. One included protein-rich eggs, while another meal included high-fiber, steel-cut oats. A third meal of instant oatmeal was highest on the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly sugar is absorbed and how soon a food is likely to make you hungry again.
"After the highly refined instant oatmeal, blood sugar soared but then crashed a few hours later," Ludwig says. "And when that happened the [stress] hormone adrenaline, or epinephrine, surged to very high levels."
Ludwig says the links between food and mood are complex. And just as there are individual differences in susceptibility to diseases, there are differences in response to food, too. Not all of us are equally sensitive to foods like instant oatmeal, high on the glycemic index.
Given what we know about how different foods affect the risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, "why should it be so surprising that the nature of the foods we eat can also affect our emotional and mental well-being?" Ludwig says.
So, if eating lots of refined carbs and sugar may exacerbate our responses to stress, are there other types of food that make us more resilient? Researcher Joe Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health believes the answer is yes.
"I think there's a very strong connection between what you eat and your mood," Hibbeln says.
He has spent the past two decades investigating links between the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and emotional health.
"One of the most basic ways that omega-3s help to regulate mood is by quieting down the [body's] response to inflammation," Hibbeln says.
When you get walloped by something, whether it's a virus or an emotional stressor, you want to bounce back as quickly as possible, he notes.
"You can either be good at weathering stress or you can be brittle. And omega-3s make your stress system more flexible," Hibbeln says. He points to studies showing that omega-3s can help protect neurons against the damage that can be done by chronic stress.
Hibbeln knows that some people shy away from fish due to the cost, so he points to affordable options such as canned light tuna and sardines, which are good sources of omega-3s. There are also plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseed and chia seeds.
Now, clearly, omega-3s aren't the only food that's good for our emotional health.
Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of The Happiness Diet, says a nutrient-rich diet is best for beating stress.
He points to his favorite stress-busting breakfast: scrambled eggs mixed with kale (or other greens) and topped with pumpkin seeds.
With this meal, you're covering all your bases, Ramsey says. The eggs are a good source of B vitamins and protein, which can be more satiating than a carb-based breakfast. The greens are incredibly nutrient-dense, and are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin K and potassium.
For dessert, go for dark chocolate, which can have "an acute affect on mood," Ramsey says. He points to a study that found cocoa flavanols can help boost mood and sustain clear thinking among adults who are engaged in intense mental efforts — like students cramming, or journalists on deadline.
In addition, dark chocolate has been shown to improve vascular health by increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation.
The bottom line? The foods we choose can't magic away stress. But Ramsey says he believes "there is a very, very strong connection between food and mood."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Today in Your Health - stress. It's a normal part of life, but how we deal with it can make a big difference to our overall health. In our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, lots of people told us that when they are stressed, they try to eat healthily - try - but stress tends to tug people in the other direction. As part of our series Stressed Out, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on the role our diets play in either making stress worse or helping us keep it under control.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when many families lead super busy, overscheduled lives, it's not a surprise that lots of us go, go, go until we just can't.
MELANIE DAWSON: I can recall, absolutely, an instance.
AUBREY: Melanie Dawson is a mom who lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
DAWSON: I've had a lot of experience with those stressful days.
AUBREY: Most recently, it was all the end-of-school-year events with concerts, trips, ceremonies, the busyness - the pace of life reach a crescendo.
DAWSON: Trying to fit everything in - trying to make sure everybody is happy.
AUBREY: The juggling act of kids, careers, activities can just wear us down.
DAWSON: And I noticed that when I'm really stressed and overwhelmed, I crave something that's just really sweet and complete sugar.
AUBREY: Lots of us have been there. About a third of the people in our poll told us that their diets change during times of stress. They tend to eat more. And sugars, as well as refined carbohydrates that our bodies turn into sugar quickly, such as crackers, chips, white bread, white pasta are the things we reach for. Melanie's recent stress craving led her to a favorite childhood candy - Smarties.
DAWSON: You know, in the moment, it sure tasted good going down. And then the sugar crash comes, and I feel terrible.
AUBREY: Her mood takes a turn for the worst. Melanie says she's gotten much better at fending off these sugar urges. She's pretty health-conscious and says she knows better. But for many people, it's a trap there not even aware of. Here's physician David Ludwig of Boston Children's Hospital.
DAVID LUDWIG: There can be a bit of a vicious cycle when we feel stressed. We seek foods that are going to comfort us immediately, but often times, those foods are the very ones that lead to surges in crashes and hormones and blood sugar that increase our susceptibility to new stresses.
AUBREY: Ludwig says, of course, it's true that we can't control lots of the events and circumstances that lead to stress in our lives.
LUDWIG: But our body chemistry can very much affect how that stress gets to us.
AUBREY: Now, for those of you who can't imagine how a simple breakfast choice, say a white bagel or even a package of instant oatmeal, could amp up your stress response, well, consider a study that Ludwig and his colleagues published several years back. They gave a group of teenage boys different types of breakfast meals. One included protein-rich eggs, and another included high-fiber steel cut oats, which provide for a slow release of energy. Now, a third meal was a bowl of instant oatmeal, which is digested much more rapidly.
LUDWIG: After the highly refined instant oatmeal, blood sugar surged, but then crashed a few hours later. And when that happened, the hormone, adrenaline or epinephrine, surged to very high levels.
AUBREY: So the teenagers produced high levels of a stress hormone in response to eating the highly refined carbs. Now, the boys in the study were overweight, and Ludwig says, just as there are differences among people in susceptibility to diseases, there are differences in response to foods, too. Not all of us are as sensitive or would have the same response, but he says what's become clear is that what we eat can influence much more than our waistlines.
LUDWIG: There've have been studies for decades showing how different foods can affect our risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but why should it be so surprising that the nature of the foods we eat could also affect our emotional and mental well-being?
AUBREY: So if eating lots of sugar and refined carbs can exacerbate our responses to stress, are there other types of foods that might make us more resilient? Researcher Joe Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health studies this question.
JOE HIBBELN: I think there's a very strong connection between what you eat and your mood.
AUBREY: I've met up with Hibbeln at a local grocery store where he leads me directly to the fish counter.
HIBBELN: I see big variety of fish. I see salmon and halibut. It's beautiful and fresh, and I'm getting hungry looking at it.
AUBREY: All of these fish, he explains, are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids. Now, a lot of people know of the omega-3 connection to heart health, but Hibbeln has spent 20 years investigating links with emotional health.
HIBBELN: One of the most basic ways of omega-3's help to regulate mood is quieting down your response to inflammation.
AUBREY: He says when you get walloped by something, whether it's a virus or an emotional stressor, you want to bounce back as quickly as possible.
HIBBELN: You can either be good at weathering a lot of stresses or you can be brittle, and omega-3 fatty acids make your stress system more flexible.
AUBREY: Both by helping cells in the brain communicate better and, he believes, by protecting neurons against the damage that can be done by high levels of stress hormones over a long period of time. And this, he believes, leads to more emotional resiliency.
HIBBELN: When you do look at people who eat more fish, they have less depression. They have less aggression.
AUBREY: Now, not all studies have shown this convincingly, but Hibbeln points to a growing body of evidence. For instance, a study of schoolchildren in England, linking omega-3's to improved behaviors - more pro-social behaviors - and several clinical trials that have found omega-3's may help control depressive symptoms and promote feelings of well-being.
HIBBELN: When I started eating fish more myself - when I really started eating it regularly, it was an aha moment.
AUBREY: He said he started to notice that he was more inclined to stay on an even keel and less likely to buckle to stress.
MONTAGNE: That's Allison Aubrey. And, Allison, you're here with us in the studio to talk more about this connection between food and mood. I was listening to that researcher talk about the salmon and the halibut and I - you know, I'm thinking these are extensive items...
AUBREY: That's right.
MONTAGNE: ...One recent people don't eat more fish is the cost. So what alternatives?
AUBREY: Well, the most affordable options that come to mind would be canned tuna and sardines. These are a fraction of the cost of fresh fish, but still good sources of omega-3's. And there are also plant-based sources of omega-3, such as flaxseed and chia seeds. One of the easiest ways to get flaxseed into your diet would be to buy a bag of milled or ground flaxseed at the store, sprinkle it on yogurt, put it in your cereal, and, similarly with Chia - there are lots of Chia seed powders. So you can add them to shakes and smoothies. So those are some good options.
MONTAGNE: Of course, talking food - it's breakfast time.
AUBREY: That's right.
MONTAGNE: You have brought in a meal yourself. This meal includes eggs. Tell us what you've got.
AUBREY: Yeah, so, you know, we've talked about omega-3's, but there are a host of other foods and nutrients that are thought to play some role in helping to regulate our moods. So what I have here in front of me is a plate of scrambled eggs that I made at home before coming in. It's got greens, and what I'm doing now is I'm sprinkling some pumpkin seeds on top, hear. A professor at Columbia University - a psychiatrist, Drew Ramsey, turned me onto this combination. He calls it his stress-busting breakfast.
MONTAGNE: OK. Tell us a little more specifically, what is there on the plate that might be helpful.
AUBREY: So the eggs are a good source of protein, which, as we've just heard, can be satiating and tend to stave off hunger longer than if we were to just eat, you know, say a bagel. And eggs, along with other protein-rich foods such as beans, meat and some grains, provide many of the essential amino acids that our brains and bodies need to - to function well. Buried under my eggs, here, are these - these greens. I've got Swiss chard - I think Drew prefers Kale - and these are just chock-full of lots of vitamins and nutrients - so everything from vitamin A to vitamin K to potassium - so incredibly nutrient-dense, and that supports good brain function. So I think the bottom line here is that, you know, no food that you're going to eat is going to take away your stress, but if you eat meals like this that are nutrient-dense, have good amounts of protein and healthy fats, this can affect how the stress gets to us.
MONTAGNE: Allison, your eggs are getting cold. Thank you for joining us. NPR's Allison Aubrey covers food and health.
AUBREY: And you're right. These eggs are getting cold.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.