Chocolate and other Foods to Reduce Stress

I was recently interviewed for an upcoming book by Bill Gottlieb  on drug free healing. We focused on four food groups that studies have shown reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels as described in The Adaptation Diet. The first  is dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa).  I’m sure many people will be thrilled to learn the benefits of chocolate. Studies have shown that dark chocolate is one of the strongest antioxidant foods. In addition, in a study comparing subjects listed as high anxiety compared to low anxiety individuals, dark chocolate reduced the levels of stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine while improving the overall metabolism.

In addition to chocolate, other foods that are stress hormone tamers include fatty fish containing omega 3 fatty acids. When college volunteers were put through stressful tasks, those that had taken supplements of EPA-DHA, the key fats fish like salmon and sardines, they performed much better than those who did not supplement. Other foods we discussed include green tea which contains theanine an amino acid that improves brain chemistry and flaxseed which improve the feedback mechanism in the brain which controls cortisol production.

The bottom line is that you can eat your way to being less stressed, even using dark chocolate if you want. Increasing foods that reduce inflammation like organic dark-colored vegetables and fruits and eating a diet lower in animal protein will reduce cortisol and improve well-being.

Stress and Diet

One of the greatest insights I have had with my patients in recent years is how much food and diet impact the level of stress they experience. I remember a patient that I first saw last year who had terrible insomnia and anxiety. Even sleeping medications had failed to do much good. When I looked at what he was eating, it appeared to me that he was setting himself up for his mood issues through his eating habits.

I put him on a detoxification diet with no simple sugars, caffeine,dairy, red meat or wheat products and asked him to come back in three weeks. He was a different person, less fidgety, more focused and much more at ease. In his words his mind had stopped running at 100 mph and he was feeling back to himself.

His story is not unusual. The function of the brain is dependent on good eating habits as much as the heart or any other organ and yet most of the time the first approach to treating emotional issues is a prescription, not a food diary investigation. In The Adaptation Diet I have detailed not only how to change eating habits but specific nutrients such as EPA-DHA and flaxseed powder that help the brain reset the stress mechanism and recover adaptation.

Mediterranean Diet and health

Dietary patterns close to the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruit and

vegetables and high in monounsaturated fats, reduce  features of the metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome, also called syndrome X, includes high blood pressure, insulin resistance, truncal obesity (fat around the waistline),high triglycerides and blood sugar, and low HDL cholesterol. It is a major risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. Some recent studies, including one done by Balbio in Spain,  have demonstrated a 25 percent net reduction in the prevalence of metabolic syndrome following lifestyle changes mainly based on nutritional recommendations.

The Mediterranean Diet has the following characteristics:

Low-glycemic-index carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetable in large amounts

Minimal snacking between meals and no fast foods

Moderate consumption of red wine (5 ounces per day)

Olive oil as the principal fat, with significant amounts of fish, nuts,

and seeds and a balanced omega 6 to 3 ratio

Significant intake of fish, especially salmon and small fish like

sardines rich in EPA-DHA fatty acids

Little saturated fats from butter, cream, full-fat dairy, or red meats

Protein primarily as beans and lentils with moderate amounts of fish and poultry

Dairy consumed as low-fat yogurt, kefir, or cheese

Fat consumption is 25–35 percent of calories, with saturated fat less than 8 percent

Desserts are fruits, often fresh

Use of local produce, fish, and poultry with minimal importation from distant sources

Slow food approach, eating leisurely meals in a social setting with family and friends

These are some of the principles included in The Adaptation Diet, available early February from on-line book sellers.