How Food Affects Stress and Anxiety

By Nutritional Weight & Wellness Staff
January 22, 2024

stress.jpgEveryone experiences stress from time to time. Stress is a natural response to our surroundings and the demands placed upon us. Stress, when it is short lived, can be seen in a positive light as it increases our alertness, keeps us safe, improves our performance and boosts our memory (1).





On the other hand, chronic stress, or stress felt over a prolonged period, can be detrimental to the body. With prolonged exposure to stress comes a variety of signs and symptoms that our body is not doing well. We may experience GI disturbances (think heartburn, diarrhea, indigestion), weight gain (especially in the abdominal region), sleep disturbances, headaches, a weakened immune system leading to more illness, infertility, as well as an increase in high blood pressure and heart disease (heart attacks, strokes, etc.).

While the body's stress response is the natural way of responding to a dangerous situation, anxiety can arise in response to the stress you are feeling. Stress, coupled with anxiety symptoms, could be a momentary struggle for some, or a lifelong struggle for others.

Did you know that anxiety is the #1 mental health concern amongst those living in the U.S.? 19.1% of U.S. adults over the age of 18 and 31.9% of U.S. adolescents, ages 13-18, struggle with anxiety (2).

How we respond to stress, and the anxiety it evokes, involves many different variables. It can depend on the personal or professional problems we are dealing with, past trauma, genetics, the hardwiring of our brains and brain chemistry; it can also stem from poor health/illness and/or a poor diet.

What Is The Flight Or Fight Response?

From an evolutionary standpoint, stress told us to run from predators or to hunt and gather food for survival. Robert Sapolsky, PhD, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004) explains that the stress response used to be stimulated when humans were attacking prey for food, or running from predators, which is what we know as the fight or flight response.

The adrenal glands produce the stress hormone cortisol and the stress hormone adrenaline to help us respond to something dangerous, like being attacked by an animal. This is to our benefit in these types of situations because these stress hormones temporarily give us more strength, focus, and energy.  

Today, most of our stressors are coming from busy schedules, financial crises, rush hour traffic, relationship issues, chronic inflammation, hits to the immune system, schedules being packed with carpools and social events, and the list goes on. If there is a perceived threat, the stress response is the same as being chased by a tiger.

If there was a real tiger after us, once we get away, our bodies would have a chance to come back down from the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. We’d close the stress cycle loop. The problem becomes when the metaphorical “tiger” doesn’t stop chasing us because of the ongoing stress in our life and we don’t have a chance to bring our body back to a place of rest and digest.  

Chronic negative stress can affect our health by causing inflammation throughout our bodies and our brains, which can lead to disease over time. While much of our external stress is out of our control for the most part, like those examples listed above along with things like air quality or pesticides on our food, the good news is that we can help control our internal stress through a healthy diet and lifestyle habits that support better mental health.

Relieve Stress With Food

During times of intense stress and emotional upheaval, the last thing most people want to do is to spend precious time and energy on meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. In fact, it’s not uncommon for food in general to take a back seat.

Along with GI upset, stress can zap our appetite. Stress can also cause us to crave sugar, junk food, and often our favorite comfort foods. Eating these types of foods can actually increase our stress and anxiety in the long run.

One thing is certain though, our bodies need nourishment to support our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. You can use food to help manage your stress levels and your anxiety symptoms.


How Real Food Helps Relieve Stress Levels

Food and nutrition can be broken down into three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate.

Protein supports our muscle mass and provides the building block for our brain chemicals that regulate appetite and emotions, helping us better cope with stress. Our best sources of protein come from animal sources such as beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs.

Healthy fats stabilize our blood sugar and are crucial to support brain health, as the brain is about 60% fat. Healthy fats also assist in anchoring our blood sugar down so we don’t experience as large of swings in our blood sugar that lead to anxiety, irritability and extreme moodiness. Healthy fats include butter, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts/seeds, and olives.

Colorful carbohydrates, such as vegetables and fruits, supply us with the antioxidants we need to repair and regenerate cells that have been damaged by prolonged stress, high sugar intake, excess alcohol, and infections.

When we put this trio of macronutrients together (protein, fat and carbohydrate) as a meal or snack, we call that balanced eating.

Balanced eating is so important during times of stress, emotional trauma, and uncertainty because it keeps our blood sugar levels stable throughout the day (see chart below) —and when our blood sugar levels are balanced, we FEEL much more stable.

We have sustained energy, even-keel moods, focus, patience, and the ability to process feelings and reflect. We also sleep deeper and more soundly. All very important things when we are under stress.


The Link Between Blood Sugar And Anxiety Symptoms

Blood sugar imbalance is experienced after eating junk food or foods high in sugar. These foods cause our blood sugar levels to rise very high, which might lead to brain fog or feeling stiff and achy.

Then an hour or two later, blood sugar comes crashing down. Blood sugar levels can also crash if we go too long without eating. Most people know what low blood sugar feels like: hunger or “hangry”, sugar and salt cravings, low energy/fatigue (especially around 3PM in the afternoon), irritability or impatience, feeling overwhelmed, increased anxiety and depression levels, and even panic attacks.

Physiologically speaking, having rollercoaster blood sugars is THE MOST STRESSFUL thing our bodies can experience.

Dr. Leslie Korn, a medical professional specializing in nutrition and mental health, in her book says, “Mood swings follow blood sugar swings.” Big inflections in blood sugar are a stress to the body and change the way we act, leaving you feeling out of control. This is what we call a blood sugar rollercoaster.

Too much sugar in the blood too many times or for too long is toxic (imagine your cells swimming in syrup) and comes from eating or drinking too much sugar or too many carbohydrates.

Too little sugar in the blood represents starvation and sends a panicked message to the brain to find food NOW.

Dr. Korn points out that many signs of low blood sugar look like signs of stress: anxiousness, worry, irritability, shakiness, brain fog, panic attacks. Low blood sugar often follows a blood sugar spike or can result from eating a low-fat or calorie-restricted diet or going too long without food.

Our bodies go to great lengths to keep the sugar in our blood at a steady level. When our blood sugar is steady, we FEEL steady, focused, patient, adaptive to change and stress. This is why eating simple, whole foods in balance can be such a powerful tool during stressful times to reduce anxiety symptoms, as well as for support during the healing process.

Foods That Increase Stress And Anxiety Symptoms

As you can see from what we’ve talked about so far, foods effect your moods and brain health. Here are some foods that can increase the feelings of stress and anxiety in your body:

  • Processed foods and high sugar foods (think cereal, muffins, cookies, crackers, candy, anything in a package with ingredients you can’t pronounce)
  • Hydrogenated fats and refined oils (like corn oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil)
  • No fat or low-fat foods (this can cause a blood sugar spike if there’s no fat to anchor your blood sugar)
  • Low protein meals (you lack the building blocks for feel good brain chemicals)
  • Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, etc.), depending on your sensitivity to how it reacts in your body. Too much caffeine can make you feel on edge, jittery and nervous. Caffeine also dehydrates you and dehydration can exacerbate anxiety.

Foods That Reduce Stress And Anxiety

Here’s an example of what a day of balanced eating may look like and how real food can help reduce stress and relieve anxiety:

  • Breakfast – 2-3 eggs with 1-2 oz. breakfast meat + spinach sautéed in real butter + ½ cup of roasted sweet potatoes
  • Lunch – bowl of chili (2 cups) + carrot sticks + sour cream or avocado slices for chili topping
  • Snack – small protein shake OR beef stick + ½ apple + 2 Tbsp. nut butter
  • Dinner – 4- 5 oz. salmon fillet or steak + 2 cups of roasted broccoli & cauliflower + ½ cup wild rice + butter topping for veggies and rice
  • Bedtime snack – ½ cup berries or ½ peach + 2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream

As you can see from this example, each meal or snack is made up of whole foods and are a balance of animal proteins, healthy natural fats, and nutrient-dense carbohydrates. This balanced diet contains essential nutrients (like omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D etc.) needed to relieve stress and reduce anxiety in addition to having health benefits, like reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, cognitive function, and being overall healthy adults.

We have many more free tips, cooking ideas, recipes and relevant podcast episodes on our website and our nutritionists can help you custom-make a meal plan that works with your personal likes and dislikes in a one-on-one nutrition counseling appointment.

How To Relieve Stress Without Overeating

Often, folks will turn to substances and food to make it through those harder times and manage stress and anxiety.

Some turn to alcohol or drugs to numb and use it as a temporary escape mechanism. Others are emotional eaters who “stress eat” to temporarily block uncomfortable feelings and may experience a short-lived type of relief from nervousness and constant worry.

Here are a few strategies to try for managing stress naturally:

Getting Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep can greatly impact stress levels, however, it can be difficult to turn off the mind and relax at bedtime, leading to insomnia and sleep deprivation.

Without sufficient sleep, there can be an increase in cravings as well as lack of energy making healthy eating feel like an even bigger challenge.

While we may not be able to force our bodies to get 7 ½ -  9 hours of sleep each night which feels therapeutic, we can create better sleep habits that support a good night’s rest and help reduce some of our stress. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your routine:

  • Try adding a small healthy bedtime snack to help maintain your blood sugar throughout the night, like half an apple with 2-3 Tbsp. nut butter or raw veggies with a mini cup of guacamole. Without it, unbeknownst to you, low blood sugar could cause you to wake up. Eating balanced meals throughout the day can help you sleep through the night. Sleeping through the night reduces cravings, which helps you eat in balance during the day! It’s a win-win.
  • Decrease or eliminate caffeine. Caffeine is still detected in your system 21 hours after you consume it so be mindful of how much you are drinking and when you are choosing to have these types of beverages.
  •  Have a consistent sleep schedule (the body loves routine!) and start getting ready for bed early enough to get 7 ½ -9 hours of sleep.
  • Do some relaxing activities to wind down: take a bath, do some light stretching, read a book, journal, sip some herbal tea, meditate.
  • Turn off electronics at least an hour prior to bed. Consider wearing blue light glasses if you are around screens in the evening.
  • Turn down the thermostat to make the environment prime for sleeping and make the room dark with an eye-pillow or black out shades.
  • Take 400 – 600 mg of magnesium glycinate before bed. Taking magnesium at bedtime relaxes your entire body and can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

Not Skipping Meals

When you skip meals, you’re actually adding stress to your brain and body. This is because it causes an imbalance in blood sugar, just like eating high sugary foods does. Remember, when our blood sugar is out of balance, we release cortisol, or what we call the stress hormone.

Unbalanced blood sugar can be caused by skipping meals; then we feel moody, tired, anxious, shaky, have cravings, and have the inability to concentrate. All in all, these are stressful symptoms which over time lead to chronic stress on our body.

The first step is to stay ahead of your hunger with balanced meals and snacks that include protein, healthy fat, and whole food carbohydrates. Aim to eat every 3-4 hours and see how you feel. Snacks might look like a make-ahead protein ball or a simple deli meat roll-up with a pickle and full-fat cream cheese. Lunch might be canned salmon or tuna, mixed with mayo and cut up veggies and then served wrapped in lettuce.  

Prioritizing Gut Health

We have a common saying in our lexicon “I feel it in my gut” or “I have a gut feeling.” Is it any surprise then that the health of our gut impacts our mental health and stress level (and vice versa)?

If we are not digesting our food well (meaning your gut isn’t working properly), we are lacking in protein and fiber intake, or we take medications that impair our gut function, and over time we deplete our neurotransmitters, or feel good chemicals, that are produced in the gut. Many of our neurotransmitters help us feel calm, cool, and collected to help us manage our stress better.

When we lack the materials to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA because our gut has trouble breaking down our food, we can suffer the effects by feeling stressed, depressed, racing mind, moody, and unable to sleep.

For some clients, eating fermented foods, such as kimchi, kefir, or yogurt or taking a good quality probiotic is all they need to help with gut health. Bifido Balance and Acidophilus is a great place to start and Biotic 7 is a good option if you’ve taken probiotics before.

For others with chronic digestive issues, relief may come from a multifaceted approach of an anti-inflammatory diet, supplements, and mindfulness practices. Seeking the help of one of our dietitians or nutritionists may be warranted so they can assist you in troubleshooting your issues.

Hydrating With Quality Water

Water helps the electrical system of our bodies and brains to function better and to support our nerves along with keeping our heart rhythm regular. Water keeps our brains hydrated and helps us avoid those stress headaches or migraines, brain fog, and lapses in memory, which can make us feel stressed.

Water also helps to flush out toxins we get exposed to regularly, such as things like pesticides in our food, the plastic residues in the water supply, or the bad fats in convenience foods. The list of toxins goes on and on, but water helps flush out those unwanted guests, helping to create less stress on our bodies.

Plus drinking water and staying hydrated also help us to keep our blood pressure normal!

Good stress management plan should include drinking eight to ten glasses of filtered water every single day. If you're feeling really stressed out, try drinking a couple glasses of water and you might find that your stress level comes down.

Mindfulness Practices

There are other mindfulness practices that can support your body in closing the stress cycle and bringing your nervous system into a rest and digest state. Experiment to find what works best for you given the type of stress you are experiencing. Here are a few recommendations from our dietitian Kristi to try:

  • Exercise, no matter the type, provides a much-needed distraction from anxious thoughts. It also decreases muscle tension and releases serotonin and GABA to improve our moods and decrease our stress and anxiety (3). Try a brisk walk outdoors, turn on some music and dance or meet a friend at the local gym to start moving.
  • Breathwork – taking 3 to 4 deep breaths periodically throughout the day can reduce cortisol levels and slow heart rate, bringing on a sense of calm. If you are looking for something more guidance based, try box breathing. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds and repeat this sequence 4 times.
  • Meditation – being in the present moment versus worrying about the future, which causes anxiety in most, provides the grounding and centering some need to decrease their stress and anxiety. It can also help provide clarity about what you are facing so you are better able to handle the situation at hand. There are many different apps and YouTube videos on meditation to see which works the best for you.
  • Yoga – combining movement, breathwork and meditation, which were all mentioned above, creates an atmosphere to place the body in a parasympathetic, or relaxed rest and digest state to decrease the symptoms experienced with stress and anxiety.


Supplements For Stress

Balanced eating is one of the most important steps to reducing stress and increasing positive energy, so start there first. However, sometimes we may have so much stress in our lives that food choices and mindfulness practices alone may not be enough:

Twice Per Day 

Certain nutrients can become depleted during stress, especially B vitamins and vitamin C. B vitamins are essential for helping us make our “feel good” chemicals or neurotransmitters for our brain so we have happy, stable moods. Vitamin C becomes depleted when our bodies have high cortisol levels during times of stress. A high-quality multivitamin, such as Twice Per Day, taken daily, helps replace these water-soluble vitamins every day to combat stress and anxiety.

Magnesium Glycinate

This mineral becomes depleted during times of stress, and when we are low in magnesium it can increase our anxiety levels. Take 400-600 mg of magnesium glycinate nightly before bed for the best absorption to relax the body, assist with better sleep and help with an overall decrease in anxiety levels.


L-Theanine it is an amino acid found in green tea leaves. When taken, it can provide a sense of calm, without the drowsy side effect. The effects of 200-400 mg can last for a few hours at a time and can be taken on an as needed basis during stressful situations.


Start with 1mg melatonin sublingually and take more as needed for help falling asleep. Some people need up to 20mg! Melatonin production decreases as we age. Did you know melatonin is also essential for immune support and can help reduce your risk for cancer in addition to helping you fall asleep? Research has shown the benefits of melatonin’s immune-enhancing, antioxidant properties to help prevent us from catching viruses and to reduce our risk for cancer (4)(5).

Some of our nutritionists take this every night for sleep and also as a preventative supplement. Clients frequently share concerns about becoming dependent on melatonin supplementation for sleep, but we have not found this to be true in clinical practice. Your brain should continue to produce melatonin even if you stop taking it regularly.

To fine tune which supplements and dosages are right for you, it’s always best to speak with a licensed nutritionist or registered dietitian.

Balance Stress And Emotions With Real Food

If you remember one thing from this article, remember that food is POWERFUL! Each time we eat, we can create balance or imbalance in our bodies, which is especially crucial during times of intense stress, emotional trauma, grief, and managing anxiety.

Aim for eating animal protein, healthy fat, and nutrient dense carbs (vegetables and fruits) at all (or as many as you can muster) meals and snacks. Focus on incorporating some of the sleep habits mentioned above for more solid sleep and deeper rest. Explore mindfulness practices as stress management tools and a natural way to reduce stress in combination with nutrition habits.

And lastly, we’re here to help however we can. We work one-on-one with people to create a personalized eating plan unique to their health history, goals and lifestyle. We are here to be part of your support team as you work on lowering stress in your life.

For more information on food, stress, and anxiety, check out these resources:

Class: Stress, Food, & You

Podcast: Foods That Reduce Anxiety

Podcast: Nutrition & Mental Health with Guest Dr. Leslie Korn



  1. Jurgelewicz, Michael. “New Review Investigates Melatonin as a Potential Immunity Enhancement Adjuvant.” Designs for Health, Science Update, 10 Apr. 2020,
  2.  Li, Ya, et al. “Melatonin for the Prevention and Treatment of Cancer.” Oncotarget, Impact Journals LLC, 13 June 2017,

About the author

This blog content was written by a staff member at Nutritional Weight & Wellness who is passionate about eating real food.

View all posts by Nutritional Weight & Wellness Staff

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