30 delicious foods that reduce stress and lower cortisol

by | Feb 26, 2021 | Last updated Jan 23, 2023

Exercise, meditation, and high-quality sleep are three common ways to manage stress. But did you know that there are foods that reduce stress, too? 

Read on for a list of the top stress-relieving foods—including fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats—to incorporate into your diet. 

But first, let’s talk about why and how stress—specifically the stress hormone cortisol—can damage your health.  

Note: Consult with a medical professional before making any dietary changes.

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The effects of high cortisol levels 

Cortisol is an essential hormone that plays many vital roles in the body. It helps regulate your blood pressure, metabolism, sleep-wake cycle, and body’s response to stress. 

Stress triggers your body to produce and release cortisol. Cortisol increases blood sugar and curbs nonessential functions, giving your body energy to respond to potential danger. 

Cortisol is helpful in the short term, but when cortisol levels are high for too long, it can raise blood pressure and lead to inflammation. This increases your risk of health problems, including:

  • Weight gain
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Brain fog
  • Trouble sleeping

Fight the effects of chronic stress with these cortisol-lowering foods.

Fruits that reduce stress 

Fruits are a staple of a healthy diet—and some may have stress-reducing benefits, too. 

Some fruits contain high levels of vitamins and nutrients like potassium and magnesium, which can help your body with stress. 

Many brightly colored fruits are also rich in antioxidants, which can reduce the inflammation that’s tied to stress. 

1. Cherries

Cherries are rich in vitamin C, and studies suggest that consuming vitamin C can improve your mood

You can eat fresh cherries or buy cherry powder to add to beverages and foods. 

2. Bananas

Bananas are chock-full of potassium and magnesium, which can protect your body against the impact of stress.

This popular fruit also contains tryptophan, a protein the body uses to produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which can help regulate stress in the brain. The healthy carbohydrates in bananas can also help the brain with serotonin production

A delicious snack on their own, bananas are also a great topper for oatmeal or your favorite cereal or mixed into a smoothie. Top your banana with your favorite nut butter for an extra protein boost. 

3. Oranges

Oranges make a great stress-reducing snack with their high levels of vitamin C. Some studies suggest that even the scent of oranges can reduce anxiety.

Oranges are, of course, delicious on their own, but they’re also a great addition to salads (both fruit and veggie). 

Vegetables that reduce stress 

Like fruit, vegetables that are rich in color—think sweet potatoes and leafy greens—contain antioxidants that fight free radicals, which can damage healthy cells. 

Packed with nutrients like vitamins C and K, potassium, and magnesium, many vegetables are also among the top foods that reduce stress. 

4. Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a nutritious, whole food packed with vitamin C, potassium, and complex carbohydrates. In one study, researchers found that individuals who ate a diet that contained whole, nutrient-dense carbs had lower cortisol levels than those who didn’t. 

Even better, sweet potatoes are delicious. Try them roasted with a light dusting of cinnamon or grilled with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. 

5. Swiss chard

Swiss chard is high in magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C. Research suggests that magnesium plays a role in helping control your levels of stress and that chronic stress can actually use up the magnesium in your body. 

Swiss chard has a texture between spinach and kale, and can be cooked the same way as other leafy greens. One of the easiest ways to prepare Swiss chard is to sauté it in olive oil with salt and pepper. 

One challenge with cooking Swiss chard is that the stems can be a little bit tough. If you want to eat the stems, you can boil them for a little while until they become tender. Or you can just remove them. 

6. Garlic

Garlic has a variety of sulfur compounds, contributing to its characteristic smell. The sulfur in garlic can help increase levels of a compound called glutathione, which acts as an antioxidant (remember, antioxidants help reduce inflammation and cell damage caused by stress).

Garlic can enhance all kinds of foods. It’s commonly used to flavor proteins like fish, pork, beef, and chicken, and it’s a delicious addition to sautéed vegetables. 

7. Artichoke 

Artichokes are high in magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C. They’re also a great source of prebiotic fiber. Research suggests prebiotics may play a role in mood regulation.  

Artichokes can be grilled, boiled, stuffed, baked, or braised. If you’ve never prepared artichokes, one of the easiest ways to cook them is by steaming them, which softens the tough outer leaves to reveal the tender heart. Serve with a bit of lemon juice. 

8. Broccoli 

Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable full of vitamin C. It also contains zinc, which boosts immune system health and may reduce depression and anxiety.

There are numerous ways to enjoy broccoli—roasted, steamed, or raw, for example. If you’re not a fan, try adding some to pasta dishes or blending some into a smoothie. 

9. Spinach

Leafy greens like spinach are good for stress reduction because they contain magnesium and folate, which help with the production of serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine

You don’t have to pop cans of spinach like Popeye to enjoy the benefits. Spinach is super versatile and can be added to salads, smoothies, and pasta dishes. 

Reflection exercise

Is there a vegetable on this list that you haven’t tried? 

Search the internet for three recipes you can try to incorporate it into your diet. 

High-protein foods that reduce stress 

You probably already know protein helps your body build and repair cells. But did you know it can also improve your mood? 

Some protein sources contain tryptophan, which, you’ll remember, plays a role in serotonin production. So the next time you’re feeling stressed, consider reaching for a high-protein snack. 

10. Chicken

Americans eat about 8 billion chickens per year—significantly more than other meat products—and it may be helping us feel less stressed. In one small study, adults who consumed chicken extract felt less anxious, depressed, and confused. 

Chicken is as versatile as it is ubiquitous. You can roast or grill it, add it to soups, salads, and pasta, or use it as sandwich filling—the options are endless. 

11. Beef

In addition to protein, beef is rich in B vitamins, which help your body metabolize cortisol. And grass-fed beef is also high in antioxidants and vitamins C and E. 

So go ahead and enjoy a piece of steak now and then. Just be mindful of portion size, as red meat is a high-caloric density food. 

12. Lentils 

Lentils are rich in protein, and they contain healthy carbohydrates that can help boost serotonin production.

Lentils are a star ingredient in many soups and stews, and serve as a nutritious meat substitute in dishes like vegan shepherd’s pie

13. Hummus

Chickpeas (the primary ingredient in hummus) contain nutrients like copper, manganese, vitamin B, potassium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and tryptophan. 

Hummus is a component of the Mediterranean diet, which may help reduce stress. One study found that people following the Mediterranean diet experience better moods and have lower stress levels than those eating a typical Western diet.

Fresh vegetables and bread are delicious dipped in hummus. You can also use hummus as a savory spread on sandwiches and wraps. 

14. Eggs

Whole eggs are an excellent source of protein. They also contain nutritious minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and amino acids. 

Eggs are also high in choline, which may help improve your stress response. 

There are lots of ways to prepare eggs, such as scrambled, fried, boiled, or poached. Cooking eggs over low heat for a short period of time helps protect their nutrient profile.

15. Quinoa 

Quinoa is a complete, plant-based protein, which means it contains all nine of the essential amino acids our body can’t make. It also has fiber, iron, and manganese and is rich in B vitamins that can increase serotonin production and reduce stress

An incredibly versatile food, quinoa can be incorporated into bowls and salads or used as a substitute for rice.

Fermented foods that reduce stress

The connection between the gut and mind is becoming more and more evident as experts study the effects of fermented foods on the body. 

More research is needed, but existing studies indicate that gut microbiota may help with managing stress. Here are a few ways to get more healthy gut bacteria into your diet.

16. Greek yogurt

Another Mediterranean diet staple, Greek yogurt, is a probiotic food that may help reduce stress. 

It’s also high in calcium, which may be linked to lower levels of perceived stress. 

You can enjoy Greek yogurt on its own, of course, or topped with your favorite berries for extra stress-fighting nutrients. In many savory recipes, you can also swap Greek yogurt for mayonnaise or sour cream. 

17. Kimchi

Kimchi is a fermented vegetable dish that usually contains daikon, a type of radish, and Napa cabbage. It contains probiotics, which can improve the health of your digestive system and may help regulate stress

One study of 700 people found that people who regularly ate fermented foods like kimchi experienced less emotional stress. 

You can eat kimchi on its own or add it to a variety of other dishes—like kimchi fritters or pancakes, eggs, or a rice stir-fry dish for a bit of tang and heat. 

18. Kombucha 

Kombucha is an anti-inflammatory and probiotic that can improve gut health and may reduce symptoms of depression

The drink has a small amount of caffeine, giving you a slight boost without the jitters, making it a suitable replacement for coffee. (Studies show that high doses of caffeine can increase anxiety.)

Foods rich in healthy fats that reduce stress 

We know that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for heart health. But studies indicate it may also play a role in preventing and treating some brain disorders. 

Some foods that are high in omega 3s also contain other stress-reducing compounds like magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C. 

Protect your heart and mind with these foods that are rich in healthy fats. 

19. Nuts 

Not only are nuts full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats—they also contain magnesium and zinc, which may help reduce anxiety and depression. 

Snack on almonds, cashews, or walnuts between meals, or throw some mixed nuts together with some dried fruit to make a tasty and satisfying trail mix. Nuts can also bring a deliciously buttery crunch to your favorite salads.

20. Avocado

If you’re looking for foods to reduce stress and promote overall health, you’d be hard-pressed to beat avocados. They’re loaded with B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins C, E, and K. 

Burnt out on avocado toast? There are plenty of other ways to add avocado to your diet. Add it to smoothies, salads, and bowls, make guacamole for dipping, or even substitute avocado for mayonnaise. 

21. Tahini

Tahini, made by grinding sesame seeds into a paste, contains choline and tryptophan, which can help reduce stress.

One small study found that adults who consumed more dietary tryptophan experienced fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Tahini has a savory, nutty flavor profile. The paste can be used to make dressings, baked into desserts, or drizzled on fruit (or just about anything). 

22. Shellfish 

Shellfish like mussels, clams, and oysters are high in amino acids, which are the building blocks of the proteins found throughout your body. 

Shellfish also have a lot of manganese, B12, copper, selenium, and zinc. One study found that individuals with chronically low intakes of manganese, copper, and zinc suffered from various mood issues. 

Some people love raw oysters, but they’re not for everyone. Cooked mussels and clams are delicious in pasta dishes if that’s more your speed. 

23. Fatty fish

Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and tuna are excellent choices for both mental and physical health. They’re packed with vitamin D, which may reduce your risk of emotional disorders

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish per week. Studies show that omega 3s can lower stress-induced inflammation and reduce depression. 

Bake, broil, or sauté salmon with olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper for a delicious main dish. 

Ready to make a lasting change?

A healthier you, wherever you are.

Antioxidant-rich foods 

As mentioned earlier, antioxidants help fight the free radicals that cause oxidative stress, which can damage healthy cells and lead to chronic disease.

Some studies indicate oxidative stress may also be tied to depression, anxiety, and stress. 

Here are a few foods that aren’t just rich in antioxidants— they’re also delicious and dessert-worthy.

24. Berries 

Berries are packed with vitamin C, flavonoids, and other antioxidants (especially blueberries). 

This type of fruit is delicious enough to eat as is. Or, blend your berries into a smoothie and add them to yogurt, waffles, or cereal. They also freeze well, so you can stock up when they’re in season and store them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them. 

25. Dark chocolate 

If you reach for a piece of chocolate when you’re feeling stressed, you’ve got the right idea. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, and studies suggest eating it regularly may ease emotional stress. 

Aim for at least 70% cocoa to enjoy the health benefits of dark chocolate. A higher percentage of cocoa means a higher antioxidant content (and lower sugar content). 

Herbs and spices that reduce stress

Herbs and spices do more than punch up your food’s flavor. Some—like tahini, parsley, and turmeric—contain high levels of vitamins and amino acids that can help reduce stress.

26. Parsley 

You might think of parsley as a garnish on a fancy dinner plate, but the herb is packed with antioxidants that can help protect your body against oxidative stress. It also contains vitamin C, fiber, iron, and calcium. 

Parsley can, of course, be used as a garnish to add a pop of flavor and a finishing touch to many dishes. You can add it to sauces, marinades, and dips or make delicious and nutrient-rich tabbouleh.

27. Turmeric

Turmeric contains curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory, serotonin-boosting properties. In one study, curcumin reduced symptoms of depression on its own as well as in combination with the herb saffron.

The bright yellow powder is often used in Indian dishes like kitchari and golden milk. You can also find turmeric supplements at your local health food store. 

Drinks that reduce stress 

Some beverages contain stress-reducing compounds that can help you relax at the end of a long day. Here are a few examples. 

28. Herbal tea

You’re not alone if you enjoy winding down with a cup of herbal tea. Many herbal tea ingredients—like chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower, and lavender—have relaxing properties

One study even showed that using chamomile supplements long-term reduced symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. 

Drinking a cup of herbal tea won’t likely have the same effects as a high-dose supplement, but it may be enough to take the edge off a rough day. And since herbal teas don’t contain caffeine, they make a great nightcap.

29. Green tea matcha powder

Matcha tea has been growing in popularity over recent years for a good reason. Matcha powder contains high levels of an amino acid called theanine, which may have anti-stress effects

Studies suggest that consuming matcha—within certain caffeine and theanine amounts—can help reduce stress. 

One study followed people who ate cookies with a few grams of matcha powder for a few weeks. They found that the people who consumed the matcha cookies experienced lower markers of stress in their saliva than the people who didn’t. 

Keep in mind that matcha is a bit bitter. Add a small amount of sweetener for more balance, or mix matcha powder into cookies, cakes, and even smoothies. 

30. Milk 

Remember warm milk before bed? Your grandma was onto something. In addition to tryptophan and vitamin D, whole milk contains calcium, which may help reduce depression

But you don’t have to drink a glass of warm milk to enjoy the stress-reducing benefits. You can add cold milk to smoothies or cereal, and it’s a common ingredient in creamy soups and sauces. And, of course, you can always drink it cold. 

Foods to avoid

Stress can create inflammation that leads to chronic disease. Eating anti-inflammatory foods can help counteract the effects of chronic stress. 

On the flip side, other foods can raise cortisol levels and create more stress on the body. If you’re trying to reduce stress, steer clear of: 

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • High-sugar foods and soda
  • Simple carbs like cakes and cookies

What’s more, most of these types of foods have a high caloric density, so eating too many of them can also result in weight gain. 

Need more stress management support? 

Eating stress-reducing foods won’t relieve all of your stress, of course—nor would you want it to. Stress isn’t always bad. It can help you overcome challenges and protect yourself in potentially dangerous situations. 

But it is essential to manage your stress levels for the sake of both your mental and physical health. Check out these 6 tips for reducing stress naturally.