College students are constantly stressed. Between ominous tests, looming deadlines and the nagging desire to be involved everywhere to make your resume glow, it’s easy to crack under the pressure and search for some kind of comfort.
But you might want to think twice before reaching for a delightful pack of Oreos or indulging in a tub of ice cream to calm your nerves.
It’s scientifically proven that humans are hardwired to reach for highly sugary and fatty foods when they’re stressed. While eating comfort foods like cookies can lower stress levels in the short term, the temporary boost of joy from sugar comes at the cost of severe damage to the body.
Stress raises levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps trigger the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol keeps sugar in the blood so that there is an immediate source of energy in case of a fight. Being chronically stressed keeps cortisol levels and — by extension, blood sugar levels — high, which can lead to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes. Stuffing your face with cake only expedites the process, increasing the risk of obesity, high blood pressure and other ailments. Constantly eating refined sugars have been shown to increase the risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety, in the long-term.
In response to the havoc sugary treats wreak on our bodies and moods, a growing number of scientists are saying that there are things we should eat to improve our moods. Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new field of research that examines the way food impacts our mental states. Because of the massive number of chemical receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, nutritional psychiatrists believe that a person’s mood can be improved by changing their diet.
A 2018 study published in the World Journal of Psychology found 12 nutrients that are particularly helpful for fighting depression. These nutrients include long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium.
We’re deficient in many of these nutrients. A 2017 study conducted by Oregon State University found that almost 40% of Americans aren’t consuming enough vitamin C or vitamin A. In addition, more than 50% of Americans don’t consume enough magnesium and virtually all Americans don’t get enough potassium every day.
Psychiatrist Uma Naidoo M.D., who writes for the Harvard Medical Blog, says that a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables and limited red meat, such as the Mediterranean diet, is ideal for staving off anxiety and depression.
But don’t think you need to be a vegetarian to get these nutrients. Here are a few foods nutritional psychiatrists recommend:
- Bivalve shellfish, such as oysters, clams and mussels, are rich in minerals like selenium and iron. Just a three-ounce serving of pacific oysters cooked under dry heat will have nearly half the daily recommended intake (DRI) of iron, almost twice the DRI of selenium and four times the DRI of vitamin B12. They’re also a good source of vitamin C and omega-3-fatty acids.
- Fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon are rich in omega-3-fatty-acids and minerals such as magnesium, selenium and potassium.
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, barley and oatmeal, are full of protein, soluble fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and magnesium. Multiple studies have found a correlation between consuming whole grains and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
- Dark green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and spinach, are packed with many of the anti-depressive nutrients above. Spinach alone is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium and selenium.
- Probiotics help keep the GI tract, and by extension the many chemical receptors along it, healthy. A review of a 2016 study found that probiotics are significantly correlated with improved symptoms in depressed patients under the age of 65. Naidoo recommends that people consume yogurt, kefir and fermented foods like kimchi for this reason.
Although eating these foods and cutting back on sugar can help fight stress, it isn’t the only option for dealing with it. Exercise, hanging out with friends and getting help from your professors are all solid strategies for alleviating the stress of college life. Just remember to munch on some spinach or take a few scoops of yogurt when you’re feeling down — it might just help.