Why What You Eat Can Impact Your Stress Levels

Your nutrition can impact your overall stress levels. Here's how to eat to help manage your stress.

April 01, 2022

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Thirty-six percent of adults have trouble sleeping because of stress, and if you’re not sleeping enough that increases your stress. It’s a vicious cycle where stress, mental health and sleep all affect each other. Here's what you need to know about the stress cycle and how what you eat can help or hurt.

The Symptoms of Stress

According to Dr. Chris Mohr, adults have been reporting increases in physical and mental stress over the past year. It can show up as various symptoms or health issues such as headaches, digestive problems, skin breakouts, muscle aches, fatigue and disrupted sleep. These issues can also lead to lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, altered mood, irritability and anger, lack of focus and change in mood. With all these issues going on, it can result in overall poor behaviors including over or under eating, substance abuse, social withdrawal, exercising less often, and not sleeping well.

How Do You Measure Stress?

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. You release small amounts of cortisol throughout the day when you encounter everyday stressors. This is normal and levels of cortisol tend to fluctuate throughout the day because of this. If you have chronic stress, it can lead to consistently high cortisol levels over time. Eventually this can result in burnout — yes, it is real!

Stress can be measured monitoring heart rate variability which is a validated measure of stress. It looks at the exact changes in time between successive heart beats, where changes occur over time. There are also apps and trackers that can do that, such as the Oura ring.

The Role of Nutrition in the Stress Cycle

The food you eat and the nutrients you take in all play a role in stress. In his lecture at 2021 Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo, Dr. Mohr explains how Americans are getting below the recommended levels of many nutrients that play a role in stress and mood. These nutrients include omega 3, magnesium, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. Below is an overview of these nutrients and how you can make sure you’re getting enough.

Omega-3 fats

One in four U.S. adults have reported a mental disorder in the last year. Seven-percent of U.S. adults report at least one depressive episode in the past year. The data is staggering! Science shows a connection between the levels of omega-3 fats you consume and depression. There are several types of omega-3 fats including EPA, DHA, and ALA. The data specifically shows that folks who have higher amounts of EPA in their diet show reduced symptoms of depression. In addition, lower levels of EPA were found in folks with moderately severe and severe depression.

The recommendation for omega-3 fats for mental health is between 1,000 to 2,000 mg of EPA + DHA omega-3 fats with at least 1,000 mg from EPA. You can get this amount by eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. You can also opt to take a supplement but read the label carefully to ensure you’re getting enough of the EPA.


Acute stress is associated with increased magnesium levels in the blood, while chronic stress is associated with lower magnesium in the body which can also reduce your tolerance to stress.

The recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 420 mg per day. Magnesium is found in foods like leafy greens, avocado, black beans, tofu, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and bananas. You want to get in your daily recommended amount of magnesium through food. If you think you’re still short on the mineral, then talk to your health care provider to see if a supplement is warranted.


Many of the B-vitamins are associated with stress management and most Americans are not getting enough of them. These include folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. B-vitamins are water soluble and must be consumed and replenished daily. Each B-vitamin plays a unique role in helping the body manage stress and nervous system functions. In addition, B-vitamins support brain cell functions and help with energy metabolism by converting food into energy that cells throughout the body can use. Chronic stress may be association with low levels of vitamin B6, while vitamins B12 and B6 support the production of neurotransmitters (like serotonin) needed for a healthy mood and mental wellness.

B-vitamins are found in a variety of foods. Below are some good food sources of each B-vitamin mentioned:

  • Folate: fortified cereals and breads, green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, orange juice,
  • Vitamin B6: fish, beef, chicken, fortified cereals, potatoes, bananas, potatoes, leafy green vegetables
  • Vitamin B12: animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk and milk products
  • Thiamin: fortified cereal and breads, pork, beans, peas
  • Riboflavin: fortified cereals and breads, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, mushrooms, spinach, prunes, shrimp, eggs, beef.
  • Niacin: meat, poultry, fish, whole grains and enriched or fortified cereals and breads, peanuts, milk, eggs

Bottom Line: What you eat every day plays a role in stress which can also affect your mental status and sleep.

A well-balanced diet inclusive of the foods (and nutrients) listed above is a good start to helping manage stress. If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, do seek the assistance of a health care provider.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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