The New Comfort Foods: Healing Stress With Nutrition
August 12, 2015
Healing foods, OatmealPhoto Credit: pixelnaiad

Does seeing the word “stress” already make your shoulders scrunch up? Stress may not always be so easy to handle, but it’s actually an inevitable part of being alive. The fact is, many life events can produce stress—even positive ones. That’s why stress research pioneer Hans Selye, M.D., broadly defined stress as “…the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.”

Unchecked stress may show up in our lives as anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, and emotional eating, for example. And while we live in a fast-paced, high-pressure world, luckily, we have many stress-management tools available. In fact, some of these tools are right in our kitchen cupboard!

According to acupuncturist and herbalist Christopher Hobbs, L. Ac., when we’re experiencing stress, we may select “comfort foods” (such as candy, chips, fried foods, and sugary, caffeinated beverages) that provide an initial sense of relief. Eventually, though, these quick-fix foods can wear us out. However, with the right information, we can choose foods and food-derived supplements that replenish critical nutrients, boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals, calm anxiety, and more.


Oatmeal isn’t just a cozy breakfast option for cold mornings. It can actually be a stress-busting superfood, too. Complex carbohydrates such as those found in oatmeal help the brain to manufacture serotonin, writes researcher and author Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. A mood-boosting and appetite-suppressing neurotransmitter, serotonin is also responsible for helping us to sleep soundly. For better sleep, Dr. Wurtman advises eating carbohydrates (such as oatmeal) prior to or several hours after eating protein, as this helps our bodies to make serotonin more easily.

Tulsi Tea

Tulsi, also called holy basil, is known as an adaptogen, or an agent that helps the body adapt to stress. According to an article published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, tulsi may also improve memory and cognitive function, as well as alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. While most tulsi research is anecdotal, preliminary animal studies have indicated that tulsi’s antioxidant properties may help the body to recover from stress.


An increasing amount of research is demonstrating a connection between digestive health (specifically, the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut) and emotional well-being. In fact, researchers estimate that 90% of serotonin found in the body is manufactured in the digestive tract —all the more reason to keep it functioning smoothly with probiotic-rich foods like yogurt. According to a study conducted at the UCLA School of Medicine, eating yogurt twice a day may alleviate anxiety and stress. In the study, participants who ate yogurt twice daily for one month demonstrated decreased activity in areas of the brain that control emotion and pain.

Fish Oil

According to Andrew Weil, M.D., fish oil may protect against depression and bolster overall emotional well-being. Part of fish oil’s mood magic is that it’s an excellent source of EPA and DHA, two essential omega-3 fatty acids. In one study of teens with major depression who didn’t respond well to SSRI antidepressants, supplementation with fish oil was found to reduce depression symptoms. Researchers split the adolescents into two groups: one who received a low dose of fish oils and another who received a high dose. The study found that depression symptoms reduced by 40% in the low-dose group and 100% in the high-dose group. See this article for more information on how to choose the right fish oil. Also, as with any other supplement, consult your physician first before taking.

Pumpkin Seeds

Raw pumpkin seeds just might replace cookies as your go-to bedtime snack. They’re a rich source of magnesium, zinc, and tryptophan, all of which play a key role when it comes to stress management. Magnesium becomes easily depleted in the body during stressful times. It’s important to keep levels of this critical nutrient normal, as magnesium is responsible for keeping the nervous system healthy, relaxing muscles, and mediating the body’s stress response. Second, zinc helps to regulate sleep and mood, among other important bodily functions. Finally, the amino acid tryptophan is an essential building block for serotonin production. This is important because serotonin gets converted into melatonin, the hormone responsible for sound sleep. Joseph Mercola, M.D., recommends eating pumpkin seeds a few hours prior to sleep with a carbohydrate such as a small serving of fruit to provide sufficient tryptophan to jump-start the body’s production of serotonin and melatonin.


By selecting foods that support our mental and physical health, we can become more resilient in the face of any challenge. Read on for more resources on nutrition for stress management.

Further Reading:  

Well-researched information about eating to boost your body’s serotonin from Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., and Nina Frusztajer, M.D.
A guide to tulsi from Deepak Chopra, M.D.


Stress & Natural Healing: Herbal Medicine and Natural Therapies by Christopher Hobbs, L. Ac.
In-depth information detailing a holistic approach to stress management.

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers, Psy.D.
If your stress manifests as emotional eating, this book presents tools for comforting yourself without food.

About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, LMFT (MFC #104851) is a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist in California. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama at the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist.

To find out more about her approach to psychotherapy, visit [Bio updated June 2018.]

  1. Thanks for sharing this–I learned a lot! I already keep oatmeal and yogurt in my kitchen, so I’m glad to know that two foods I like have these benefits!

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