Foods That Reduce Stress?

Before my divorce, I had a sinus infection for two years.  A friend finally recommended Inna Topiler, a Clinical Nutritionist in Hoboken and founder of Complete Nutrition and Wellness.  I was skeptical about the idea of seeing a nutritionist; I know how to eat.  But I went anyway, did a few tests, and found the whole experience incredibly helpful.  She diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue, a result of ongoing stress that I felt before my divorce.  She also prescribed vitamins and some basic supplements, such as fish oil, and created an eating plan—a simple idea that we all probably learned in elementary school, but can be hard to remember, let alone stick to, during times of stress and general busy-ness. 

I caught up with Inna again recently to talk about the role of good nutrition during divorce.

Wendy Paris: When you’re feeling stressed out, are there certain foods you can eat that will reduce stress or conversely, add to it? 

Inna Topiler: I don’t think there is such a thing as foods that fight stress, per se.  But there is an eating style that can further tax your adrenal glands and make it harder to move on with energy and optimism, or support them.  People don’t always realize that stress is multi-faceted.  It’s not just emotional; you can have physical stress too.  When you have blood sugar dysregulation—you’re not eating enough protein and eating a lot of processed carbs with a lot of sugar—you’re spiking your blood sugar every time you eat.  If you’re in emotional distress, your adrenals are already taxed.  If you then eat processed carbs, you’re doing a double disservice to your body by creating physical stress on top of the emotional stress.  You still have to do some emotional stuff for that stress aspect, but your diet has a big effect. 

Wendy Paris: Can you explain what you mean by “tax your adrenal system?”

IT: Your adrenals are an acute response system.  Your cortisal will spike, and then drop.  With ongoing stress, they could be overworking and then underworking. They rise and then fall again and again, and it makes you exhausted.  In the extreme case, true adrenal fatigue is when it’s so bad that people can’t go on with their day.  It takes a long time to get there, of course.  One stressful event won’t cause that, but if you don’t take care of yourself over months and months, or years and years of working nonstop, then that can happen. 

Wendy Paris.  What about foods that boost your mood, like chocolate?  In my experience, chocolate definitely can make you feel better. 

IT: Foods that boost mood are those that are high in omega fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, but the idea of eating to boost your mood is also largely about food marketing.  You would need to eat a lot of salmon to boost your mood.  Chocolate will artificially make you feel good because of the sugar.  There is magnesium in it, too, but you’d need to eat a lot of chocolate to get the benefit of the magnesium. 

Wendy Paris: I can eat a lot of chocolate. 

IT: I think it’s more that you feel good because something tastes good, and chocolate does have endorphins. But the endorphins of chocolate are temporary.  You feel better for an hour, but then it’s gone.  It’s different than exercise, which gives you endorphins, but also is really good for you.  It has a lot of benefits.  When we think about eating to reduce stress or make you feel better, we want an eating style that is good for you generally, not just a short-term boost.  Chocolate also gives you sugar and fat and things that aren’t good for you. 

Caffeine is similar.  You don’t want to use caffeine as a long-term energy solution during ongoing stress. You’re already pushing your adrenals by the stress, then over-stimulating them with caffeine, which makes them weaker.  You’re just stimulating your adrenals and then crashing, and stimulating your adrenals and then crashing.  It’s not sustainable.  If you keep you doing it, you can get adrenal fatigue.  It makes you tired. You won’t have energy for your day.  It can also get your whole hormonal system off whack, affect your thyroid and other necessary processes in your body, like digestion and immune system.  That’s when people start getting sick all the time, and getting allergies. 

Wendy Paris: Okay, so what CAN we do with our diet to help ease stress, or at least not make it worse? 

IT: A lot!  You eat three, four or five times a day, more often than you’d ever take a supplement or medicine. Everything that you put into your system affects your hormones and what you need for your adrenal glands. 

Try this:

1. Make sure all your meals are balanced.

I know people are busy, and they can’t always have all the food groups together, but at least try to have some protein with a carb, rather than the carb by itself.  Ideally, a meal contains a protein, a good fat, a vegetable, and a carb that is whole grain.

2. Eat protein snacks.

Instead of grabbing potato chips—a processed white starch—grab a couple of turkey slices with some hummus and vegetables. You could add some whole grain crackers if you want. They’re crunchy like a chip, but it’s a better crunch.

3. Support your vitamin Bs. 

We deplete our B vitamins much quicker when we’re under stress. We use them four times as quickly. Leafy vegetables and whole grains are high in B vitamins. That will help your adrenals function better, even when you’re under stress.

4. Try gentle forms of caffeine and coffee substitutes.

If you really need the caffeine, use hot cocoa instead of coffee, and for a few days, at least, start eating in a really balanced way, with protein at every meal and snack.  That will give you natural energy that’s more stable. Buy unsweetened cocoa powder and make hot chocolate with water, and a little bit of Stevia and almond milk. It can give you that energy and boost without that negative affect. You can also replace coffee with dandelion root extract, which is good for you. Teccino and Dandy-Blend are two you can get that you can drink hot. They’re brown, and have that roasted coffee flavor.

5. Consider supplements.

You can also use supplements to really support your adrenals and fight adrenal fatigue. See an integrative nutritionist for supplements or a clinical nutritionist, a naturopath doctor or integrative doctor who works with supplements.  

Wendy Paris: Thank you!


Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle,,, Family Law Quarterly, and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.