No matter what stage of life you’re in, you may feel more stressed now than you did a few years ago. Over time, those everyday pressures can lead to depression, anger, and physical symptoms like an upset stomach.
There’s no way to stop stressful situations from happening. But when they do arise, you can help your body and mind handle them better. A healthy diet, regular exercise, relaxation techniques, and supplements for stress can help.
It may sound too good to be true. How can foods and supplements benefit your mental health? The key is to target inflammation, says Sean Hashmi, MD, physician and regional director of weight management and clinical nutrition for Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
Inflammation is your body’s way of healing from illness and injury. But inflammation can also happen when you’re not sick or hurt. It can be set off by lifestyle factors, like long-term stress. Over time, inflammation can lead to major health problems, like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. By lowering inflammation throughout your body, you can improve your total health.
Protect your brain and body
What’s good for the body is good for the mind. If you’re hoping to improve your physical and mental health, food can be powerful medicine. Whole ingredients like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbs can help you feel better — inside and out. In fact, studies show eating whole grains and fatty fish and cutting back on refined sugar may help prevent depression.1
Want to make a whole-food diet even better for your brain? Try adding turmeric, ginger, and flaxseeds, says Dr. Hashmi. These foods help lower inflammation throughout your body, which can improve your overall health.
Turmeric contains curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. It boosts a protein in the brain that’s important in memory and learning, says Dr. Hashmi. It also may help reduce symptoms of depression.2
For the most benefit, cook with the actual root, Dr. Hashmi says. You can grate it into stews, soups, and chili. Or cook eggs, chicken, vegetables, and potatoes with a few dashes of dried spice. Be sure to add some black pepper too — it helps your body absorb the turmeric.3
Ginger is known for helping digestion. But it also may help with brain function. In one study, ginger boosted memory, recognition, and reaction time in middle-aged women.4
Like with turmeric, you’ll get the most health benefits if you cook with the root. You can also add it to smoothies or steep a few slices with your tea.
Ground flaxseeds are a type of omega-3 fatty acid that may help reduce the risk of stroke, says Dr. Hashmi. Flaxseed helps lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol (LDL).5,6 Both of these health issues increase the risk of stroke.
“Everybody can use a little bit more flaxseed in their diet,” says Dr. Hashmi. Sprinkle ground flaxseed on salad or cereal, use it to thicken a smoothie, or add to baked goods. You can use it to make a vegan egg replacement in recipes like pancakes and muffins. Just soak 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed in 2.5 tablespoons of water for about 5 minutes.
Help your body find balance
If you want extra support to feel calmer and happier and get better sleep, adaptogens may help. Adaptogens are herbs, plants, or mushrooms that help your body better manage stress. They reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that affects your mood.7
Adaptogens have gained popularity in the United States recently. But many have been part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years. Here are Dr. Hashmi’s picks for adaptogens that help reduce stress and lower inflammation.
If you often reach for caffeine or sugar for a midday pick-me-up, you may want to try ashwagandha. This adaptogenic herb is used to lower stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Ashwagandha can help relieve symptoms of mild depression, says Dr. Hashmi. It may also lessen stress-related food cravings and make it easier to focus.8,9
You can take ashwagandha as a powder (mixed into a smoothie or tea), liquid, or pill. It can take time to work, so use it as often as directed to see the best results.
Note: You shouldn’t use ashwagandha if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Lion’s mane mushroom
This medicinal mushroom, which looks similar to a shaggy lion’s mane, is rising in popularity because it may offer certain health benefits. Animal studies have found that lion’s mane mushroom may help prevent age-related memory loss, but more human studies are needed.10 In a small study of women, it helped ease mild anxiety and depression compared with a placebo.11
Lion’s mane is often sold as a powder, tea, or coffee additive. Some people take it as a substitute for caffeine with the goal of improving mental performance and focus.
If you’re interested in adding these foods and supplements to your routine, be sure to talk to your doctor first. Some aren’t right for everyone and taking a lot at once can interfere with certain medications. Supplements are not regulated by the federal government, so you should research different brands and look for ones that are certified by a third party. And also check trustworthy sources like the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
More stress-fighting strategies
The foods and supplements listed above can be part of a healthy lifestyle, but they can’t replace mental health care. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by depression or anxiety, talk with your doctor.
And for more inspiration on how to stress less, check out our wellness resources — including self-care apps to help with stress, sleep, anxiety, and more.