Bastyr University adheres to a whole-food philosophy that guides all of its nutrition programs, emphasizing the consumption of a variety of foods in their least-processed forms. When assessing health and wellness, the university integrates mind, body, and spirit by drawing connections between whole food, exercise science and health psychology.

This month, Isabella Passentino and Maggie Wissler from Bastyr's Department of Nutrition talk about how what you eat can affect the way you handle stress.

The Nature of Stress

Humans are hard-wired to experience what we call “stress” as a natural defense that offers a surge of adrenaline to fuel our fight or flight response to dangerous situations.

These days we might not be facing off with hungry lions, but our physiology still operates under the same system as we face work deadlines, monthly bills, or life changes like moving to a new home.

While short bursts of stress can actually be advantageous in some situations (like trying to outrun a predator or your opponent in a race), chronic stress is bad for your mental and physical health and has been shown to contribute to chronic disease.

Combating Chronic Stress

Quality sleep, meditation, and physical activity are all important to combating stress, and what we eat can make a huge difference, as well.

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet can make you feel better in every situation, but certain foods offer the added stress-busting benefit of increasing our levels of serotonin, a feel-good hormone, while decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.



Oatmeal is a heart-healthy complex carbohydrate, which means it has a slower transit time during digestion. This may help you feel more satiated and may also increase production of serotonin in the brain. More serotonin production can lead to a happier mood.

Besides the physical benefits, a warm bowl of oats is basically the culinary version of a hug. Try adding an ounce of dark chocolate and a sprinkle of cinnamon to your oats for a sweet start to the day, or top with slices of avocado and a fried egg for a savory treat.


It’s hard to believe how many nutrients are packed into one tiny almond. Not only do they contain magnesium, a micronutrient found to improve sleep and relaxation, they also boast considerable amounts of vitamin E, which has been linked with decreased cortisol levels.

Similar benefits can be found in walnuts, pistachios, flax seeds, and chia seeds.

Grab a handful for a healthy snack, sprinkle a few on your salad or oatmeal, or crush them and use as a gluten-free breading on baked chicken or vegetables.


Avocados are packed with nutrients like fiber, potassium, and magnesium, as well as unsaturated “healthy” fatty acids and B vitamins that can help lessen anxiety, boost concentration, and improve mood.

Creamy, rich avocados are versatile, lending a wonderful texture and flavor to sandwiches, soups, salads, or even sweet smoothies. Add them to almost anything.

Collard Greens

Did you know a serving of collard greens provides more vitamin C than an orange? It’s true of all leafy greens, from spinach and kale to broccoli.

The vitamins in these nutrient dense vegetables have been shown to help diminish stress levels and reduce cortisol. Leafy greens also contain high amounts of magnesium, which may help relax nerves and muscles.

An easy way to incorporate greens into your meals is by adding them to your soups, salads, or smoothies, or tossing them into a quick sautéd stir fry. Try this nutritionist-approved recipe for collard wraps.


Salmon is packed with healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help decrease stress levels and ease depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially the subtypes DHA and EPA, are found only in fish and microalgae, and may reduce both cortisol and adrenaline levels in the blood.

Salmon is especially high in omega-3s, but tuna, halibut, sardines, and trout also contain DHA and EPA.

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