Anxious or stressed? (Who isn't right now?) The key is to figure out the right foods to reach for when stress, anxiety, and everyday worry takes over your brain. Other than getting exercise and a good night's sleep, food is the most powerful medicine you can reach for, says this doctor. Here is his prescription for what to eat and drink when you need to feel calmer fast.

1. Eat loud crunchy snacks like nuts

"When it comes to that natural stress reaction, we need something crunchy," says Dr.Jonathan  Dr. Clinthorne, a Ph.D. in Nutrition, who has researched extensively on the connection between nutrition and mood, is the nutrition communications manager for Atkins, and has written a new paper: Good Mood, Good Food: A Wellness Guide to Superfood Mood Balancers.  "For me, that means almonds and nuts and seeds. And those are great sources of magnesium and that helps calm the neurotransmitters in our brains."

Why do humans find solace in crunching down on foods that make that satisfying sound as we mash our teeth? "For some reason crunching on foods can be helpful to our brains," Dr. Clinthorne says. It's practically caveman-like. Hearing our own crunching in our head is calming, and makes us realized we are eating something. A Mental Floss story on the science of why we love loud crunchy foods adds this: "Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels."

So whether you're eating nuts, celery, snap peas, or other "loud" foods you can tell yourself that just the act of hearing yourself chew these crunchers is a therapeutic endeavor. "It's easy to slurp down something not good for us. but crunchy food, on the other hand, helps us since it signals the brain that we know we are eating. When you eat nuts, it is both crunchy and savory. When you eat nuts you are satisfying your brain by bringing in food that tells the brain, all is well, we are being fed. It turns out we need that reward."

2. Reach for healthier-for-you comfort food, like dark chocolate

Some people need to satisfy their stress with comfort food, especially chocolate, which contains chemical compounds that are beneficial to your brain chemistry called methylxanthines, which are in cacao and chocolate and coffee. In a study called Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate, the authors studied why humans throughout time have brewed drinks with these compounds and discovered that they help your brain focus and result in more efficient thinking, but without the serious side effects of drugs. So these phytochemicals in chocolate and coffee allow your brain to process the work at hand, which can lead you out of a stressful situation.

The study adds: "Apart from the benefits for day-life activities, methylxanthines may even be considered instrumental for health-maintenance.... In fact, chocolate/cacao does not generally produce insomnia or cause anxiety."

3. Avoid sugar, especially hidden sugars in processed foods

We all know to stay away from sweets, which sends us on a rollercoaster of highs and lows throughout the day, but the most dangerous foods are those packed with hidden sugars that trick us into thinking we're eating healthy food when in fact we are surging our insulin response and then crashing again.

"A lot of foods you would not expect to have sugar do, and in America, we are so programmed to eat sugary foods we don't think about it," says Dr. Clinthorne. "The worst thing to eat when you're stressed is sugar. You start consuming it when you're stressed and want more sugar and more sugar and then end up feeling bad about ourselves. So tell yourself: "I am just staying away from sugary foods" is the best idea.

Does alcohol count as sugar? "I think alcohol is a great question We know that in higher doses it activates our flight and flight mechanism, so if stress is the issue, definitely stay away from higher levels," says Dr. Clinthorne. "People who do not have trouble with sleep, a little is fine. But as long as you stay away from sugary mixes, it's fine. But even tonic water has sugar in it. What is a small amount? For a lot of people, that's two or more drinks. You can tell when your heart rate goes up when you're drinking."

4. Eat most of your calories earlier in the day and a light supper

A day of stress-free eating:

Breakfast looks like a smoothie with some veggies like frozen spinach, avocado, coconut milk or oat milk, then add any fruit or veggies you have lying around. Start with a mix of healthy fats like the avocado and then add fiber from the spinach and fruit and the carbs are built-in. The oat milk adds protein. Those healthy fats and fiber will make me feel good all morning.

Lunch is usually what I call my big-ass salad. I add as many vegetables as I can get in there. and usually not afraid of putting it in the calories in the form of nuts and seeds. I get most of my calories at lunch. Make it the highest caloric meal of the day.

Then I like a smaller dinner. I choose a plant-based protein source like whole grains or a sheet pan of roasted vegetables we may crumble some cheese on top, and that can be dairy-free cheese if you're eating plant-based, says Dr. Clinthorne. I am one of those people who sees the benefits of eating more plants.

5. Exercise every day, even if it's gardening or mowing the lawn

This is important. "Exercise. I am an exercise junky. I think everyone should get physical activity in some ways shape or form," says Dr. Clinthorne. "Be active whether gardening or walking or mowing the lawn. It doesn't have to be a 100-mile bike ride, just has to be something you enjoy. But don't want you to get intimated or turned off so just get out there."

"The reason is that our bodies release anti-stress compounds that are almost like CBD in response to exercise," says Dr. Clinthorne. "The brain works by responding to the stress of exercise with endorphins and they stick around long after you  stop working out."

The anti-stress hormones are endorphins he adds. "I am evidence-based, and they can measure these in the lab. Some people feel worse after exercise and if you are one who struggles with endorphins either you are doing the wrong exercise or going too hard... if you do that you will feel awful. So switch it up or go easier on your body."

So exercise is the first and most important thing you can do, for stress, every day. get it done in the morning. It doesn't have to be running 5 miles. You can get it in much faster. A tone-up session on your livingroom rug works, but get your heart rate up.

6. Eat more plant-based foods, full of fiber and good for gut health

"Everyone needs to eat more vegetables since they help us by delivering important antioxidants and nutrients to keep us healthy. But they are also high in fiber which makes you feel fuller longer and keeps your gut healthy, which sends the right signals to our brains for our mood," says Dr. Clinthorne.

"But it's also smart to eat berries, especially blueberries, and since they actually have a low glycemic index, you can use berries to satisfy your cravings if you have a sweet tooth. We should all eat more raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries which are full of antioxidants to make us feel good. Eating high fiber foods helps us by keeping the gut healthy, since healthy with probiotics help us improve our overall mental health as well."

7. Drink more water since mood and dehydration are linked, studies show

Surprising fact: Dehydration is related to your mood. "There is really fascinating research being done around dehydration and mood. Just being dehydrated can cause you to have a negative outlook. You might be bummed out and feeling irritable or angry and in fact, you're just dehydrated," says Dr. Clinthorne. "So drink a little extra water and you might pop out of it.

"Think of how important water is to all our physiological functions, and as human beings not being able to find water is a source of survival, which means being dehydrated activates our fight or flight responses in the brain. So instead of eating, go drink a tall glass of water."

8. Get sunlight early in the morning and get to bed earlier at night

Sunlight in the morning has been proven to help elevate mood. Studies on light cycles show that while bright light at night can depress mood, sunlight in the morning boosts your brain mechanisms and mood. Still, the changing seasons can affect your mood, so in the fall, it's even more important to get sunlight for your wellbeing, studies have found.

"There is extensive research on how UVA and UVB rays from sunlight affect our brains," Dr. Clinthorne adds, "Since the UVB rays are important for vitamin D synthesis, while the UVA rays on our skin help us feel our neurotransmitters and help boost our mood." So first thing as the sun gets up, you should open your blinds and check the weather and if it's sunny, get outside.

The second half of that equation is to get to bed earlier so that you don't have to struggle to get out of bed in the morning. The earlier you get to bed, the better it is for your health, your mood, and your overall ability to fight stress and stay away from junk food the next day.

9. If gaining weight is stressing you out, start a healthy weight loss plan

"Everyone is stressed out and many of us have put on pounds during this time, so if that is stressing you out or impacting your mood, there are strategies to lose weight during this time that work effectively and quickly.

"If you control blood sugar, you are going to lose weight, and there are a lot of different eating patterns you can choose and still lose weight."The key is to find the plan that is right for you: Mediterranean or vegetarian or vegan diets are compatible with the Atkins Diet," he says.

Or try The VegStart Diet, which is a healthy weight loss plan that helps you shed pounds in 14 days on a plant-based diet.

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