By Carlin Flora, published on October 6, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables is perhaps the best all-around buffer against stress-related health problems, but carbohydrates will quickly soothe you in a tense moment, says Judith Wurtman, author with Nina Frusztajer Marquis of The Serotonin Power Diet, and a research scientist at MIT. Here, Wurtman explains why you should keep stress-zapping snacks on hand:
An empty stomach: Carbohydrates such as dry cereal contain tryptophans, which are amino acids that are converted into the serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is often called a "feel good" neurotransmitter—it has been shown to calm us down and restore mental energy. But to feel serotonin's lovely effects, it's best to eat on an empty stomach.
Portions are key: While we're fine with taking just one aspirin and waiting for the headache to fade, we often eat straight through our emotional crises, Wurtman says. Take in about 120 or 130 calories of carbohydrates, stop eating, wait 20 minutes, and you'll feel the effects without having stuffed yourself. Try, for example, a sandwich-sized portion of pretzels.
Sweet tooth: You can grab a handful of candy, as long as it's low in fat, such as a pack of Twizzlers. A sweet treat works just as well as a starchy one; both will spur serotonin production. But fruit sugar doesn't do it, so eat your banana later when you've decompressed.
Skip the bacon: If you choose, say, a small baked potato as your stress-suppressing snack, skip the butter topping. Fat will slow down the digestion process, delaying your much-needed serotonin boost. Protein completely thwarts serotonin production, so please skip the bacon too.
Stress busters: Wurtman found that women suffering from PMS—a predictable source of stress—felt much better after having a carbohydrate drink than a protein and carbohydrate concoction. "It made them less angry and much less tired," she says. A low-fat granola bar is a nice option if you are irritable but on the run.
Bad rap: Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap thanks to the popularity of protein-heavy plans such as the Atkin's diet. But eaten the right way—think jam on toast—they do provide an energy boost. For you dieters who are terrified of carbs, Wurtman says that serotonin is actually an appetite suppressant.
A little grazing: Often what makes an event stressful in the first place is its unexpected quality. That's why you should keep serotonin levels high during the day by snacking in between meals with foods like graham crackers, for instance. "If you have enough serotonin in your system at all times," says Wurtman, "you're not going to melt down."