Americans are incredibly stressed. Roughly 77 percent report physical symptoms related to stress. A 2007 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association found that one-third of Americans report experiencing extreme levels of stress. About one in five said they have high levels of stress 15 or more days per month. So what are we doing about it? Apparently, not enough.

Stress or being stressed is one of the chief complaints that bring people in to see me. Chronic stress and high cortisol have a direct effect on mood and optimism. Excess cortisol in the body shuts down serotonin, and when serotonin drops, risk of depression increases. High cortisol and excess stress also shut down the hormone melatonin. This may explain why we don’t sleep well when we’re under a lot of stress or when we overdo it with sugar. This lack of sleep prevents us from making GH (growth hormone), which is produced mainly while we are engaged in deep sleep.

Chronic, uncontrolled stress drives our cravings for sugar and other less-than-awesome foods and beverages. When you increase or abuse stimulants (such as caffeine), you add insult to injury. Having a daily cup or two of organic coffee or tea is fine; they both contain robust antioxidants. But when you overdo the brew, too much caffeine can send an already overtaxed, overcharged and overstimulated nervous system into overdrive. When this happens, your adrenal glands respond by producing excessive levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Being “too busy” is one of the primary reasons most of us don’t want to actually “deal with” our stress, yet there are fairly simple and effective ways to de-stress your life through prudent and empowering lifestyle and dietary choices. When it comes to lifestyle, a daily exercise routine is non-negotiable. Exercise can help lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. So can mediation. Surprised? Meditation may seem like the exact opposite of exercise, but meditation exercises our vagus nerve, which helps to—you guessed it—lower stress. Taking 10 minutes per day to focus on your breathing, specifically bringing your breath down into your belly and diaphragm and taking it out of your chest. This type of breathing signals the vagus nerve to tell the body that all is well, no need to stress.

Sugar and stress place excess pressure on our adrenal glands, and this makes us feel exhausted all the time, putting us at risk for anxiety. We tend to want to feed our emotions, and we crave comfort foods in the form of refined sugar and carbs (to boost serotonin). This vicious cycle leaves us unsatisfied, unhappy and, for some individuals, it can lead to weight gain. When we follow through on meal frequency, portion control and adequate fiber consumption, we are more likely to healthfully navigate our cravings. Here’s a guide of stress busting foods that you may consider, of course, individualizing this list to meet your particular dietary needs.

Awareness is the first step towards recognition that stress may be affecting your life. Action is what it is going to take to make a difference. The combination of meditation, clean eating and exercise each morning before you go out and give to the world is a powerful gift that you can give yourself and others.

STRESS BUSTING FOODS

Foods rich in Vitamin C: oranges, mango, guava, peppers, watermelon, lemon, papaya, grapefruit, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, strawberry, tomato, kale, cabbage

Carbohydrates that raise serotonin levels (by raising tryptophan levels): oatmeal, peanuts, granola, raisins, wheat germ, collard greens, whole wheat, yogurt, sweet potato, spinach

Foods rich in B5: turkey (dark meat), brewer’s yeast, peanuts, chicken (dark meat), egg, brown rice, sweet corn, lean beef, sweet potato, cashews, soy

Foods rich in B6: watermelon, salmon, banana, avocado, turkey and chicken, rainbow trout, tomatoes, soy, sunflower seeds, halibut, sweet potato, oats, tuna, brown rice, broccoli, beef, garbanzo beans, pineapple, walnuts, brewer’s yeast, hazelnuts

Foods rich in zinc: oysters, toasted wheat germ, turkey, cheese, Swiss chard, beef, pumpkin seeds, mustard greens, soy, tuna, baked potato, lima beans, ginger root, rice, lentils, leeks, sunflower seeds, cashews, pecans, whole grains

Foods rich in potassium: avocado, apricots, potato, cantaloupe, lima beans, parsnips, raisins, sardines, soy, broccoli, tomato, legumes, banana, milk, sweet potato, salmon, peach, spinach, mustard greens, turkey, celery, tuna, peanuts, papaya, asparagus, apple, cauliflower

Foods rich in magnesium: acorn squash, dates, artichokes, raisins, avocado, spinach, butternut squash, watermelon, figs, dairy products, meat, seafood, banana, black-eyed peas, blueberries, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans, potatoes, rice, sesame seeds, spinach, split peas, zucchini