Oatmeal: Ah, the joys of carbs. In just 20 minutes (the time it
takes to digest a bowl of oatmeal) they can have you grinning like you've
popped a Valium. "When you eat a carbohydrate, your body sends an amino
acid called tryptophan into the brain to trigger the manufacture of serotonin,
a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tranquil and better able to cope,"
says Wurtman. Without carbs, your brain actually can't produce serotonin. That
may be why dieters who swear off starches tend to get angry, tense, and
depressed after just two weeks (Wurtman calls it Atkins Attitude). But that's
no license to OD on glazed doughnuts. You want carbs that are rich in fiber —
like whole-wheat pasta or beans — so that your body will absorb them slowly,
keeping serotonin flowing steadily; otherwise, you'll digest them in a jiffy,
causing a quick mood boost followed by another emotional low.
Pistachios: A handful is all you need to tame stress. Pistachios
contain fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids, all of which have
been linked to lower blood pressure in studies. And just 1 1/2 oz of these nuts
blunted the effects of stress on people taking a math test in a Penn State
University study. "Participants still found the test to be stressful, but
their blood pressure response was lower than when they took the same test while
consuming a low-fat diet," says study author Sheila West, Ph.D.
Milk: There's a reason your grandma touted warm milk as a
sleepy-time beverage. "Whey, the protein in milk, has been shown to
decrease anxiety and frustration," says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., author of
The Good Mood Diet. The calcium in dairy has also been shown to calm
muscles and help keep blood pressure in check, though these effects can take up
to a couple of weeks to kick in. In the meantime, Kleiner suggests, start a
ritual of heating up milk, adding cocoa powder and a bit of the natural
sweetener Stevia, and sipping it before hitting the sheets. "Ritual itself
can be a stress-reducer," she says. Plus, warm drinks are naturally
soothing and digest faster than cold ones.
Avocado: Not only is its thick, creamy texture inherently luxurious
but avocado is also high in monounsaturated fat and potassium, both of which
help lower blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood
Institute. Monounsaturated fat also helps keep receptors in the brain sensitive
to mood-boosting serotonin. (Not to mention that "getting too few calories
from fat makes people very grouchy," says Kleiner. Amen.) Half an avocado a
day should do the trick; slice it and add to a green salad, or mash it up to
make instant guacamole and eat it with baked corn tortillas.
Wine: Go ahead and indulge in a drink (or two) with your dinner. In
addition to offering disease-fighting antioxidants, "a glass of wine acts
as a central nervous system depressant; it initially relaxes us and lowers
blood pressure," says Kleiner. Just don't overindulge, she warns.
Too much depressing of the central nervous system can leave you feeling, well,
depressed — not to mention hungover the next day.