7 Super Duper Foods to Reduce Stress and Cancer Risk

Stress has a way of bringing out the worst in us. It can pull the strings on our emotions, making us irritable, sad, anxious, tense, or make our thoughts race nonstop. For those who struggle with prolonged (chronic) stress, these symptoms can disrupt daily life and even increase the risk of life-threatening conditions, including cancer.


How Stress Affects Cancer Risk

The body’s natural stress reaction, known as “fight or flight,” kicks in when it senses danger, like hearing a sudden loud noise. It prompts the body to release cortisol and adrenaline, raising heart rate, blood pressure, and sugar levels. The body can remain in this state for 20 to 60 minutes after the threat passes, which is how long the parasympathetic nervous system takes to calm down. However, the stress response may persist when a person faces constant stress.

How the body responds to stress varies per person. Some people may have an overactive stress response due to genetics or trauma. When the body doesn’t return to its normal state, it can lead to inflammation in the body, raising the risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, and cancer.

“Chronic stress creates something of a perfect storm, where precancerous cells can grow and flourish,” reveals Dr. Ankur Parikh, Medical Director at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

In people already diagnosed with cancer, research shows that stress furthers tumor growth. “We know that high-stressed cancer patients tend to have a harder time in treatment and recovery, and it makes sense that cancer might be harder to treat or more aggressive in these patients,” adds Dr. Parikh.


Stress-Relieving Foods That May Help Lower Cancer Risk

picture of a bowl with sliced fuits

Avoiding all stressors is impossible in this day and age. However, you can help your body handle stress for better mental and physical health. In particular, did you know certain foods can help relieve stress and reduce cancer risk?

The science is simple: Being less stressed might lower your cancer risk. While individual cancer risk factors still matter, here’s what you need to eat to fight stress and stay as healthy as can be:


1. Beans and Lentils

Diets that include legumes, like beans and lentils, offer many health perks, from lowering the risk of heart disease to lifting mood. Beans and lentils pack in nutrients that help regulate mood and cope with stress, such as amino acids like L-tryptophan and minerals like magnesium.

A 2022 study involving 8,640 people concluded that those who ate more legumes were 26% less likely to experience high stress. The researchers pointed out that legumes are rich in fiber and antioxidants, including polyphenols and carotenoids, which can diminish stress and inflammation in the body. Stress can cause inflammation, and people with high stress levels often have more inflammation and oxidative stress.

Adding at least four servings a week of beans and lentils to your diet might help ease stress and reduce the associated inflammation.


2. Fatty Fish

Fatty fish, including all-time favorites like salmon and tuna, have stress-relieving properties like omega-3, vitamin D, fats, L-tryptophan, and L-tyrosine. They help regulate cortisol and adrenaline levels, as well as aid the body in producing mood-regulating chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

In simpler words, a higher intake of these nutrients may help decrease stress, improve mood, and even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The American Heart Association proposes eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week to maximize the health benefits of these nutrients. But fair warning: not all fish is good for you!


3. Berries

Berries contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help with mood regulation, cognitive function, and stress response. In a 2022 study, the participants who ate the most fruit were 16%, 25%, and 27% less likely to feel unhappy, worried, and tense compared to those who ate the least. Moreover, diets with plenty of blueberries, raspberries, goji berries, and others feel more positive and have less mental strain.

Aim to consume at least 1/2 cup of fresh or frozen berries daily to fuel your body with immune-strengthening vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.


4. Matcha

Matcha, a powdered green tea originating in China and developed in Japan, has compounds that can regulate mood, cognition, and stress. L-theanine, an amino acid in matcha, helps modulate specific pathways and influences receptors in the brain to reduce stress and anxiety.

In a 2019 study with 36 participants, those who ate cookies containing matcha daily for 15 days showed lower stress marker levels than those who didn’t eat the cookies. However, due to the study’s small cohort, follow-up investigations are necessary to further understand the link between matcha and stress relief.

While you can drink matcha daily, keep in mind that it’s high in caffeine. Some of its beneficial compounds, like catechins, may also be harmful in high quantities. Therefore, consume matcha in moderation, or around 1 to 2 cups a day.


5. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate can help tame stress in two ways: through its emotional effects and chemical impact.

Simply enjoying a piece of chocolate feels like a treat and provides a sense of relief. In addition, dark chocolate, rich in antioxidants, may lower stress hormones in the body.

As long as you’re healthy and have no dietary restrictions, you may treat yourself to an ounce or two of dark chocolate per day, but ensure it doesn’t contain excessive added sugars. Look for labels with minimal ingredients and always choose a higher cocoa content. A 2022 study found that dark chocolate with 85% cocoa may enhance mood more effectively than those with 70% cocoa.

P.S. You know what’s better than dark chocolate? Dark chocolate almonds.


6. Fermented Foods

Kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and other fermented foods promote a healthy gut, but they might lift your mood and reduce stress, too. Since the gut and brain are closely connected, choosing foods that support healthy gut bacteria could boost mental well-being.

In a 2023 study with 45 participants, some followed a diet rich in foods known to influence gut bacteria, including fruits, veggies, grains, legumes, and two to three servings of fermented foods daily. Others followed a standard diet. After four weeks, the participants on the gut-friendly diet had a significant 32% drop in stress levels, while the control group didn’t show improvements in stress levels. Those who followed the diet strictly experienced even greater stress reduction.

For the best health benefits, start by eating one or two servings of fermented foods per day and then work your way up.


7. Leafy Greens and Cruciferous Vegetables

Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, including Swiss chard, spinach, and broccoli, are full of stress-reducing nutrients like vitamin C, carotenoids, and magnesium.

Magnesium is crucial for managing stress, and not getting enough can make coping more difficult. Chronic stress can also lead to magnesium loss through urination, heightening the risk of deficiency.

Just one cup of cooked spinach gives you nearly 40% of your recommended magnesium intake. While it won’t make you super strong like Popeye, it may help you deal with life’s stressors.


Eat Your Way to Calm

photo of a person eating a bowl of salad
Eating stress-relieving foods like fish, legumes, berries, and kimchi may make a big difference in how you experience and cope with stress. So, instead of reaching for unhealthy snacks during a rough day, try grabbing any of the above super duper foods throughout and beyond National Stress Awareness Month and National Cancer Control Month.