Stressed? Anxious? Food and Exercise Can Help

By: Lauren Zech, CSUN Dietetic Intern Cohort 2020-2021

You have probably heard the saying “mind over matter”. It basically means that if you are in the right mindset, you can overcome anything. But what happens when your mind is scrambled? What if you are swamped with assignments and have to study for exams while balancing work with your personal life. What is you have an upcoming interview that you are extremely nervous for? When you are stressed or anxious, your mind can lose its capability to think clearly and make decisions. If this occurs repeatedly, you can be left feeling down and lost. However, there may be a simple fix to this problem. The fix is so simple that you already include it in your daily routine. That’s right! Certain foods and exercise can help combat stress and anxiety. Let me explain how.  

The Gut-Brain Axis  

Your body is an interconnected web of many systems that all operate in order to keep us functioning day in and day out. One important relationship is the bidirectional one between your brain and your gut. Researchers call this the “gut-brain axis” – a very complex system that allows your central nervous system (i.e., brain and spinal cord) to communicate with a specific part of your autonomic nervous system located in your digestive tract.1 The gut-brain axis explains how your brain and gut interact when your body is introduced to some type of stress. Interestingly enough, the bacteria found in your intestines is really important! These bacteria are part of your microbiome, which encompasses all of the microscopic organisms that work hard to keep your body functioning properly.  


Did you know that the majority of the chemicals that signal emotions and feelings are made in your gut? Serotonin, responsible for feelings of happiness, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls feelings of anxiety and fear, are primarily produced in your gut. Researchers believe that a healthy gut and proper nutrient intake can help produce these neurotransmitters and help keep them in balance.2 

The following foods contain essential nutrients for the creation of neurotransmitters:3

  • Omega-3s: fish/shellfish (salmon, oysters, sardines), walnuts, soybeans, flaxseed, chia seed  
  • Folate: spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, legumes (pinto & black beans)    
  • Other B Vitamins: eggs, milk/dairy products, clams, fortified cereals 

Short-Chain Fatty Acids 

Something else your gut bacteria can do is produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) through the digestion of fiber. Researchers are discovering that fiber intake and SCFA production are important for brain function/health and can stimulate your nervous system.1  

These foods are great options for increasing your fiber:3 

  • Whole grains: oats, brown rice, quinoa 
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans 
  • Nuts: almonds, pistachios, pecans, peanuts  
  • Starchy vegetables: peas, potatoes  
  • Non-Starchy Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms 
  • Fruit: bananas, strawberries, apples   


When you become stressed, your body produces the hormone cortisol, which is your fight or flight hormone. It not only affects mechanisms controlled by your brain, but mechanisms that are also controlled by your gut bacteria.1 Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to higher-than-normal levels of cortisol, which can in turn cause inflammation. In addition, stress increases norepinephrine, a hormone responsible for increasing blood pressure and blood sugar, which can contribute to inflammation and cause an unfavorable bacteria environment in your gut.4  

Foods high in sugar can trigger the release of cortisol, making anxiety worse. It is best to avoid sugary foods. Instead, opt for foods that decrease the stress hormone levels such as:

  • Dark chocolate 
  • Fruit (apples, oranges, peaches, strawberries)  
  • Yogurt  
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts)  

Exercise Can Help 

Exercise can help reduce anxiety in a variety of ways. Researchers have found that cardio exercise can affect the body’s serotonin levels, leading to decreased anxiety.Try going for a 10-minute walk or take a bike ride to boost your serotonin levels. Cardio exercise may also help to increase the number of SCFA-producing bacteria in your gut, which can promote brain functioning and possibly explain the gut-brain axis link.6  Furthermore, exercise has the potential to control those hormones that cause inflammation. Focus on activities that feel good or allow you to blow off steam without getting yourself too worked up. Try walking outside, take a yoga class or play sports like basketball or tennis.  

Check out Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube. She has great videos for helping reduce stress. 

The Bottom Line  

When you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, try to not take it out on your body. It may be easier to turn to junk food and lay in bed all day but, incorporating exercise and healthy foods into your day can help your body combat stress and anxiety more efficiently. The Marilyn Magaram Center (MMC) often offers workshops centered around wellness and nutrition. Check out our events page to join upcoming workshops:


  1. Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015;28(2):203-209.  
  1. Lachance L, Ramsey D. Food, mood, and brain health: implications for the modern clinician. Mo Med. 2015;112(2):111-115.
  1. Gropper, S, Smith, JL. Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. 7th ed. Cengage Learning; 2012.
  1. Galland L. The gut microbiome and the brain. J Med Food. 2014;17(12):1261-1272. doi:10.1089/jmf.2014.7000
  1. Wipfli B, Landers D, Nagoshi C, Ringenbach S. An examination of serotonin and psychological variables in the relationship between exercise and mental health. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011;21(3):474-481. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01049.x
  1. Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, et al. Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018;50(4):747-757. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001495

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