By Amy Paturel, M.S., M.P.H. and Patricia Bannan, M.S., R.D. for EatingWell
If you're feeling stressed, take heart: What you eat and smell may help you de-stress. "The part of the brain that processes odors is very close to the [part that houses] emotions and memories," explains Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., M.P.H., a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. So when you sniff something you like, you tend to breathe more deeply, your blood pressure lowers and your heart rate slows -- all of which relax you. Eating some foods may help relax you too. So arm yourself with these soothing scents and tasty foods to cope when you are stressed.
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In one 2010 study, British researchers randomly assigned 340 dental patients to one of two groups. In the first, they diffused lavender oil with a ceramic candle warmer before the start of morning and afternoon clinics. With the second group the lavender oil was replaced with water. Their findings: The group exposed to the lavender scent reported significantly lower anxiety levels. And if it works during dental appointments, who's to say it can't work during other stressful times?
When you're stressed, the scent of coconut may blunt your natural "fight or flight" response, slowing your heart rate. People who breathed in coconut fragrance in a small pilot study at Columbia University saw their blood pressure recover more quickly after a challenging task. (Check out these 8 Ways to Lower Blood Pressure Naturally.) The researchers speculate that inhaling a pleasant scent enhances alertness while soothing our response to stress.
If you like the smell of green apples, embracing their aroma may help alleviate headaches, according to preliminary research. In one small study, people with chronic migraines reported some pain relief after inhaling green-apple fragrance at the start of a headache. (If you eat the apple, you could enjoy these 5 Surprising Health Benefits of Apples.)
Drinking caffeinated black, green or oolong tea varieties may elicit a more alert state of mind, says a study in The Journal of Nutrition. Researchers think theanine -- an amino acid present in these tea varieties -- may work synergistically with caffeine to improve attention and focus. To reap the benefits, the study's results suggest drinking five to six (8-ounce) cups of tea daily. And adding this one ingredient to your tea might make it healthier.
Overwhelmed by decadent holiday spreads? A little peppermint may help you stave off the urge to overdo it. When researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia evaluated hunger levels of peppermint sniffers versus nonsniffers, they found that those who wafted peppermint oil under their nose every two hours rated their hunger level lower, experienced fewer cravings and ate significantly less. "While the greatest effect from peppermint comes through inhaling the scent, peppermint gum, mints and flavored water have been found to produce similar effects," says Bryan Raudenbush, Ph.D., lead researcher and associate professor of psychology.
Recent research shows eating dark chocolate can help reduce levels of cortisol and catecholamines (hormones associated with stress), especially for those with high anxiety. (Here are four more health reasons to eat chocolate.) Go easy, though: Chocolate is calorically dense -- eating too much can pack on the pounds and that can lead to more stress.
Eating carbohydrates can stimulate the release of serotonin, your feel-good brain chemical. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults on a high-carb, low-fat diet were happier over the long term than those on a low-carb diet. Opt for whole grains, such as quinoa and oatmeal, which deliver more fiber and nutrients than refined ones.
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