We’ve all battled stress and anxiety, especially lately. Whether it’s finals at school, a burning hot work deadline or a global pandemic, most stressors in our lives are things we can’t control or avoid.
But we can better equip our bodies to deal with that stress through nutrition.
Nutrition is more than just fuel for motion. It also affects the levels of “stress” hormones (such as cortisol) and “happy” hormones (such as serotonin and dopamine). Poor nutrition can make your body release too much of one and not enough of the other, but better nutrition can actually make you feel happier.
So which nutrients can help? Of course, we’re all looking for the natural chill pill – that one supplement that will ease our worries. And there have been lots of studies on specific supplements and stress. But dietitians like me are always going to advise you to go “food first”: That means getting as many nutrients from your meals as possible before you reach for vitamin pills and powders.
Why go “food first” for nutrients?
Many nutrients are dependent on one another. For instance, you need vitamin D to absorb calcium, and you need fat to process vitamin D. So as a rule of thumb, you want to eat a variety of foods, especially foods that have a lot of different nutrients in them – foods we call “nutrient dense.” Fresh, minimally-processed food is usually more nutrient dense than highly processed food.
Milk (real dairy milk from cows) is definitely nutrient dense: It has 13 “essential nutrients” (a fancy dietitian term that means a single serving of milk has at least 10% of your daily value of that nutrient). The milk you buy at the store probably came out of a cow just a couple of days ago from a dairy farm within 100 miles of your house. And the processing of milk is very minimal.
But how does milk help with stress, specifically?
Several of milk’s nutrients have been studied for their potential power to make us feel calmer and happier.
B Vitamins. Significant research indicates that B vitamins can help improve your mood and decrease stress.
- How many are in milk? One serving contains a large part of your daily value of B2 (30%), B3 (15%), B5 (20%) and B12 (50%). And three daily servings (as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) would account for 90%, 45%, 60% and 150% of your daily values, respectively.
Vitamin D. This is that vitamin you can also get from the sun – but not as much in the cooler months. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to several areas of brain health, including depression and anxiety. Some scientists believe that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the “winter blues,” may be caused by vitamin D deficiency.
- How much is in milk? Milk is fortified with vitamin D: One glass has 15% of your daily value – that’s 45% if you drink three glasses per day.
- How much is in milk? Every ounce of milk has a gram of protein – so an 8-ounce serving is 8 grams of protein. It’s also got two types of protein: whey, which your body digests quickly, and casein, which is digested more slowly. It’s like a time-released protein shake.
Melatonin and tryptophan (maybe). A mug of warm milk before bed is a legendary sleep aid, and some research indicates this is due to the melatonin and tryptophan in milk. Other experts credit psychological causes, such as childhood memories of having warm milk before bed.
So what’s your favorite dairy stress reliever? A morning latte to help you take on the day? A mid-afternoon parfait to keep you going till dinner? Or how about this lavender milk steamer to help you wind down for bed? Check out our recipes for ideas!