Can Salty Foods Reduce Stress?

If you reach for chips when you're stressed, a new study find you may have a good reason why

No wonder I love salt. New research from the University of Cincinnati shows that elevated levels of sodium may blunt the body's response to stress. According to the study’s researchers, those bowls of salty snack foods at your local bar could be doing more than wet your whistle: They could also help alleviate social anxiety (and I thought that’s what the alcohol was for).

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that a jumbo slug of sodium may help lower the stress response by increasing levels of the so-called cuddle hormone, oxytocin, which is a bit like a stress antidote. At the same time, salt also appeared to block the release of the stress hormone angiotensin II. Scientists suspect that this chemical is responsible for setting off an inflammatory response when we’re in meltdown mode.

Of course, we wouldn’t recommend chowing down on salt-laden snacks just to keep your stress levels down, or you could find yourself face-to-face with a host of other health issues, like high blood pressure and heart disease. High-stress situations do a number the cardiovascular system as it is. You know the symptoms -- sweaty palms, racing heart, veins throbbing in your temples. If your body stays in that jacked up state for weeks or months or years -- God forbid -- that kind of hyper-arousal can put you on the road to heart attack city. Just this week, a new study reported that spending too much time at the office can increase the risk of a heart attack by a whopping 67 percent. A daily salt lick isn’t likely to help that. Research shows that if Americans cut just a half teaspoon of salt from their daily diet, it would prevent nearly 100,000 heart attacks a year.

More research is needed to determine how salt can affect stress in the long-term. The study, conducted on rats, could prove to have different results in people. Still, if you find yourself reaching for a bag of chips every time your boss comes down on you with an unrealistic request ("I need this yesterday!"), you may now have a very real reason why.

When we’re stressed, we self-medicate with all sorts of unhealthy behaviors. We stay up all night to get more work done, we stop going to the gym, we drink more, and we dig into fattening comfort food. Researchers studying the effects of stress on health suspect that these habits are part of the reason why stress is so bad for us. They compound the problem – even though they make us feel better. A 2003 study (again in rats) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that comfort foods (sugar and lard, mmm…) activate pleasure areas of the brain. This, in turn, reduces certain stress responses and makes us feel better. If only fried dough and powdered sugar could cure what ailed us.

Instead, when you’re feeling stressed, one of the best antidotes is exercise. Not only will it help put the brakes on your stress and give you a nice little runner’s high, it will actually help you cope better and strengthen your immune system against the ravages of stress. Other good-for-you stress busters: spending time with friends and laughing. Of course, if you want to add a margarita with salt to the mix, well, who are we to stop you?  

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