By Cynthia Sass
December 19, 2011

As wonderful as the holidays are, the hustle and bustle can also be stressful. Unfortunately certain foods can amplify stress. Here are four to be aware of, and why they can up your anxiety:


I can't live without my morning cup of Joe, but sipping caffeinated drinks all day long or drinking more than your body is used to can cause your stress to simmer. Caffeine stimulates your nervous system, which means too much can lead to a rapid heartbeat and increase in blood pressure. It can also irritate your digestive system. Additionally, excess caffeine can interfere with sleep and trigger dehydration, which can zap energy and cause headaches.


A few sips of wine may make you feel relaxed, but imbibing can actually exacerbate stress. Alcohol stimulates the production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress, and research shows that stress and alcohol "feed" each other. A University of Chicago study looked at 25 healthy men who performed a stressful public speaking task and then a non-stressful control task. After each activity the subjects received fluid intravenously - either the equivalent of two alcoholic beverages or a placebo. The researchers measured effects such as anxiety and the desire for more alcohol, as well as heart rate, blood pressure, and the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) present. They found that alcohol can actually prolong feelings of tension brought on by stress, and stress can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol and spike cravings for more. Like caffeine, alcohol is also dehydrating and can interfere with sleep.

Refined Sugar

Not only are sugary foods typically stripped of nutrients, but the fluctuations they cause in blood sugar and insulin levels can lead to irritability and poor concentration. If you've ever overindulged in holiday goodies, you've probably experienced the not-so-merry moods swings associated with a brief sugar high, followed by a crash.

High-Sodium Foods

Fluid is attracted to sodium like a magnet, so when you take in surplus sodium, you'll retain more fluid. This extra fluid puts more work on your heart, ups your blood pressure, and leads to bloating, water retention and puffiness, all of which are side effects that can drain your energy and increase your stress level.

So what's the good news? Well, some foods can have the exact opposite effect, to reduce stress and help take the edge off. Tune into Access Hollywood Live Wednesday - I'll be sharing some deliciously effective stress busters with Billy Bush and Kit Hoover. I'll also share a few more not covered on the show here in Wednesday's blog post.

Do you get stressed this time of year? Do you know that that the foods mentioned above could add to the strain? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine!


Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches