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Life can often get in the way of what matters to us most: peace. When we feel off-balance, we tend to experience high levels of stress that deter us from enjoying all of the wonderful things our world has to offer. People take many different avenues for coping with this feeling, and it’s no secret that comfort food is one of them.

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Back in 1997, the Oxford English Dictionary even added the definition for “comfort food,” referencing Southern cooking staples like grits and black-eyed peas. But in reality, comfort foods are timeless. From a loaf of bread to a big bowl of pasta, a heaping mound of ice cream to a sweet apple pie, some foods just seem to soothe the soul. But is there any scientific proof to back this up?

Research Weighs In

Shira Gabriel, who is an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, along with colleagues from SUNY-Buffalo and the University of the South, conducted a pair of experiments to study how comfort food might provide something social to us. 
Through these experiments, they discovered that comfort foods might not be correlated with calories but rather with the associations they call to mind. For instance, people with good family relationships are likely to desire foods that remind them of their family when they are sad. A 2011 study found a similar outcome in regards to chicken soup, which is often a food consumed during times of sickness. The study discovered that the soup was more satisfying for individuals with stronger emotional relationships.
Of the findings, Gabriel noted, “I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning. If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging. But if, when you’re a child, those connections are more anxiety-ridden . . . then when you’re older and you eat those foods, you may feel less happy.”Other research seems to debunk the idea of comfort foods as a means for easing upset feelings. One study asked participants to disclose their go-to comfort foods and then exposed them to upsetting movies that would shift their moods to a poor state. When the study authors granted them their foods, they found that, while the comfort foods did help to improve their moods, so did the foods they said they also enjoyed, as did consuming nothing. The study discovered that comfort foods may simply be just an excuse to satisfy a desire for a favorite food.
So, with the idea that comfort foods don’t actually soothe us from our negative feelings or onset of stress-related bad moods, are there actually any foods that can? The short answer to that question is yes.

Foods That Soothe The Soul

With the idea of “comfort foods” set aside, the notion that food in general can make us spiral into fits of joy should not be discredited. And as for foods that can actually promote relaxation, which is what people searching for foods they find comforting often relay as their reason for biting into a piece of pizza, there are actually foods that have been shown to boost levels of serotonin as well as dopamine release and transmission.

1. Asparagus

A folic acid deficiency can cause your body to feel anxious or depressed. Asparagus is rich in folate, which is a source of vitamin B that converts to folic acid when ingested — alleviating the onset of stress by producing mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. A study conducted in 2012 even linked the consumption of folate to the reduction of depression.

2. Berries

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Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are a great source of vitamin C, which works to balance the body’s production of the stress hormone called cortisol. Increased levels of this hormone can have some nasty side effects including a spike in blood pressure and heart rate.

3. Flax seeds

Flax is rich in Omega-3. These fatty acids reduce inflammation in the brain and have been found to fight off both depression as well as anxiety. Andrew Stoll, MD, even notes that, given plentiful research, it’s been found that increasing the body’s intake of omega-3 “has direct effects on serotonin levels.” Furthermore, flax seeds are a good source of the mineral magnesium, which is also linked to regulating emotions and enhancing well-being.

4. Dark Chocolate

While some associate sweet treats with the feeling of comfort, there’s actually a chemical reason behind why dark chocolate does the trick. Dark chocolate comes complete with the neurotransmitter anandamide. Produced in the brain, this chemical temporarily hinders feelings of pain and depression.

5. Lavender

Touted as one of the best medicinal herbs for healing, you can drink it or even sniff it to achieve a sense of relaxation. It’s also a common holistic remedy for treating headaches, improving sleep, and boosting the mood.

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