Unanswered emails steadily piling up, conference call in 30, text from your college kid with a plea for a few extra bucks. Yes, it’s just another typical day — nothing that a steaming cup of joe can’t help you handle. But wait. Is that caffeine pick-me-up really what you want — or need, for that matter?
“Sometimes your mind is telling you it needs an energy boost to get through the tasks at hand, but what your body might really benefit from is a few moments of calm,” says Lisa Boalt Richardson, a regarded tea educator who writes the Lisa Knows Tea blog. After all, even low levels of stress — the kind that stem from an overflowing email inbox or a jam-packed day — spark the release of adrenaline and cortisol, two culprits that switch on the body’s fight-or-flight response.
“We get all of these messages from our peers and the media that drive us to keep going at full speed all day, but many times what will truly re-energize us isn’t a hyped-up beverage but something that will help us relax for just a few minutes,” says Boalt Richardson, whose latest book, "Modern Tea," will be out this fall.
The next time you’re tempted to brew a pot of coffee or crack open an energy drink, consider one of these stress-busting sips instead:
Tea is the obvious soothing beverage, and for good reason. Tea has three methylxanthines — caffeine, theophylline and theobromine. All are stimulants, but the latter two are also regarded as muscle relaxants. “So there is a pick-me-up element to tea, but it interacts within the body differently,” explains Boalt Richardson. “Where coffee picks you up and drops you, tea will sustain you. It’s a calming alertness.”
In fact, a University College of London study found that study participants who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks exited the experiment with lower levels of cortisol after stressful situations than did their non-tea-drinking peers.
The other calming factor in tea’s chemical makeup is an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been shown to increase the body’s levels of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that contribute to our overall sense of well-being. “Tea is the only known source of this particular amino acid and it contributes to tea's aroma,” she says. “L-theanine has psychoactive properties that reach the brain through the bloodstream rather quickly after consumption. It reduces stress, allowing the mind and body to relax.”
Her go-to brew for a tough afternoon is a jasmine green tea. “I don’t like the floral fragrance in the morning, but it relaxes me just enough in the middle of the day.” To wind down in the evening she switches to an herbal blend (“lavender mint is particularly soothing”) without the caffeine.
She says you’ll get the same effects from tea bags or loose leaf tea, but longer steeping times allow more of the relaxing chemicals to come out. And if iced tea is your thing, you’ll be happy to know that the benefits carry over when chilled.
A decidedly less obvious option for zoning out is a smoothie. When you deconstruct many of the frothy treats, you’ll find they’re often brimming with ingredients that have calming properties. The vitamin C found in berries and citrus fruits, for example, has been shown to be helpful in overcoming stress. Mangoes have a compound called linalool that helps to lower stress levels. Oatmeal, an up-and-coming smoothie staple, prompts the brain to produce the feel-good hormone serotonin. If you add some cashews, you’ll be getting a nice dose of zinc (having low blood levels of zinc has been linked to anxiety). The list goes on — avocados, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds are other good fixings you can toss into a blender for a blissful moment of zen.
“Certain foods can regulate our bodies and contribute to a feeling of calm,” says Tess Masters, a nutrition scientist who took her passion for concocting yummy, plant-based smoothies and launched The Blender Girl blog and upcoming cookbook. But more than just the individual parts, she says people can create a relaxing ritual built around smoothies. “It’s not just the ingredients that can help you relax, it’s also the idea of mindfully shifting your energy. So a chilled smoothie containing powerful calming foods sipped slowly over the course of 15 to 30 minutes can have the same effect as a cup of hot tea.”
Two of her favorite soothing smoothies are the Chard Black and Blue — made with chard, blackberries, blueberries, banana, ginger, lemon zest, and açai powder — and the Seedy Chocolate Banana Maca Malt, which combines hemp milk with spinach, bananas, cacao and maca powders, chia seeds, flaxseeds and dates. The last one is best enjoyed right from the blender, so you may need to keep this one in mind for the weekend, but many other smoothies can be made ahead of time and stored in your workplace refrigerator.
HOT (OR COLD) CHOCOLATE
Great tasting and great at combating stress? Pour us a hot mug — or a tall glass. The antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate (especially dark chocolate) have been shown to help lower blood pressure. Dark chocolate can help bring down levels of cortisol and other hormones associated with stress. Even better, combine the sweet stuff with some milk and you’ve got yourself a potent stress reliever. That’s because milk has certain proteins that studies have shown ease anxiety and boost mood.
You can make your own hot cocoa by slowly simmering dark chocolate chips and milk (it’s OK to add in a touch of your favorite sweetener). Up the soothing ante by dropping in a few sprigs of fresh mint as the mixture heats up. Or, try Chuao Chocolatier’s Spicy Maya Drinking Chocolate, infused with cinnamon and chile. In the evening, you can stir in a shot of spiced liquor.
If you’d rather have chocolate milk, bypass the high-fructose corn syrup varieties and make your own by blending together cold milk, dark cocoa powder, powdered sugar or liquid Stevia, and a dash of vanilla.
The Blender Girl Tess Masters also swears by warm, blended tonics. “Vegetables, plant-based milks, spices and herbs that are combined and then warmed are wonderful in the cooler weather or at the end of a long day,” she says.
She suggests this variation of an ancient recipe popular in India.
Tess Masters’ Blended Tonic
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (strained if homemade)
1 tablespoon raw cashews (blanched raw almonds or shelled pistachios would also work)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
pinch ground cardamom (optional)
2 pitted soaked dates or 5 drops alcohol-free liquid stevia
To make: Combine all ingredients into a blender and blast on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until the dates are fully incorporated. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a saucepan. Set the saucepan over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture is just warm. (Alternatively, if you're using a high-speed blender like a Vitamix, she says to “just keep blending until the mixture is warm, and then strain it right into your glass.”)