The last few years have been challenging for most of us and, when feeling stressed, free radical damage can occur and reduce the nutrition needed by our bodies. Fortunately, there are foods that can help reduce stress and keep your body healthy.

For optimal gut function, fruits and vegetables will be our best friends, along with prebiotics and probiotics to feed our gut bacteria. Our serotonin levels are directly connected to our gut, and keeping our levels up keeps our bodies happy, healthy and calm.

So what foods and nutrients bring calm and help promote joy? Here are some a few.

» Peanut butter has been known since the 1970s when Feingold Association studies determined it helped calm children when hyperactive. The studies showed that it reduced symptoms of hyperactivity thereby reducing stress.

So just how and why might this work? Peanut butter contains monounsaturated fats, B vitamins, magnesium and fiber. Monounsaturated fats are known to promote heart health and reduce inflammation.

B vitamins promote the health of our nervous system. Fiber is known to feed our gut bacteria and magnesium is known to reduce cortisol, our stress fighting hormone.

» Next up, salmon. Salmon contain essential fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DEA (docosahexaenoic acid), which have been shown to promote brain health and a calming affect on the body.

Omega 3s found in fatty fish contain EPA and have been shown to fight depression along with other mental health conditions. Other omega 3s include walnuts and flaxseeds, which are great for heart health and reducing inflammation.

Another way to promote calm and better improve our nutrient uptake, Omega 3s have been linked to reducing colitis and decreasing inflammation in our eyes related to macular degeneration.

» The next nutrient is potassium. Foods high in potassium can also be a stress reducer and are known to reduce blood pressure. Bananas, avocado and potatoes fall into the category of high potassium foods. In fact, potassium is part of the Mediterranean diet that is also known as a stress reducer.

The Mediterranean diet is known to help reduce blood pressure and promote heart health. It also consists of lean proteins, healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds containing a high fiber content — all of which contribute to stress reduction. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can also help reduce depression.

» Another nutrient known to reduce stress is tryptophan. Foods that contain tryptophan have been shown to have a calming affect on the body. Tryptophan is most commonly known in turkey but it’s also found in other proteins such as eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, warm milk and yogurt.

Try combing some of these foods together in a smoothie with fruits, veggies, yogurt and peanut butter to promote additional nutrition for your day. You might also try a cup of chamomile tea, a beverage known for reducing stress.

Finally, you can always add a multivitamin for additional nutritional support to these foods.

— Marcy DiGregorio is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who loves helping people with their nutritional needs, enjoys cooking, and also teaches yoga. Click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.