How eating nuts can help your body deal with stress

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A new study shows the impact that nuts have on our heart rate, and it’s pretty impressive. 

Nuts are delicious. We eat them straight out of the packet, slather nut butter on toast and love to sprinkle them on salads. But did you know they’re more than just a tasty snack? They actually come with huge mental and physical health benefits.

A new study by Kings College found that by swapping typical snacks for almonds, you can improve how your heart responds to mental stress. In the research, participants underwent a mental stress challenge and had their heart rate variability (HRV) measured. Those who ate almonds for six weeks in place of a calorie-matched typical British snack had significantly improved their HRV. 

“Heart rate variability is a simple way of kind of seeing how responsive and how resilient your heart is,” explains Dr Sarah Berry, a researcher at Kings. “Having a high heart rate variability means the heart is able to switch gears faster depending on the demands on the body. If when you’re under stress you can’t increase your heart rate variability, it means you don’t have good enough cardiac resilience and flexibility.

“As the participants who had been eating almonds were able to adapt their heart rate variability in a more favourable way, it shows that people who are experiencing high stress or high anxiety can “somewhat attenuate or modulate how their body is responding to that stress through diet.”

The mental health benefits of nuts

This feels very important right now, given that we are experiencing more stress, more worry and more unfamiliarity than ever, and that we are looking for tools to help us deal with that. Perhaps we can help ourselves a little bit by supporting our bodies from the inside

So why nuts? One of the main reasons why they are so good at helping with stress management is because they contain “non-nutrient bioactives”, which include flavonoids, polyphenols and antioxidants. Not only do many of these nutrients have their own beneficial effect on mental health, but they also can reduce inflammatory measures, blood lipids, liver fat and support insulin sensitivity, explains Dr Berry.

However, it’s more about displacement of nutrient dense food in our diets, rather than the individual aspect of almonds that is responsible for supporting our heart and our brain: “It’s too simplistic and very reductionist to try and isolate one single nutrient and attribute a given physiological or health outcome. Most often it’s the interaction with different nutrients and the displacement of certain foods that we can attribute,” Dr Berry adds. 

“What’s really novel here is that this research shows that actually a simple dietary swap can really reduce this the stress impact, or the impact that stress has on our health.”

There’s other reasons why nuts can help boost our mental health too, and that’s all to do with the gut. Nuts have very rigid cell walls, Dr Berry explains, and while we can break some of the cell walls down to absorb the nutrients, a lot of them remain intact. “You’re giving a lot more material to your gut, which improves your microbiome and your gut health, which we know does have a big impact on mental health as well,” Dr Berry adds. 

That’s not to say we should only ever be snacking on nuts, though. “My recommendation is that where possible we should opt for whole foods, vegetables, fruits and particularly nuts,” says Dr Berry. “This research really clearly shows how a simple dietary swap can improve your health. But my belief as a nutritionist is that it is very challenging to modify your diet because it’s so intricately interlinked with culture, lifestyle, family, work and other factors.”

And, don’t worry, we checked: nut butters count. That’s us off to spoon Pip and Nut from the jar. 

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Images: Unsplash / Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).