What to Eat When You Have Anxiety
Food can impact mood in profound ways — here, nutrients that help support your mental health.
The holiday season is a stressful time — even in a “normal” year — but with the ongoing pandemic derailing many 2020 celebrations, anxiety levels are reaching new highs. And while there are many treatments for anxiety, research has shown that only 50 to 60 percent of people respond well to medication and psychotherapy.
One coping method you may not have considered: your diet. What we eat affects more than just our bodies; it also affects our brain health, primarily in how it influences the health of our microbiome — aka the gut, which is sometimes referred to as the second brain. (To read more about how gut health impacts overall well-being, go here). Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you probably intuitively understand that there is a connection between what you put on your plate and how you feel.
Below, nutrients that nurture your gut health and in doing so, help support your mood and lessen anxiety.
Dietary fiber can be obtained from fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils and healthy whole grains. The process of breaking down dietary fiber by bacteria is called “fermentation,” and fermentable dietary fiber promotes the growth of “good” gut bacteria. Happy gut, happy mood. Fiber-rich foods include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Macadamia nuts
The reduction in anxiety caused by omega-3s (a.k.a. healthy fats) is thought to occur via anti-inflammatory and neurochemical mechanisms that affect the brain. A 2018 study found that, specifically, the more omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) people consumed, the less anxiety they experienced. The study also found that a higher ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s led to increased levels of anxiety, which is why we should avoid processed vegetable oils, which are high omega-6’s. Omega 3-rich foods include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Fermented foods are a great source of live bacteria (probiotics) that can enhance healthy gut function and decrease anxiety. Most of our serotonin, the happy hormone, is produced in the gut. Probiotics also support brain health by producing chemical by-products and bioactive peptides that may protect the nervous system, by suppressing the stress response through the HPA-axis and neurotransmitters and by increasing levels of “brain tissue builders” such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, gamma-aminobutyric acid and serotonin. Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Plain Dairy or Non-Dairy Yogurt (with live active cultures)
- Kombucha (try to find one without added sugar, as sugar kills the probiotics)
- Apple-cider vinegar
- Plain kefir
This important vitamin is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter brain cells, decreasing inflammation and toxic destruction of cells. It also controls the release of nerve growth factor, which is essential for the survival of hippocampal and cortical neurons. Studies have demonstrated that adults with depression and anxiety have lower blood levels of vitamin D. While 80 percent of the intake from vitamin D comes from sun exposure, here are some top vitamin-D rich foods:
- Fortified nut milks
- Fortified soy and rice milks
- Egg yolks
- Sun-dried mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes
Magnesium deficiency is associated with high anxiety levels. When people are anxious while taking a test, they excrete more magnesium than usual in their urine. And when magnesium levels are low, this can worsen anxiety. Researchers have found that magnesium supplementation can help, likely because magnesium can ease stress responses, changing the levels of harmful stress chemicals in the brain. Dietary intake of magnesium is poor in Western populations. Food sources of magnesium:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black beans
- Extra dark natural chocolate
- Leafy greens
MORE CALMING INGREDIENTS
- Add turmeric and black pepper to your food. Turmeric is my go-to anti-stress food. Curcumin, its active ingredient, decreases anxiety and changes brain chemistry to protect the hippocampus against stress, which can deactivate it. I add it to smoothies, salads, soups and even tea. Always add a pinch of black pepper to make the curcumin more bioavailable to the brain. (Shop our easy-to-absorb Turmeric Protect supplement here.)
- Grab a cup of chamomile tea. Chamomile has been consumed for centuries as a natural remedy for several health conditions, and it has been shown in several studies to help lower anxiety. Though it can be taken in capsule form, I recommend getting chamomile the traditional way: in tea. One to three cups a day is generally safe unless you are taking blood thinner medications or are about to have surgery. Pregnant women should consult their doctors before consuming chamomile tea.
- Eat the rainbow. Adding different colors of veggies in my salads helps me ensure that I get the fiber and different nutrients my gut and brain need. The color in these foods bring in rich, powerful antioxidants to the brain to lower inflammation and fortify my mental well-being.
FOODS TO AVOID WHEN YOU HAVE ANXIETY
- Highly-processed & Ultra-processed foods
- Trans fats, and unhealthy PUFAs (processed vegetable oils)
- High-GI carbohydrates
- Added and refined sugars
- Artificial sweeteners
Dr.Uma Naidoo, MD, is a nutritional psychiatrist, Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and more.