The 6 Best Foods to Help with Anxiety
Ingredients including green tea, spinach, salmon, and eggs could all play a role in helping to lower feelings of anxiety and stress.
From talk therapy to medication, there are plenty of approaches those with anxiety can take to try and calm their system down a notch. But what if we told you that one of them involved looking no further than your kitchen cupboards?
While many of us understand how different foods can impact our physical health, less are aware of the ways our diet can also impact mental well-being.
All kinds of nutrients can influence our mood and emotions — both positively and negatively — thanks to their effectTrusted Source on neurotransmitters, the body’s chemical messengers. By consuming plenty of beneficial vitamins and minerals, we can provide these neurotransmitters with a good dose of TLC.
Eating more fruits and vegetables has been linked to lower levels of stress, and those with anxiety and depression have reported improved symptoms after eating a more nutrient-rich diet.
Remember being told to “eat your greens” as a kid? Well, it was for a good reason!
Leafy greens are rich in magnesium, a mineral typically considered important because of its role in bone health. However, researchTrusted Source suggests these foods may also be helpful for treating anxiety, as supplementation has been shown to improve mild symptoms.
Veggies in the leafy greens category include:
But it’s not all about magnesium. Kale and spinach, in particular, are both fantastic sources of vitamin C. A cup of kale offers almost the entire recommended daily allowance! Deficiency in vitamin C has been linked to higher levels of anxiety and stress.
Need another excuse to reach for cocoa-packed goodies? Go for it — but prioritize the dark variety.
Research suggests dark chocolate is beneficial in lowering anxiety symptoms. In one 2014 studyTrusted Source, eating just 40 grams per day (around two to three squares) was shown to reduce stress levels.
This effect may result from dark chocolate’s high flavanol content, a plant compound which has been linked to lower feelings of mental stress and improved blood flow, which can become restricted when you feel anxious.
However, it also contains a decent amountTrusted Source of stress-busting ingredients like:
Low levels of these three minerals are also associatedTrusted Source with increased symptoms of anxiety.
Experts encourage us to eat at least two servings of oily fish (like salmon and mackerel) per week, due to the positive effect on heart health from its high omega-3 content. Although findings are mixed, some researchTrusted Source suggests omega-3 supplementation may also help reduce anxiety.
How does it work? Omega-3 has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Studies show inflammation can significantly impactTrusted Source areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which plays a key role in moderating anxiety.
Salmon is also high in an amino acid called tryptophan, which the body converts into the “happy chemical” serotonin. In some studiesTrusted Source, this acid has been linked with lower anxiety levels.
People in China and other parts of Asia have sipped on this drink for thousands of years — and its reputation is certainly well-earned. In addition to being a palate refresher, green tea provides a number of wellness benefits.
One of its main active ingredients is L-theanine, an amino acid that interacts with the body’s neurotransmitters. In addition to lowering anxietyTrusted Source and stress, studies show it can help improve sleepTrusted Source, and enhance memory and overall cognition. Furthermore, this acid promotes alpha waves in the brain, which encourage relaxation.
Green tea is also packed with antioxidants. These compounds not only help reduce inflammation, but a 2012 studyTrusted Source also found antioxidants help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in those with stress-related mental health conditions.
In recent years, scientists have gained a greater understanding of the gut-brain connection and how the digestive system impacts mental wellness.
Fermented foods contain high amounts of probiotics, which are friendly bacteria that aid in keeping the gut balanced, and have been shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety.
You might also be surprised to hear that the majority of serotonin is also produced in the gut, and studies indicate correlations between poor gut health and increased anxiety.
A range of fermented foods have appeared on store shelves in recent years. Some of the most popular include:
Although not a food per se, this vitamin is found in plenty of ingredients. Vitamin B deficiency is linked to overall brain function and maintenance, but it is the B6 variety that is more specifically associated with higher anxiety and stress levels.
Once again, it’s thought that this beneficial effect is due to the vitamin’s influence on neurotransmitters — especially serotonin and the “pleasure” chemical dopamine.
Fortunately, B6 is found in various common foods including:
- sweet potatoes
- wild salmon
Foods to avoid
However, just as there are ingredients that can positively affect anxiety and our broader mental health, there are also those that have a negative impact.
It’s okay to treat yourself to a donut or candy bar occasionally, but a consistently high-sugar diet wreaks havoc on our mind andbody. For example, one 2019 study found those who drank soft drinks daily were far more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
Too many glasses of wine can cause more than just a hangover. Alcohol consumption can affect neurotransmittersTrusted Source in the brain, and disruption to this messenger system is linked to an increase in anxious behaviors.
Caffeine intake can cause an adrenaline release that sends us into panic mode, which (unsurprisingly) increases the more you drink.
A 2017 overviewTrusted Source suggests caffeine, especially at higher doses, can cause increased anxiety in both people with and without preexisting mental health conditions. Some of the negative effects associated with caffeine include:
- racing thoughts
Research into the effects of caffeine consumption in people with anxiety-based conditions is ongoing.
Highly processed foods have been shown in studies to contribute to higher levels of anxiety, potentially due to their role in encouraging inflammation. Examples of processed foods include:
When to seek help for anxiety
Feeling stressed or worried about things at times is a normal part of being human. However, if anxiety disrupts your life significantly for more than a few weeks, consider speaking to a doctor or a therapist.
Anxiety may impact:
- seeing friends
- being productive at work
- getting a good night’s rest
Self-help measures, including dietary changes and journaling, can be beneficial for some people with anxiety. But others may need an extra helping hand — and there’s no shame in reaching out for it.
A note on accessibility
Not all of us can access or afford a range of nutrient-rich foods.
In 2019, 10.5% of the United States population lived in poverty (around 34 million people). A large portion of these people experience food insecurity, meaning they find it hard to afford food. Understandably, this causes high levels of stress and anxiety.
Those who live in “food deserts” or “food swamps” might be particularly challenged in sourcing fresh ingredients. However, frozen or canned goods, such as vegetables or beans, are alternatives that typically still provide plenty of nutrients.
Food switches aren’t the only approach you can take to ease anxiety levels. Other self-care and lifestyle measures to bust stress and anxiety include:
- deep breathing
There are also free online support services available.
Although eating certain foods isn’t a cure for anxiety, research supports the concept that consuming a nutrient-rich diet may assist in reducing symptoms.
To start slowly, you could try introducing a few suggested foods to your diet for a few weeks at a time to see if you notice any positive changes.
However, it’s vital to remember dietary changes should be considered alongside therapy or medication, not as a replacement for them.
Other complementary approaches you could try include:
- mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques
- quitting smoking
- trying to get consistently restful sleep
- using apps for calming anxiety or stress
- deep breathing
Doing your own research and taking self-care measures is important, but you don’t have to manage anxiety alone. A doctor or therapist can help you devise an anxiety-busting plan. Like with all mental health conditions, you may need to try several things before finding what works for you.
If you’re ready to get help, visit Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
By Psych Central