For many of us, the connection between anxiety and diet begins and ends with having too much coffee before work and experiencing those uncomfortable, anxious jitters afterward. But when you consider the profound influence your diet and lifestyle choices have on your overall well-being, the idea that what you put into your body influences your mental health isn't so farfetched. While many doctors are quick to prescribe antidepressant medication to patients struggling with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, others, like Uma Naidoo, MD, are beginning to acknowledge the very real connection between diet and mental health, and discovering that there may be a diet for anxiety.
Meet the Expert
Uma Naidoo, M.D. is an Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is currently the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"In my practice, part of what I discuss when explaining treatment options is the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety," Naidoo writes on Harvard Health. "While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute [for medication], the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention. There is a growing body of evidence, and more research is needed to fully understand the role of nutritional psychiatry."
When Medication Is the Right Answer
This isn't to say that medication isn't important, or, in many cases, a necessary part of treating mental health issues. Anxiety and depression cannot be treated through dietary changes alone, and part of eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health issues comes from normalizing and accepting the use of medication as needed. With that said, it's also important to acknowledge the myriad factors that subtly influence our mental health—just as there's more than one cause, there's more than one solution.
How a Balanced Diet Can Improve Anxiety
"In addition to healthy guidelines such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety," Naidoo explains. She also adds that cutting down on processed foods, filling up on complex carbohydrates, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits are equally important. "A large percentage (about 95%) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. Research is examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression." Naidoo's take on dietary and lifestyle decisions has been scientifically proven to ease anxiety.
Foods That Ease Anxiety
Magnesium: "In mice, diets low in magnesium were found to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Foods naturally rich in magnesium may, therefore, help a person to feel calmer," Naidoo says. Sources of magnesium include leafy greens (think spinach and Swiss chard), legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Zinc: Foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lower anxiety rates, according to Naidoo.
Omega-3 fatty acids: "A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only," Naidoo says. Wild Alaskan salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans, and more are all great sources of omega-3s.
Probiotics: "A 2015 study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety," Naidoo explains. Consuming probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms of anxiety.
Asparagus: "Based on research, the Chinese government approved the use of an asparagus extract as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient due to its anti-anxiety properties," Naidoo says. Chop it up into a salad, steam it, grill it, or add it to a breakfast scramble to get your daily dose.
B vitamins: "Foods rich in B vitamins spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine," Naidoo says. Avocados and almonds fit the bill.
Antioxidant-rich foods: "Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. Enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders," Naidoo says. Consider adding red, pinto, black, and red kidney beans, apples, prunes, sweet cherries, plums and black plums, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries, walnuts and pecans, artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli, and turmeric, and ginger spices to your diet.