For most 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, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, are beginning to acknowledge the very real connection between diet and mental health.
"In my practice, part of what I discuss when explaining treatment options is the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety," she 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 Is Medication 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 Can a Balanced Diet 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, and considering the "gut-brain axis" 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. Examples include leafy greens such as 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 lowered anxiety."
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." 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. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms."
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."
B vitamins: "Foods rich in B vitamins such as avocado and almonds … [also known as] 'feel good' foods, spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety."
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 references a 2010 study that reviewed the antioxidant content of 3100 foods, spices, herbs, beverages, and supplements. Here's what made the cut: 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.