In recent years, the world has witnessed a significant increase in poor mental health and related illnesses making us think about the connection between nutrition and anxiety.

While depression is often the condition most associated with mental health issues and is the leading cause of disability worldwide, anxiety has emerged as the number one mental health concern according to the World Economic Forum. An estimated 275 million people suffer from anxiety disorders, comprising approximately 4% of the global population.

This prevalence ranges from 2.5% to 6.5% per country. Of those affected by anxiety, approximately 62% are female, equating to 170 million women compared to 105 million men.

While specific therapies and medications can help relieve anxiety symptoms, only a third of individuals seek treatment.  In addition to medication, psychotherapy and exercise nutrition plays a vital role in managing anxiety symptoms

In this blog post, we will explore various nutrition strategies that can help alleviate anxiety, including eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and incorporating complex carbohydrates.

Feel good foods: Fact or fiction?

Specific foods have been known to enhance mood and reduce the signs of depression and anxiety. For instance, consuming diets low in magnesium has been found to increase anxiety-related behaviours in mice. Thus, incorporating foods naturally rich in magnesium, such as leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard, as well as legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, may promote a sense of calm in humans. 

nutrition and anxiety

Additionally, foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks, have been linked to lower levels of anxiety. Fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon, contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with reducing anxiety in a 2011 study of medical students who took omega-3 supplements. Previously, omega-3s had only been linked to improving depression.

Asparagus has also been found to have anti-anxiety properties. Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds, can spur the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which can help manage anxiety symptoms. Incorporating these “feel good” foods into one’s diet can be a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.

Here are some other strategies to use nutrition to your advantage:

1. Eat a balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet is good, common sense and practical advice that is relevant to most mental and physical conditions. In the context of anxiety, eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods can help support overall health and reduce anxiety symptoms. A balanced diet should include:

  • Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce anxiety symptoms.
  • Lean protein sources, such as fish, chicken, and beans can help increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with improved mood.
  • Healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish can help reduce inflammation and support brain health.

2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can both have negative effects on anxiety symptoms. Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase heart rate and blood pressure, which can worsen anxiety symptoms. Alcohol is a depressant that can initially reduce anxiety symptoms but can lead to rebound anxiety as it wears off.

3. Consider adding probiotics to your diet

Probiotics are live microorganisms that can improve gut health and may have positive effects on anxiety symptoms. Research has shown that individuals who take probiotics regularly experience reduced anxiety and stress levels. Probiotic-rich foods, such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir, have been linked to a reduction in social anxiety in a study published in Psychiatry Research.

4. The role of antioxidants 

Research suggests that anxiety may be linked to a decreased total antioxidant state in the body. Thus, incorporating antioxidant-rich foods into one’s diet may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders. In fact, a 2010 study reviewed the antioxidant content of 3,100 foods, spices, herbs, beverages, and supplements and found that certain foods designated as high in antioxidants by the USDA may be particularly beneficial in managing anxiety symptoms.

 These foods include dried small red, Pinto, black, and red kidney beans, as well as apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, walnuts, pecans, artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, and broccoli. Spices such as turmeric, which contains the active ingredient curcumin, and ginger, which have both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties, may also be helpful in managing anxiety.

5. Avoid processed and high-sugar foods

Processed and high-sugar foods can contribute to inflammation and disrupt blood sugar levels, both of which can worsen anxiety symptoms. These types of foods should be avoided in favour of whole, nutrient-dense foods.

6. Stay hydrated

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help support overall health and reduce anxiety symptoms. Dehydration can lead to headaches and fatigue, which can worsen anxiety symptoms.

7. Pay attention to sensitivities or allergies

Be mindful of food sensitivities as they can cause uncomfortable physical reactions in some individuals. For some, these physical reactions may even trigger mood changes, such as irritability or anxiety. If you suspect that certain foods or food additives may be causing your anxiety, it may be helpful to experiment with eliminating them from your diet to see if your symptoms improve. Learn Science-Backed Ways To Optimize Your Mental Health.

Key Takeaways:

If you are experiencing severe or prolonged anxiety symptoms, it is important to seek guidance from your doctor or mental health professional. While medication or therapy may be recommended as a primary treatment, it is worth considering the potential benefits of adjusting your diet. As the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is receiving increased attention, there is a growing body of evidence that supports the role of nutrition in managing the symptoms of anxiety.