Are you struggling to keep anxiety at bay even though you meet regularly with a therapist, take your medication as prescribed, and have a good support system? The truth is, treatment for anxiety shouldn’t stop when you leave your therapist’s office, screw the lid back on the pill bottle, or step away from your family and friends—effective anxiety management involves one other significant factor: your diet. If you haven’t tried tweaking what you eat then you may be missing an important opportunity to beat back your anxiety.
Doctors and dietitians are starting to understand more about how the nutritional properties of the foods we eat affect the brain. “There is a clear and important connection between the brain and the gut,” explains Jodi Godfrey, MS, RD, a health and nutrition educator. “Researchers now refer to the gut as the second brain. When essential nutrients are not sufficiently available, there is a direct effect on the production of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry that can increase or lessen anxiety-related behaviors.”
Does adjusting your diet to ease your anxiety seem daunting? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, reflecting on the choices you make when it comes to food is a straightforward, positive lifestyle change for your body and brain. “The most important dietary change for anyone who has anxiety to make is to plan meals around whole foods, lowering or eliminating the number of processed foods including sweets and snack foods,” advises Godfrey.
The modifications you can make to your diet are as simple as swapping out foods could be spiking your anxiety for foods that may lessen the severity of your symptoms. Avoid binge-eating your go-to comfort foods (which only leave you feeling guilty and more anxious) and enjoy nutritious superfoods with mood-boosting properties. You’ll feel better for it.
Many studies going back to the 1960s indicate that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression have an elevated incident of folate deficiency. Asparagus is one vegetable that contains a valuable amount of this mood-boosting nutrient. One cup alone provides two-thirds of your daily recommended folate value.
Food Swap: Asparagus Spears Instead of Fries
Ditch the French Fries and sauté, steam, or grill some asparagus to serve as a side dish. If you tend to snack on fries, consider this substitute: dip cooked asparagus into salsa, hummus, or a bean dip.
Vitamin B6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influences mood. “The B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have positive effects on the nervous system. Deficiencies of these vitamins have been linked to increased anxiety in some people,” explains Godfrey. Avocados are rich in stress-relieving B vitamins and heart-healthy fat that may help to lessen anxiety. Vitamin E is a nutrient that is important for vision, reproduction and maintaining healthy skin. It’s also been connected with cognition, helps widen blood vessels and is needed for the formation of red blood cells. Because vitamin E is fat-soluble it’s only found in foods like nuts and avocados that have a high-fat content.
Food Swap: Non-Dairy Frozen Avocado Treat Instead of Ice Cream
Avocado ice cream? Yes, you heard that right. Next time you’re reaching for that pint of full-fat, calorie-laden ice-cream, whip up your own frozen avocado treat. Just blend avocado with a ripe banana, vanilla extract, almond milk, and sweetener. Freeze for a few hours and then dig in, knowing you’re boosting those B vitamins as you go!
When we’re anxious and stressed, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells, and blueberries are packed full of it. Small but mighty, blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C which have been shown to provide anxiety relief. One study1 examined the effects of oral vitamin C supplements on anxiety in a group of students and found that antioxidants may be useful for both the prevention and reduction of anxiety.
Food Swap: Blueberries Instead of Sugary Sweets
Reaching for sugar when hunger strikes causes the brain to work at a sub-optimal level and puts you at greater risk for depressive symptoms associated with anxiety. “The sweetness from blueberries is a better option acting as a positive immune booster; added sugars throw off the healthy bacterial balance in the gut that may increase anxiety,” Godfrey says.
Ever heard of tryptophan? It’s the nutrient in turkey that puts you to sleep after Thanksgiving dinner. Okay, it’s a little more than that. Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body needs to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate sleep and mood. According to the University of Michigan2, tryptophan may help reduce anxious feelings.
Food Swap: Lean Turkey Instead of Fried Chicken
Avoid the temptation of picking up fried chicken on your way home by prepping your meals in advance. This way you can reap the benefits of tryptophan found in turkey. Fried foods introduce unhealthy fats and counter the good from the tryptophan that may help put you at ease when anxiety is looming. “Planning a meal with turkey diced into quinoa or brown rice and some added veggies will provide a wide range of healthy nutrients and support sound sleep,” suggests Godfrey.
Researchers3 have shown that magnesium may be an effective treatment for anxiety-related symptoms, as inadequate magnesium reduces the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Just 1 ounce of almonds (that’s about 12 nuts) contains 75mg of magnesium which is 19% of your daily recommended value. You can also find magnesium in foods such as legumes, seeds, and—everyone’s favorite—avocado.
Food Swap: Almonds Instead of Cookies
Consuming artery-clogging trans fats, like those found in cookies, can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48%, according to one study.4 “Snack on nuts rather than cookies to ensure you are getting healthy fats and fiber that promote gut health, rather than the sugar that interrupts good bacteria,” says Godfrey. Next time you need a crunch, reach for a handful of almonds instead of reaching for cookies. If you are in dire need of a sweet, throw in a few dark chocolate chips with the almonds.
You might be surprised to learn that fermented food—including yogurt, one you might not ordinarily think of as falling into this category—can help reduce anxiety! A link has been found between the consumption of fermented, probiotic foods and a reduction in social anxiety.5 The best yogurts—Greek, plain versions in particular—that contain “live and active cultures” are guaranteed to have 100 million probiotic cultures per gram or about 25 billion probiotic cultures in a cup. Other probiotic foods: pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso.
Food Swap: Yogurt and Cereal Instead of Milk and Cereal
Mix up your breakfast by swapping out milk for yogurt with your cereal. Doing so may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms for those at a higher genetic risk.6 Symptoms of social anxiety include excessive fear of situations in which one may be judged, worry about embarrassment or humiliation, or concern about offending someone. If yogurt isn’t your thing, try incorporating sauerkraut or a pickle into your daily sandwich. Miso, a traditional Japanese seasoning, can be a substitute for parmesan in soups or noodle dishes!
7. Kale (or Arugula)
Researchers7 at the State University of New York found that anxious symptoms are linked with a lower antioxidant state and that antioxidants can help with mood, too. Dark, leafy greens like kale, which is rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, are needed to boost antioxidant levels and support optimal brain functioning.
Food Swap: Kale Instead of Iceberg Lettuce
According to another study8 from Ohio University, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly effective when it comes to foods that help with anxiety. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon, chia seeds, soybeans, and walnuts as well as cold-pressed olive oil. “Our brain requires the right dietary fats to function properly,” Godfrey says, “so you’ll want to eat enough of the beneficial fats that support a healthy brain-gut microbiome, which means replacing red meat with seafood.”
Food Swap: Salmon Instead of Steak
A juicy steak might be hard to pass up, but a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon helps keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense. Experiment by trying out different spices and flavor combinations when cooking salmon. Start simple. Sprinkle the fish with salt, pepper and garlic, add a few sprigs of rosemary, and top with some thinly sliced lemon. Delish!
Give these food swaps a try and see if modifying your diet helps reduce your anxiety!