You’ve probably heard the saying, “you are what you eat”, but research suggests “you feel what you eat” too. In fact, your diet can have a direct impact on your level of anxiety.
“Diets like the Mediterranean diet that include anti-inflammatory fats and emphasize vegetables, fruits, and limit refined grains, sugar, and processed foods can decrease incidence of anxiety,” explains registered dietitian Theresa Gentile, who is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I talk to clients about how much food impacts your mood,” adds Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Marina Braff. “When we are stressed out, we try to cut corners, our diet and nutrition tends to be the first thing to go. However, I’m sure you can think back on a time where you didn’t prioritize this and as a result the stress hit you harder.”
With nearly two-in-five adults feeling more anxious than they were this time last year, according to the The American Psychiatric Association, it can be a good time to consider the role your diet can play in your mental health. Of course, keep in mind that not all anxiety can be managed through lifestyle changes. If you’re experiencing any kind of mental health issue, it’s important to check in with your health care provider to explore options such as therapy or medication in addition to diet and lifestyle changes.
Ready to boost your mood? Try incorporating more of these foods that reduce anxiety into your diet:
Probiotic and Prebiotics: Kefir, Yogurt, Kimchi, Bananas, and Oats
Some of the best foods to help reduce anxiety are probiotic foods like kefir, yogurts (with live, active cultures), and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented vegetables. Prebiotic fibers that feed the probiotics—found in bananas, artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions, barley, oats, and apples—help as well.
“Fruits, vegetables, fiber, and fermented foods alter the gut microbiome and positively affect psychiatric well-being by changing the gut peptides involved in the gut-brain axis and neurotransmitter synthesis,” explains Gentile. These foods help the gut produce feel-good chemicals such as as serotonin and dopamine that are directly connected to your brain and your mood.
“Ninety percent of your body’s serotonin is created in your gut so when your diet is out of whack it can contribute to digestive issues, which can then impact the functioning and production of serotonin,” adds Braff. “When you don’t have enough serotonin, you are more likely to feel anxious or depressed.”
Since it’s hard to get the recommended amount of 10 to 20 billion CFUs (colony forming units) of probiotics per day from food alone, taking a probiotic supplement can help—thought it’s always a good idea to get the green light from your health care provider first.
Foods Rich in Zinc: Oysters, Shrimp, Steak, Pork Chops, and Leafy Greens
While zinc is an essential mineral that’s well-known for its role in supporting the immune system, research suggests it can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety as well. In addition to being linked to the production of serotonin and dopamine, it may also be associated with increased levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that can lower stress.
Oysters are one of the best food sources to get an adequate amount of zinc. One oyster has about 5.5 mg of zinc and almost meets the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of 8mg for women. Other sources include crustaceans like crab, lobster, cooked eel, octopus, cuttlefish, canned shrimp, and meats like steak, pork chops, and ground beef. Leafy greens and root vegetables are rich in zinc as well.
Good Sources of Selenium: Brazil Nuts, Almonds, Lentils, Chickpeas, and Black Beans
Together with zinc, selenium is key ingredient for the synthesis and regulation of neurotransmitters, accoding to Gentile. Selenium also plays an important role in immunity and thyroid health.
Nuts that are rich in these nutrients are: Brazil nuts, almonds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. Three servings of one-fourth of a cup of nuts per week is the amount recommended in the Mediterranean diet and is a good place to start, says Gentile.
Lentils and other legumes are another great source of selenium. They’re also rich in B-vitamins, iron, and protein. The Mediterranean Diet recommends three half cup servings of selenium-rich legumes such as chickpeas, black beans, or peanuts per week.
Omega-3s: Salmon, Tuna, Trout, and Flaxseeds
Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and trout are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation in the body. This anti-inflammatory effect “may have neuroprotective effects in the early stages of several mental illnesses,” says Gentile. Aim for three to four ounces of fish per week.
Flaxseeds also contain inflammation-reducing Omega-3s and are a good source of dietary fiber. They also help support digestion and can be beneficial for women’s hormones as they contain phytoestrogens, which are similar to the hormone estrogen. Gentile recommends one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds per day: “Sprinkle in yogurt, cottage cheese, hot cereals, hot rice, mix into condiments to add to a sandwich, sprinkle on peanut butter sandwich, or add to a smoothie.”
Proteins With Tryptophan: Eggs, Soy, Seeds, and Turkey
There’s some evidence that adequate dietary protein, in particular, protein with tryptophan, might be helpful in improving symptoms of anxiety, says Gentile. This amino acid is a building block for neurotransmitter synthesis and tryptophan is needed to make serotonin. Other tryptophan sources include soy, seeds (such as pumpkin, squash, chia, hemp and sesame seeds), fish (such as salmon, bluefin or yellowfin tuna, and grouper) and any kind of meat.
Fruits and Vegetables
As mentioned earlier, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables help boosts your mood. Aim for a variety of different colors to get all of the nutrients and antioxidants. Some research suggests that even increasing your intake by as little as one extra serving of fruits and vegetables a day may help improve well-being, says Gentile.
Other Lifestyle Changes
In addition to eating a healthy diet to reduce symptoms of anxiety, keep in mind the powerful role of lifestyle changes as well. “Stress places a demand on the body, so it’s important to focus on diet and lifestyle. Moderate exercise, mindfulness meditation, and avoidance of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine offer encouraging ways to decrease anxiety,” says Gentile.
Keeping blood sugar stable can also help keep anxiety in check, she adds. “Foods with a high glycemic index may sharply increase blood sugar levels, which is then accompanied by a large surge of insulin to bring the blood sugar back down. That can result in hypoglycemia (really low blood sugar), triggering an increase in epinephrine, which can contribute to anxiety symptoms, such as shaking, sweating, and heart palpitations.”
Creating and maintaining healthy habits is key for managing anxiety, adds Braff. “When you boil it down, anxiety is energy that can run the show if we aren’t careful so one of the best ways to manage and live with anxiety is to have healthy outlets. Exercising in some form (walking, running, lifting weights, dancing) has been proven to reduce both anxiety and depression.”
Braff also suggests staying hydrated and getting more fresh air. “Getting outside in the morning and throughout the day increases Vitamin D levels and helps with sleep, all of which can naturally help to combat anxiety.”
And again, talk to your health care provider if you’re experiencing anxiety that is disrupting your quality of life to see if other interventions, such as therapy or medication, might help.