Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety

Uma Naidoo, MD
Uma Naidoo, MD, Contributor

According the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. That’s 40 million adults—18% of the population—who struggle with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety.

Specific therapies and medications can help relieve the burden of anxiety, yet only about a third of people suffering from this condition seek treatment. In my practice, part of what I discuss when explaining treatment options is the important role of diet in helping to manage 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. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.

A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.

The gut-brain axis is also very important, since 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.

Foods that can help quell anxiety

You might be surprised to learn that specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety.

  • 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. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.
  • Other foods, including fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acid. A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. (This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids). Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only.
  • A recent 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, known widely to be a healthy vegetable. 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.
  • Foods rich in B vitamins such as avocado and almonds
  • These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.

Are antioxidants anti-anxiety?

Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. It stands to reason, therefore, that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. A 2010 study reviewed the antioxidant content of 3,100 foods, spices, herbs, beverages, and supplements. Foods designated as high in antioxidants by the USDA include:

  • Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
  • Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
  • Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: Walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
  • Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.

Achieving better mental health through diet

Be sure to talk to your doctor if your anxiety symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks. But even if your doctor recommends medication or therapy for anxiety, it is still worth asking whether you might also have some success by adjusting your diet. While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute for other treatments, 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, or as I prefer to call it, Psycho-Nutrition.

I will expand on these concepts and share research developments in future blog posts.

Comments:

  1. James Aiden

    This is a perfect strategy one can adopt and all I want to write is thank you so much for this post and the strategy that you have mention in the post. Surely I am going to follow the tip.

  2. awake2shine

    Wonderful article with do’s & dont’s for the healthy life 🙂 Thank you for the valuable advice too

  3. Rebecca

    I can say that this works. I actually changed my diet along these lines for different reasons (diabetes) and found that my anxiety was lessened as well. Nice to have some confirmation behind it. Also my psychiatrist has had me on a low dose of magnesium (can’t remember off hand how much) for at least 3 years, and I believe it helps too. Thanks for this article!

    • Debra

      Rebecca,
      You may not be aware, but undiagnosed diabetes or letting your blood sugar get too high will bring some anxiety with it. That is because when your body can’t keep the blood sugar in the normal range the usual way with insulin, it will try adding some cortisol-type hormones to the picture, to see if it can deal with it that way. It is something many newly diagnosed type II’s don’t always know. Sadly, some go on antidepressants (which can help raise blood sugar) instead of focusing on a better lifestyle, first. Seems like you have it under control, so good for you.

  4. Sara

    Any chance of a bibliography for this article? Would be much appreciated!

  5. Fosters

    and we were just talking about asparagus the other night.

  6. Douglas F Watt PhD

    In general I’m very sympathetic to this kind of perspective, and a concerted focus on diet, lifestyle, sleep, exercise, and social support is desperately overdue in mainline psychiatry, where a psychologically blind reductionism has sold us the patently false notion that Axis I conditions can be easily reduced to a few simple molecular correlates (the ‘meme’ of a simple ‘chemical imbalance’), an idea that has been exposed scientifically, but which continues to generate staggering profits for big Pharma. The reality is that mainline antidepressants are minimally effective, while benzodiazepines and neuroleptics are dangerous and only temporarily effective. On the other hand,psychotherapy, lifestyle and dietary change are badly shorted, and generally neglected In virtually all mainline psychiatry. Most of our current treatments for the most commonplace Axis I disorders in psychiatry (depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) induce mitochondrial dysfunction, Increase insulin resistance, and promote obesity, and type II diabetes. How is it possible that the health of the brain and the health of the body are conceptually so uncoupled in our current system of care?

    The only cautions I might offer about the author’s points would be the growing evidence base against the notion that whole grains are healthy, and the evidence that labeling polyphenols as ‘antioxidants’ is misleading. While they may be antioxidants in the micromolar concentrations achievable only in topical applications, in the nanomolar range achievable from virtually any form of oral consumption, they are not, but they are significantly anti-inflammatory, modulate numerous cell signaling pathways, including those involved in apoptosis and growth signals, and clearly were part of our ancient evolutionary diet(where a pa leolithic diet could conceivably involve up to a gram or more of polyphenol consumption per day. This suggests that polyphenols may may provide an unknown fraction of the many benefits of eating a diet of consisting of mostly fruits and vegetables.

  7. Tere González Díaz

    Very helpful information! Congrats from Yucatán México.

  8. Agni Thurner

    What are the quantities one must eat to get the daily quota of these vitamins, minerals, antioxidants? For instance how many oysters or cashews per day? per week?
    In order to get all the nutrients ones needs, one has to write weekly menus of dishes that have the above mentioned foods, shop and then cook……very time consuming in this fast world we live today!
    No wonder people prefer to take a multi vitamin a day!

    • uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks for your comments Agni. My aim here is not a “prescription” of “10 oysters” but rather a guideline for slowly adapting one’s diet to ease certain symptoms and include better options in one’s daily diet.
      Cooking, getting menus for the week and grocery shopping are all very time consuming for us, I agree, so I would ask our readers to do what they feel they can to eat healthier, and make better choices e.g. when they eat out or are food shopping. This is guided toward wellness, both body and mind. “

  9. Roo Bookaroo

    All this is fine and good.
    But this is a Harvard publication, not a tabloid article.
    It would be good to have notes listing the specific articles published in journals that are used for your posting and possibly offering links to them.
    ROO BOOKAROO

    • Karen

      The most comprehensive scientific findings supporting the role of nutritional health that I have found are in a book by Michael Greger MD ,
      How Not to Die.
      It seemed to be a silly title ,but ,the idea is to know how to limit your chances for illness by being aware that our bodies are infinitely complex and require nutritionally rich foods in order to have the ability to heal.

    • Jennifer F

      I absolutely agree with you – this is a Harvard publication not a supermarket tabloid. Why is this article in the Gazette? Is there a Harvard science or research connection? The Gazette has published these “diet tips and tricks” articles from the school of public health before. All the other articles in the Gazette are about Harvard research and goings on – which is why I read the Gazette. Why not hold HSPH to the same standard?

  10. Nancy Donnelly

    I am a senior (73 yrs young) and really enjoy your articles on nutrition! I follow your advice and I take No pharmasuticals! Dedicated spiritual life is also So important! ?. ??.

    • uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks Nancy for your comments. I hope the advice allows you some guidance around healthy food choices. I am very glad you are feeling well and yes, the mind-body connection is key!

      Many people still do require pharmaceuticals, and as a doctor I still support their use for my patients. I also always advise our readers to consult with their doctor before making any changes to their medications.

  11. Maheshwar Naidoo

    Wonderful article! very interesting.

  12. Pam.b

    This information was very helpful,it’s good to know that these foods can help with anxiety and depression. Thanks you

    • Uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks Pam, so glad you found this to be useful. Please follow our future blogs on food and mood which will also cover cooking spices and herbs, and well as other foods that can affect our mental wellness.

  13. Raj

    It’s not just medication but articles and research of this nature helps us who don’t want to rely on tablets, thank you

    • uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks Raj for your feedback and opinion. I think it is always important to integrate a healthy lifestyle including food into how we approach a path to wellness.

  14. renee touriel

    this was good reading and important information to start with…thank you…..renee touriel

    • Uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks Renee, you make a good point about this being a place to start. We plan to build on this series and appreciate your interest.

  15. Irene Fenswick

    Thank you for posting this article. It’s very informative and helpful.

  16. Falene

    Thank you for the great article! There are some things that I will definitely add to my diet now. Also, over the past decade I’ve found out that some herbs, like valerian, melissa, verbena and lavender help me calm down, so I add them to my foods and teas. There was some info on health. com and herbalref.com about anxiety-fighting herbs too lately, if I’m not mistaken.

    • Uma Naidoo MD

      Falene, thank you so much for your feedback.
      I hope you will incorporate some of the foods into your diet. I am not familiar with the science behind the products you mentioned, but I encourage you to discuss these with your doctor.
      Please do follow our future posts on food and mood.

  17. Jordan Fallis

    This is all great advice!

    I used to suffer from chronic depression and anxiety. I used to have to take 4 medications for it.

    I was told I’d be on them for the rest of my life. But as a journalist, I was curious and wanted to get to the bottom of it.

    I’m now off all medication and completely symptom free. Drugs and talk therapy aren’t the only solutions, yet people think they are the only options.

    As mentioned above, zinc is very important to manage anxiety too.

    A number of other things helped me recover. I write about all the treatments that have helped me overcome my anxiety naturally and permanently on my website optimallivingdynamics.com.

    Hope this helps someone.

    • Uma Naidoo MD

      Thanks for sharing that Jordan. My suggestions around food, herbs and spices are to intended share information that help people be mindful about the positive benefits of what they are eating, as a way to improve mental wellness. Sometimes small dietary changes make a bug difference over the course of time. I would still always suggest that anyone wanting to make a change in their medications, please consult their doctor first. Best of luck on your journey and thanks again.