By now, most of us accept that our mental and physical health are connected. But what you might not know is that what you eat can have an impact on your emotional well-being. As hard as it is to believe, certain foods can help support and soothe anxious feelings, while others may be agitators.
It all comes down to the microbiome. The gut-brain axis plays a vital role in our emotional status because a large percentage—about 95%—of serotonin receptors (neurotransmitters) are found in the lining of the gut.
As this study mentions, back in 2013, reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested that anxiety and related disorders would become the second leading cause of disability in both developed and developing countries by the year 2020—and that was way before anyone knew a global pandemic was coming. It’s safe to say that now we need anxiety-taming solutions more than ever.
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Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, Director of Nutritional & Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and author of the book, This is Your Brain on Food, writes about food strategies that can help with anxiety and depression. She has said that “the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention.” And for good reason. Using food as medicine is a smart first line of defense for mild forms of anxiety. But as always, check with your healthcare practitioner to see what treatments are right for you.
Okay to go the edible route? Try this array of foods:
When you think of zinc, foods such as oysters and liver may come to mind—but those particular sources aren’t for everyone. A more universally appealing choice? Cashews. Don’t care for them either? Beef and egg yolks are also rich in zinc, which has been linked to lower anxiety.
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Leafy greens (think: spinach, parsley, kale, Swiss chard) are naturally rich in magnesium. As a result, they can help you feel calmer per research that found that mice with diets low in magnesium had more anxiety-related behaviors. Other sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Fiber has a very unsexy reputation, but we need it in our diets. The great news is, you can get it from fruit, veggies, beans, and whole grains. Why so important? It feeds the good bacteria in your gut.
Omega-3 fatty acids have many reported health and beauty benefits, such as shiny hair and heart health. Some studies have also shown that omega-3 supplements may help reduce anxiety. Other sea-dwellers to consider: mackerel, herring, and sardines. Not into fish? Chia seeds are also rich in omega-3s.
If you aren’t eating fermented foods, do you even care about your health? Kidding—but not really. A study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and lower social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer anxiety symptoms.
Fortified Nut, Rice & Soy Milks
When fortified with health-buoying vitamin D, which has the superpower of crossing the blood-brain barrier to enter brain cells, these milks can help ward off depression and anxiety.
Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds, help the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influences mood, according to the mental health resource site Psycom. Deficiencies of B vitamins including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have been linked to increased anxiety in some people.
Here is the best news you will read all day: Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are antioxidants that may benefit brain function and help your noggin respond to stress. In one study of highly stressed individuals (that’s all of us now, right?), participants reported significantly lower levels of stress after consuming 40 grams of dark chocolate every day over a two-week period. Here’s a potentially genius idea: Combine dark chocolate with avocado for an anxiety-busting chocolate-avo pudding.
Take your pick, literally: blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries are all packed with antioxidants. As Dr. Naidoo notes, “Since anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state, it stands to reason that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms.”
Spices such as turmeric, which contains the active ingredient curcumin and boosts anxiety-fighting DHA in the brain, can easily be added to food and drinks. Ginger fits the bill, too.
Bright and juicy is usually a good thing when it comes to health. Fruits and veggies that are colorful and rich in vitamin C, like bell peppers and oranges, help reduce inflammation and are known to increase the production of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.
Similar to citrus fruits, green tea is rich in a dopamine-boosting amino acid called L-theanine. It also boasts many other health properties that are anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-obesity, and anti-bacterial. Learn how to brew the perfect cup and then, drink up!
Foods to Avoid
As you might imagine, foods that contribute to poor health overall are best avoided when dealing with anxiety. We’re talking highly processed packaged snacks, foods with added sugars, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, and gluten. Here are the 17 worst foods for depression and anxiety.