Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/2/2021
Navigating anxiety in everyday life can be overwhelming.
Feeling restless and on edge for no reason, or at the slightest challenge can make daily life taxing — as will the irritation, constant worry and sleep difficulty that typically accompany anxiety.
This condition is widespread, so much so that around a third of U.S. adults will experience anxiety at some point in their lives.
To help manage their symptoms, this population of people will usually receive treatment recommendations that center around particular antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications.
However, one largely under-tapped anxiety management option may be as simple as watching what you eat.
It may be easy to miss, but your diet and mood share certain links. In this guide, we’re looking at the connection they share, as well as different food items that may be instrumental in improving your anxiety symptoms.
Your “gut” may get all the props for your intuition against danger and bad opportunities, but your gastrointestinal tract also makes up a powerhouse when it comes to regulating activities around your body.
In particular, the microbiomes (microorganisms) that make up the gut greatly influence mental health through specific communication systems in the body.
The trillions of bacteria, fungi, etc. that live in your digestive tract are able to communicate to the brain using nerves to accomplish things like regulating hormones and controlling inflammation within the body.
This means that they do, at least to some extent, play a role in your mental status and wellbeing. These microbiomes may spark anxiety symptoms whenever they suffer an imbalance in your body.
Because food is able to impact the gut, a compromised gut barrier brought on by the wrong diet may induce anxiety, as well as the stress response in the body.
Added to this is the fact that chronic inflammation may make anxiety worse, or elevate the risk of developing anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Among other factors, a diet high in foods that are all too commonly enjoyed in the American diet may be responsible for developing this chronic condition.
However, while food may sometimes worsen your chances of developing anxiety, your diet also has the power to make things better — when done correctly.
Quick things to know about food and anxiety: when it comes to the good guys, look no further than foods rich in oils, fish, leafy greens and whole grains.
And don’t forget some healthy probiotic foods for gut health, either.
The bad guys are made up of a diet with foods rich in processed meat and processed sugars.
Here is how these foods can impact your anxiety:
One of the best nutrients for managing anxiety may be omega-3 fatty acids.
These fatty acids are believed to be able to alleviate some anxiety symptoms thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties.
To thank for these properties are the efforts of molecules like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
These molecules provide useful support to the gut, and have been known to improve brain function.
Supporting the body’s intake of these molecules may improve the odds of relieving anxiety, but it’s important to note that more research on the topic is needed before anything can be stated conclusively.
To get your omega-3 fix, fatty fish like mackerel, sardines and Alaskan sockeye salmon are swimming in EPA and DHA.
The highest amounts of these molecules are, however, found in fish roe and krill oil.
For plant sources, flax seeds and chia seeds offer some EPA and DHA, but in considerably lower amounts.
Sweet potatoes, butternut squash and smoothies may be taken to new levels with a dash of turmeric, but so may your mental health.
This spice contains an active ingredient known as curcumin, which just so happens to improve gut health.
It also has anti-inflammatory properties, two features that may be important for managing anxiety.
In a smaller study involving 30 obese individuals, researchers tested the effects of curcumin on anxiety and depression.
After 30 days of a curcumin regimen, the participants of the study produced lower anxiety scores compared to the start of the program.
Spending time in the sun isn’t just good for relaxing and spending time with friends — this vitamin is also a key factor in promoting your mental health and wellness.
By helping to regulate the levels of happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, vitamin D can play a role in your mood.
It is also able to shape the gut bacteria, and even possesses some antiinflammatory properties.
At the end of three months, the subjects reported significant improvements in their anxiety symptoms.
There is a chance that only those that receive low amounts of this vitamin can enjoy its potential benefits in keeping anxiety at bay.
However, with a large majority of people suffering from vitamin D deficiency, increasing your intake of this nutrient may do your body and mental health a lot of good.
While the sun is the most shining example of a vitamin D source, you may also get your vitamin fix from drinking large amounts of milk and eating fatty fish like trout, salmon, tuna and mackerel.
Mushroom, liver and egg are also good sources of vitamin D.
The ketogenic diet is made up of high fats and low carbohydrates. That means consuming meals that are high in lard, butter, cocoa butter and saturated fats such as coconut oil.
It also requires eating vegetables like kale, swiss chard, cauliflower and broccoli that are low in simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
While fruits are largely carb-rich, indulging your cravings with staples like berries in small portions is encouraged while on the diet.
Strictly following this diet helps the body produce ketones, a known energy source for the brain. These ketones are produced in high amounts as a reaction to the body’s carbohydrate deficiency.
They have the effect of regulating gut bacteria and improving gut barrier function, and this fuel may also hold anti-inflammatory properties. All of which can help to ease the burden of anxiety.
While more studies are required to truly understand the effects of low-carb diets on anxiety and other mental health challenges, reports have shown that diets such as the ketogenic plan may have positive effects on relieving this condition.
As we mentioned, while food may possess the ability to improve your anxiety, certain foods may make your stomach turn with their negative impact on your mood.
Here are two more common culprits:
Diet soda and common low-fat snacks may sound like healthy alternatives to their fizzy high-fructose counterparts, but these foods could play a role to play in your worsening anxiety.
This is because artificial sweeteners such as aspartame have been found to affect neurochemicals in the brain.
When you take a sip of your diet drink, your body breaks it down until certain neurotransmitters (messengers between cells) and acids are produced.
These compounds have the effect of reducing the manufacture of serotonin and dopamine — which you’ll remember help regulate mood.
They also damage neurons and cells that transport and protect elements within the brain.
When this happens, these sweeteners may cause conditions like anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
While your gut helps provide some support against anxiety, gluten comes in to put a leak in its activities — literally.
Consuming gluten causes what’s called “leaky gut” in some people, a digestive condition that affects the lining of the intestine.
Here, bacteria and toxins leak through the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream.
In turn, this causes inflammation.
This leak is caused by gluten proteins, which not only cause inflammation in the body, but can increase levels of anxiety.
Where you live with anxiety, reducing the number of artificial sweeteners and gluten may be a step in the right direction for improving your condition — and that goes double for the sugary foods and processed meats we mentioned above.
While a healthy diet can provide much-needed anxiety relief, this condition is perhaps most commonly managed with the help of trusted medication, therapy or a combination of both. Here’s how these options improve anxiety:
Drugs are a usual resort for managing mental illness — including in anxiety treatment.
Antidepressants in the form of SSRIs and SNRIs are able to influence chemical messengers in the brain that help improve the mood.
Likewise, antidepressants can help with improving the way the brain uses chemicals that improve your mood or stress levels.
In addition to these pharmacological options, beta-blockers usually used to manage high blood pressure can also help with getting the trembling, rapid heartbeat and other symptoms of anxiety under control.
If you struggle with anxiety, sharing your experiences with others, the difficulties of your condition, or how you push through with its impact can help with making you feel less alone.
Also, speaking with people going through the same thing leaves open a well of knowledge as to their coping mechanisms and challenges.
If you’d like to dip your toes into one of such gatherings, we provide anonymous support groups that can be accessed from the comfort of your home over your phone, or computer.
Besides improving your diet, there are other trusted ways to help with managing anxiety. These methods include:
Medications such as beta-blockers, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
Very commonly, therapy is used to manage the emotional challenges that often come with anxiety.
In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy can help with changing the methods of thinking that encourage this condition.
For more about managing anxiety, look through our guide How to Cope with Your Anxiety.
You are what you eat, and so is your mental health. Living with anxiety, and all the usual interruptions its symptoms bring to our daily lives can be more than challenging.
Making the appropriate changes to your diet — cutting out gluten and artificial sweeteners, and upping your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, vitamin D and foods low in carbohydrates — may help manage your condition.
Remember, it is extremely important to discuss a balanced diet and develop a comprehensive treatment plan for your anxiety with a healthcare provider before starting off on your own.
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