Anxiety is a widespread condition, affecting millions of people globally. Symptoms vary, and some people only experience them now and then. However, someone who experiences symptoms for 6 months or longer may have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
The symptoms of GAD include psychological and physical symptoms, such as:
- excessive worry about everyday events and problems
- difficulty concentrating
- issues with their personal social and work relationships
- heart palpitations, elevated heart rate
- muscle tension
- chest tightness
Doctors often treat GAD with a combination of treatments, including talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), alongside medications. Sometimes, these conventional treatments do not work long-term. However, some research suggests that proper nutrition can help improve symptoms.
Nine foods to eat to help reduce anxiety
1. Brazil nuts
Brazil nuts contain selenium, which may help to improve mood.
Brazil nuts are high in selenium. Selenium may improve mood by reducing inflammation, which is often at heightened levels when someone has a mood disorder, such as anxiety.
Selenium is also an antioxidant, which helps prevent cell damage. It is also anti-carcinogenic, which helps to prevent cancer from developing.
Other nuts, animal products, and vegetables, such as mushrooms and soybeans, are an excellent source of selenium.
It is important not to consume too much selenium as it can cause side effects. The recommended upper limit for selenium for an adult is 400 micrograms (mcg) per day. So be careful not to take supplements with high doses or eat more than a three to four Brazil nuts a day.
Brazil nuts and other nuts are also a good source of vitamin E. Vitamin E is an antioxidant. Antioxidants can be beneficial for treating anxiety, while some research has shown that low levels of vitamin E may lead to depression in some people.
2. Fatty fish
Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring, are high in omega-3. Omega-3 is a fatty acid that has a strong relationship with cognitive function as well as mental health.
However, recent research has shown that if a person eats too much of another fatty acid, called omega-6, and not enough omega-3, they may increase their risk of developing mood disorders, such as anxiety.
Omega-3-rich foods that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) provides two essential fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA regulate neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation, and promote healthy brain function.
A small study on 24 people with substance abuse problems found that EPA and DHA supplementation resulted in reduced levels of anxiety. However, more research is required.
Current recommendations suggest eating at least two servings of fatty fish a week. A study conducted on men found eating salmon three times a week reduced self-reported anxiety.
Salmon and sardines are also among the few foods that contain vitamin D.
Researchers are increasingly linking vitamin D deficiency to mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. A report in the Journal of Affective Disorders believes that there is enough evidence to prove that vitamin D positively helps depression. Other studies on pregnant women and older adults have also highlighted how vitamin D might improve mood. Vitamin D may also improve seasonal disaffected disorder (SAD) during winter.
Egg yolks are another great source of vitamin D.
Eggs are also an excellent source of protein. It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids the body needs for growth and development.
Eggs also contain tryptophan, which is an amino acid that helps create serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, memory, and behavior. Serotonin is also thought to improve brain function and relieve anxiety.
4. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of potassium, which helps regulate electrolyte balance and manage blood pressure.
Eating potassium-rich foods such, as pumpkin seeds or bananas, may help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of the mineral zinc. One study carried out on 100 female high school students found that zinc deficiency may negatively affect mood.
Zinc is essential for brain and nerve development. The largest storage sites of zinc in the body are in the brain regions involved with emotions.
5. Dark chocolate
Researchers have found that dark chocolate may help reduce stress.
Experts have long suspected that dark chocolate might help reduce stress and anxiety. A 2014 study found that 40g of dark chocolate helped reduce perceived stress in female students.
Other studies have generally found that dark chocolate or cocoa may improve mood. However, many of these studies are observational, so the results need to be interpreted with caution.
Although it is still unclear how dark chocolate reduces stress, it is a rich source of polyphenols, especially flavonoids. One study suggested that flavonoids might reduce neuroinflammation and cell death in the brain as well as improve blood flow.
Chocolate has a high tryptophan content, which the body uses to turn into mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin in the brain.
Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium. Eating a diet with enough magnesium in it or taking supplements may reduce symptoms of depression.
When choosing dark chocolate, aim for 70 percent or more. Dark chocolate still contains added sugars and fats, so a small serving of 1 to 3 grams (g) is appropriate.
Turmeric is a spice commonly used in Indian and South-East Asian cooking. The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin. Curcumin may help lower anxiety by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress that often increase in people experiencing mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. A 2015 study found that curcumin reduced anxiety in obese adults.
Another study found that an increase of curcumin in the diet also increased DHA and reduced anxiety. Turmeric is easy to add to meals. It has minimal flavor, so goes well in smoothies, curries, and casserole dishes.
Many people around the world use chamomile tea as an herbal remedy because of its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, and relaxant properties.
Some people believe that the relaxant and anti-anxiety properties come from the flavonoids present in chamomile. A recent study found that chamomile did reduce anxiety symptoms. However, it did not prevent new episodes of anxiety.
Chamomile tea may be useful in managing anxiety. It is readily available and safe to use in high doses.
Yogurt contains healthful bacteria, Lactobaccilus and Bifidobacteria. There is emerging evidence that these bacteria and fermented products have positive effects on brain health.
According to a recent clinical review, yogurt and other dairy products may also produce an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Some research suggests that chronic inflammation may be partly responsible for anxiety, stress, and depression.
A 2015 study found fermented foods reduced social anxiety in some young people, while multiple studies found consuming healthful bacteria increased happiness in some people.
Including yogurt and other fermented food in the diet can benefit the natural gut bacteria and may reduce anxiety and stress.
Fermented foods include cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented soy products.
9. Green tea
Green tea contains an amino acid called theanine, which is receiving increasing scrutiny due to its potential effects on mood disorders. Theanine has anti-anxiety and calming effects and may increase the production of serotonin and dopamine.
A 2017 review found that 200 mg of theanine improved self-reported relaxation and calmness while reducing tension in human trials.
Green tea is easy to add to the day-to-day diet. It is a suitable replacement for soft drinks, coffee, and alcoholic beverages.
Other foods that may help
Swiss chard contains magnesium, which may help to ease anxiety.
Eat a varied and balanced diet with high quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Aim for whole foods, vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and especially fish. Other foods that may help include:
- Turkey and other tryptophan-containing foods such as eggs, dark chocolate, cheese, pineapple, bananas, oats, and tofu.
- Nuts, especially almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E. Vitamin E deficiency has been linked to mood disorders.
- Chia seeds are also a good source of omega-3s.
- Protein sources, such as lean meat, fish, nuts, and dairy all provide amino acids, which the body converts into the mood-lifting neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
- Spinach and Swiss chard are both high in magnesium.
- Cinnamon provides anti-inflammatory properties
Evidence increasingly shows that diets high in processed foods can increase anxiety.
When to see a doctor for anxiety
If experiencing anxiety and stress, it is always best to seek out a specialist, such as a psychologist.
Sometimes, a doctor or psychologist may recommend talking therapy or CBT to manage anxiety and stress. They may also prescribe medications, such as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or benzodiazepines.
Eating a healthful diet should provide all the nutrients needed for healthy brain function.
A healthful diet that contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, as well as vitamins and minerals might help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Reducing foods that are high in added sugar, salt, and fats especially trans fats may help also help reduce inflammation. Reduce alcohol, sugar, and coffee as these may increase episodes of anxiety and the associated symptoms.
One report states that participating in enjoyable physical activity may also have a positive effect on mental health.