Tweaking your diet is an easy lifestyle change that you can make to help with anxiety.
Does diet impact mental health? Are there certain foods to calm anxiety? These are questions that many people who have anxiety are increasingly asking as they learn more and more about the link between diet and wellness. It turns out that researchers have been asking the same question. Learning how to balance nutrition may help some people better balance their mood. Take a look at the main things to know about eating a diet to help manage anxiety.
What Does Your Diet Have to Do with Your Mood?
Many people are surprised to learn that diet does, in fact, impact mood. There are many diet-related factors that can trigger anxiety. Poor hydration is one of them. Studies have found that even mild dehydration can impact mood,
Low blood sugar is one factor that often triggers anxiety. Low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia, is most usually caused by diet or exercise habits. When your blood sugar drops below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), your body increases its production of epinephrine, which makes your palms sweat and your heart race. This can make you feel anxious.
Another factor that might be related to anxiety is your gut health. An understanding of how diet impacts mood starts in the gut. Many people assume that the “mind” and “stomach” are two separate things. Discoveries in research are proving just how misguided this viewpoint really is.
“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,” according to information provided by Harvard Health. While we think of serotonin as being a “brain” chemical, the truth is that what happens in our gut ultimately determines how much natural serotonin we have to work with. This is important because serotonin levels can directly impact our experiences with anxiety and depression.
Most people know serotonin as a “happiness hormone.” In fact, many common antidepressant medications are designed to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps stabilize mood in both direct and indirect ways. Some of the areas of wellness influenced by serotonin include:
- Reward centers
- Sleep patterns
One of the best ways to naturally increase serotonin levels is to fortify the gut against unhealthy bacteria. The gut can become overtaken by bad bacteria due to illness, poor diet, and the use of antibiotic medication. We can undo this problem by increasing the levels of healthy bacteria in the gut.
Healthy gut bacteria levels are built up by eating probiotics and prebiotics. While probiotics contain the “good bacteria” that the gut needs to fight off harmful bacteria linked with illness, prebiotics feed good bacteria to allow them to proliferate. Examples of probiotics that people can easily eat include yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut. Prebiotic fibers are found naturally in legumes, vegetables, berries, oats, bananas, onions, and wheat bran. Of course, building up good bacteria in the gut is only part of the picture when it comes to reducing anxiety through diet. Food type, quality, and frequency can also impact mood.
There are two ways to look at an anti-anxiety diet. The first is to focus on specific foods that have been proven to reduce anxiety. The second is to look at essential vitamins and minerals found in foods that have been proven to reduce anxiety. Take a look at some “best bets” when it comes to nourishing your mental health.
Beefing up your magnesium intake may be one of the best ways to holistically approach anxiety. One study published in 2012 links low-magnesium diets with increased anxiety. Luckily, magnesium is relatively easy to get just by eating everyday staples like leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
A 2013 study found that higher zinc intake helped reduce signs of anxiety. The reason why researchers think zinc is so beneficial for “bringing the calm” comes down to its impact on something called the vagus nerve that transports soothing messages between the brain and body. Zinc is readily found in many common foods like fish, pine nuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds, peas, shiitake mushrooms, sweet corn, and beet greens.
A 2019 study found that vitamin B can positively impact mood for people at risk for depression and anxiety. While B vitamins have many different positive effects on the body, their ability to support the adrenal glands is credited with why they help stabilize mood. Salmon, leafy greens, milk, egg, beef, oysters, and legumes are all vitamin-B superstars.
Everyone should know about the power of bananas for improving mood. Yes, the banana contains several key elements needed for natural food-induced happiness. Bananas are bursting with an amino acid called tryptophan that’s associated with mood. However, the natural carbohydrates in bananas make it easier for the brain to absorb tryptophan. In addition, the abundant levels of vitamin B6 in bananas then help to convert tryptophan to serotonin.
Fish is one of the most powerful “mood foods” out there. That’s because fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that can only be obtained through diet because they aren’t produced naturally by the body. Salmon and albacore are the two superstars for omega-3 fatty acids. In studies, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with improved outcomes for people with psychiatric disorders.
This one almost feels like a gift! Yes, dark chocolate is excellent for mental health. However, it should be said that focusing on small portions of quality dark chocolate that don’t contain fillers like sugar and artificial flavoring is essential for retaining the “brain benefits” of dark chocolate. How does dark chocolate help to improve mood? First, the sugar in dark chocolate may create an “instant” mood improvement because the brain can use it as a pick-me-up fuel source. In addition, dark chocolate has a natural “feel good” concoction made of caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine. What’s more, dark chocolate serves up natural compounds called flavonoids that are known to increase blood flow to the brain. Researchers have found that supplementation with cocoa is linked with acute cognitive effects.
Yes, an ordinary bowl of oats can be extraordinary for your mood! This whole-grain breakfast option serves as a great source of fiber. The link between fiber intake and mood is often overlooked. However, fiber’s role in slowing the digestion of carbs allows for a more gradual release of sugar in your bloodstream. This results in stable energy levels that can facilitate a stable mood. Many people describe the feeling of becoming overly hungry as being “hangry.” For some people, this personality “crash” that happens can result in a racing pulse, mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. One study shows that people who consume 1.5 grams to 6 grams of fiber at breakfast experience better mood with higher energy levels due to stabilized blood sugar levels. Yes, that means a timeless, filling favorite like overnight oats can be the secret to a high-energy day without the familiar anxiety and emotional volatility of a post-breakfast crash.
Antioxidants may play a significant role in naturally addressing anxiety symptoms. The influence of antioxidant consumption on mood is so powerful that researchers involved in a 2012 study looking at the role of antioxidants in generalized anxiety disorder and depression found that antioxidant supplement therapy is helpful for patients with stress-induced psychiatric disorders. What foods have the highest amounts of antioxidants? The list of the best antioxidant foods includes small red beans, strawberries, raspberries, artichokes, cranberries, black beans, pecans, blackberries, and most apple varieties. Leafy greens are the true champions in this category.
Generally, any food choices that spike blood sugar to facilitate a “crash” would be considered poor choices for someone looking to manage anxiety using diet. This can include things like energy drinks, fruit juices, refined carbohydrates, and processed meats. Sugary drinks and refined carbs can be so bad for mood because they trigger the body’s release of insulin to help absorb excess glucose. This creates feelings of “highs” and “lows” that can leave you feeling irritable and anxious.
First, a healthier menu is never intended to replace the guidance of a trained psychiatric professional. Never assume that it’s safe to discontinue medication just because you’re switching to an anxiety-focused diet. However, focusing on feel-good foods packed with the natural vitamins and minerals known to fight anxiety can be a great way to supplement other forms of self-care.
Preparation is everything when you have anxiety. For many people using food “therapeutically” to manage anxiety, meal prep is the easiest way to stay on track. Meal delivery that covers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks ensures the right balance for mentally feeling your best every day! It’s important to plan to have access to regular healthy meals to avoid the trap of reaching for “convenient” foods when it’s time to stop your busy day to eat.