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12 Foods That Will Help Ward Off Anxiety (Plus 12 That Could Exacerbate It)

Lauren Cook, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
By Lauren Cook, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Dr. Lauren Cook is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, company consultant, author, and speaker with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and her Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy.
How To Lower Cortisol Levels When You're Feeling Stressed & Anxious
Image by Javier Díez / Stock
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Though they are microscopic, changes in the gut microbiome can be significant for our brain health. For example, when we feel stress, it can lead to changes in our gut bacteria, corresponding with the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis in the brain. This then leads to corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in the brain to change our intestinal permeability. Layperson's terms: When we experience stress, it can lead to changes in our gut bacteria, which send a signal to the brain that we are under duress, leading to a release of cortisol, which then makes our stomachs more sensitive, and as a result induces feelings of anxiety. This builds on itself as the body continues to detect the ongoing experience of stress.

The good news is that our gut bacteria can also alleviate anxiety and depression. For example, researchers have found that different bacteria strains, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium (they sound like Harry Potter spells to me), can reduce the amount of cortisol that circulates when we're stressed. In fact, these bacteria strains have been shown to reverse the HPA-axis pattern that induces anxiety. It's important to note that this research was done with mice, but there's a strong plausibility that these findings correspond to what takes place in our human bodies as well. The same study also found that antidepressants can prevent the amount of cortisol released, which also impacts the gut. This makes sense, given how often clients share that their nausea and gastrointestinal distress subsided after they take an antidepressant.

Now, how can you heal your gut microbiome if you suspect yours may be under attack? Yogurt with active cultures (unheated) and fermented foods (think sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh) are great ways to get your gut health in high gear. If you're like me and you're a picky eater, prebiotic-rich foods such as raw apples, asparagus, beans, bananas, artichokes, garlic, and onions may help you start to wade in the pool of getting good gut health. It's also important to work with a provider who can recommend the right kind of probiotics for you based on your symptoms and give you instructions on how to take them.

For a quick frame of reference, here is a list of foods that can help alleviate your anxiety—or worsen it. Of course, these foods aren't the recipe for an automatic correlation, but they can certainly contribute to or decrease your anxiety. Why? Some food products can increase inflammation in our bodies, which causes oxidative stress, leading the brain to interpret distress signals that can correspond to anxiety and depression.

That's the thing—the food we put in our bodies can be medicine for the brain, or, at worst, poison. That may sound dramatic, and it's certainly not something to become obsessive about (trust me, it's rare that I go a day without eating some sugar). However, given that we're putting food into our bodies multiple times a day, we have to consider how it impacts our overall health, and especially our brain health. There could be a whole book on this (and certainly there are many—This Is Your Brain on Food by Uma Naidoo, M.D., is my absolute favorite), but here is a short list to help you get started.

Foods that can improve anxiety

  • Spinach and other leafy greens (folate helps produce dopamine)
  • Cashews (full of zinc, which can help reduce stress) and Brazil nuts (high in selenium, which can improve mood by reducing inflammation)
  • Salmon (packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids that counteract stress hormones) and oysters (a powerhouse for zinc)
  • Turkey (has the amino acid tryptophan, which can help produce serotonin)
  • Avocado (tons of B vitamins)
  • Dark chocolate (can help suppress cortisol, the stress hormone)
  • Kimchi, miso, and other fermented foods (contain a high amount of probiotics, which help with gut health), as well as yogurt
  • Turmeric (contains curcumin, which can help boost serotonin and dopamine)—use it with black pepper to activate!
  • Chamomile (shown to induce feelings of relaxation)
  • Peppermint tea (can help relax muscles when tense) and green tea (contains theanine, an amino acid, that can help keep stress at bay)
  • Eggs (great source of vitamin D and protein)
  • Berries (vitamin C helps repair damage from stress on our cellular walls)
  • Bananas (high in B vitamins, including folate and B6, which help produce serotonin)
  • Oats (a great serotonin booster and it's a complex carbohydrate, satisfying hunger) to activate!

Foods that can contribute to anxiety

  • Sugar (sudden blood sugar spikes can make the body feel jittery, irritable, and nervous while increasing inflammation)
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as Aspartame, sucralose, and saccharine (shown to contribute to neuropsychiatric problems)
  • Fried foods, especially when corn oil and soybean oil are used, as is often seen with fast food (increases inflammation)
  • Alcohol (causes blood sugar to spike while impacting sleep quality, interfering with serotonin, and also depleting B vitamins)
  • Caffeine (as a stimulant, it can intensify anxiety and induce panic attacks while also interfering with sleep)
  • Processed and prepackaged foods (can increase inflammation, negatively impacting the gut microbiome)
  • Gluten (especially for those with an intolerance, anxiety and depressive symptoms can be exacerbated)
  • Dairy (yep, this one is on both sides; it can be inflammatory, increasing adrenaline and decreasing magnesium)
  • Sugary drinks and diet and regular sodas (blood sugar spikes can amplify anxious symptoms, and these drinks lack fiber)
  • Foods high in trans fats/hydrogenated oils (think frosting, cake, cookies, etc.), as they contribute to increased inflammation
  • Foods in cans and plastic containers (may contain BPA, which can impact mood and blood pressure while also impacting fertility)
  • Some food additives and food dyes (have shown correlations with anxiety, depression, fatigue, and brain fog)

You don't need to do a total 180 with your diet, but if you can start making some small changes, you might start to see some noticeable differences in your anxiety levels. A breakfast packed with protein, for example, can be a way to stabilize your blood sugar in the morning while helping to improve the functioning of your neurotransmitters in the brain.

Ultimately, focusing on putting whole (preferably organic) and unprocessed foods into your body is a great and natural way to combat anxiety. It's not a surefire solution, but it certainly won't make your anxiety worse. I get that this is so much easier said than done. Eating healthy foods comes from a place of privilege. It's expensive to get fresh, organic, and non-prepackaged foods. At the end of the day, it's better to put some food into your body than none. When you can make the choice to eat green instead of plastic wrapped, or raw or steamed instead of fried—great. And if you can't, that's OK too—make do with what you have and do what you can when you can. It's better to be kind to yourself with how you're feeding your body than to mentally beat yourself up if you're not doing it "perfectly." There's no such thing.

Excerpt from the new book Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World by Lauren Cook published by Abrams Image © 2023.

Lauren Cook, PsyD author page.
Lauren Cook, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Lauren Cook is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, company consultant, author, and speaker. With a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and her Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Dr. Lauren appears frequently in the media to provide commentary while also working with companies as well as individual adults, couples, families, and teens to help reduce anxiety and improve personal and professional outcomes. She integrates evidence-based tools from a systems lens, and she speaks internationally, both in-person and virtually. Dr. Lauren owns a private practice, Heartship Psychological Services, serving all clients residing in California.

You can connect with Dr. Lauren through Tik Tok, Instagram, her Brain Health Book Club, and through her podcast, The Boardroom Brain. Stay tuned for Dr. Lauren’s latest book, GENERATION ANXIETY—set to hit the shelves in Fall 2023.