Although anxiety stems from a variety of factors, one thing is certain: Diet plays a very important role. As holistic beings, our mental and physical health are inseparable. How we nourish our bodies, therefore, determines how well we achieve a calmer state of mind.
Most often we hear about the anxiety-promoting effects of too much caffeine, skipping a meal, or too many simple carbohydrates. But what we don’t often hear about are foods that actually reduce anxiety.
Here are some of my favorite foods to help you keep calm and carry on:
Not only are beans good for the heart, as the saying goes, but they are also good for the nerves. Beans offer a healthy dose of fiber, which slows the digestion process and results in more stable blood sugars. Physiologically, this prevents the body from going on an undesirable roller-coaster ride—one that goes from buzzing to crashing.
Beans are also an excellent source of antioxidants. In fact, they’re right up there with popular superfoods such as berries. So what does this have to do with anxiety? Turns out an antioxidant-rich diet has been found to protect the body from harmful free radicals (which anxiety promotes).
Cashews are a wonderfully versatile nut. They can be made into vegan ricotta, savory or sweet cream sauces, or even energy bites. They're also a good source of zinc, which is a trace mineral essential for brain function. Zinc is like a behind-the-scenes agent when it comes to anxiety. It’s role is to convert vitamin B-6 to its active form, which goes on to help synthesize serotonin, a neurotransmitter known for maintaining mood balance. Getting enough zinc in the diet, therefore, is essential for mood balance.
Yogurt is a probiotic-rich food. The consumption of probiotics has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety, according to a recent study. Although the exact reason is unknown, consuming probiotic-rich foods can be a great low-risk strategy to reduce anxiety. Other probiotic-rich foods to include in your regular diet are kombucha, kefir, kimchi, pickles, sour cream, sauerkraut, and tempeh.
Asparagus extract is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a tonic, cough suppressant, and diuretic agent. More recently, though, the extract has been used in mice to study its effect on anxiety reduction. One study found that asparagus extract was very effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. Although it may be difficult to find asparagus extract, eating asparagus when it’s in season is a beneficial (and delicious!) alternative.
Looking to start a new health routine that can also help ease anxiety? Lemon water is your answer! Abundant in vitamin C, this lovely citrus fruit is known for its powerful antioxidant abilities. In regard to anxiety, vitamin C is quickly used up when the body is under stress. And if there is not enough vitamin C available, this can actually extend the stress response and lead to higher cortisol levels in the body over a longer period of time—so to keep chronic stress away, plenty of vitamin C is required.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, an essential fat we must get from our diet. Omega-3s play an important role in brain development and function. Just like zinc, omega-3s are highly concentrated in the brain. Authors in one randomized-controlled study evaluated the effects of omega-3 fatty-acid supplementation on anxiety reduction and found that subjects reduced their anxiety symptoms by 20 percent and also had lower levels of inflammation. To keep those nerves in check, eat at least two servings per week of fatty fish like salmon.
7. Pumpkin seeds:
Delivering almost 40 percent of the daily value of magnesium in just 1 ounce (~¼ cup), pumpkin seeds are another surprising food that reduces anxiety. Most adults are deficient in magnesium, and magnesium is crucial in regulating our internal response to stress. When magnesium is deficient in our diets, our bodies are less capable of reducing the amount of stress hormones released. Next time you’re at the salad bar or preparing oatmeal or making muffins, be sure to add magnesium-rich pumpkin seeds to help fight off stress.
Oats are abundant in many vitamins and minerals helpful in reducing anxiety. They contain B-vitamins, magnesium, and fiber, all of which help control stress. Because oats are whole grains containing complex carbohydrates, eating them is a great way to increase serotonin production. And serotonin, as we know, is a major antidepressant and anti-anxiety hormone. Starting the day with oatmeal for breakfast just might be the difference between a stress-reduced or stress-filled day.
9. Dark chocolate:
Easily one of the most exciting ways to manage stress, dark chocolate is an instant mood lifter with benefits to back up its use. Not only does dark chocolate contain antioxidants and magnesium, but it also contains an interesting fatty-acid neurotransmitter called anandamide. Anandamide has mood-lifting effects in the body and has recently been found to reverse stress-induced anxiety in mice. These results suggest that reaching for dark chocolate when we are stressed is not a bad thing and can actually be helpful in managing anxiety.
Ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.