Hippocrates once said, “let food be thy medicine.” He had a point. Different foods have dramatic effects not only on our physical health, but our emotional health as well. And since anxiety affects an estimated 30% of Americans, it makes sense to turn to food to help calm frayed nerves.
“When you have anxiety, you also have low levels of [the neurotransmitter] serotonin,” says Allegra Picano, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. “And since about 95% of the serotonin in the body is in our gut, it makes sense that what we eat impacts how we feel.”
Anxiety Reducing Foods
It’s no secret that foods impact how we feel. Snack on your kid’s Halloween candy? You might get a burst of energy followed by a crash an hour or two later. Indulge on too much turkey during the Thanksgiving Day feast? You’ll probably feel sleepy.
Foods and beverages can help you feel calm and relaxed (think herbal tea) or energized and awake (think coffee). So if you tend to feel anxious, use these do’s and don’ts to prioritize foods that soothe you and minimize those that make you jittery.
Do eat these anxiety-reducing foods
- Whole grains: Whole grains, especially the ancient variety, are loaded with B vitamins, disease-fighting compounds and fiber, which help keep blood sugar levels steady and stave off food cravings. A bonus: “Foods like oatmeal, whole grain pasta and brown rice increase the availability of serotonin in the brain,” Picano says.
- Calming proteins: Our bodies and brains need essential amino acids to function optimally. If you really want to calm down, choose proteins that are high in tryptophan, a substance the body converts to feel-good serotonin. Turkey, eggs, tofu and beans are all good options.
- Healthy fats: Heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, often linked with fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, are proven mood boosters. The reason: omega-3s help regulate the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. But fish is not the only source of healthful fats. Nuts and seeds including Brazil nuts, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds can also help ease a frenetic mind.
Don’t eat foods that can worsen anxiety
- Caffeine: If you rely on a cup of coffee to get moving in the morning and keep energy levels humming, you’re in good company. Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it can boost energy levels, at least in the short term. Unfortunately, too much java can also increase blood pressure levels and worsen anxiety. Your best bet: Avoid energy drinks, coffee and caffeinated tea, especially after noon.
- Alcohol: While it’s tempting to turn to alcohol to calm frayed nerves (alcohol is a depressant, after all), that approach can quickly backfire. “In the moment, alcohol may lessen anxiety, but it can also lead to poor sleep, drowsiness and impaired judgement, which can worsen anxiety over time,” Picano says.
- Processed foods: Simple carbs like white rice, white bread and sugary foods like cookies, cakes and candy bars might give you a quick hit of energy, particularly if your blood sugar is low. But too much of the white stuff can overtax your body and make you more prone to anxiety.
A Balanced Diet And An At-Ease Brain
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all dietary solution for anxiety. But if your goal is to maintain a mild mood, it’s important to get adequate levels of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (B vitamins, vitamin D, and minerals like calcium, iron, selenium and magnesium).
“All of these nutrients play key roles in keeping our brain in an ‘at-ease’ state,” Picano says.
Once you ensure your diet is up to snuff, it may take some trial and error to figure out which foods calm your mind and which amp it up. “You might discover that you feel more anxious after a high-carb meal, or that a square of dark chocolate helps soothe your rattled mind,” Picano says. “The idea is to aim for a balance of nutrients that help you feel your best.”
It’s important to note that changing your diet isn’t a cure for anxiety. Instead, the most successful approaches combine dietary strategies with exercise, talk therapy and sometimes medications. Talk to your doctor to find out which combination is best for you.
Allegra Picano is a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.