Updated: Apr 6
Nutrition is one of the most overlooked contributing factors to anxiety because there isn’t a direct effect with each spoonful of food. However, bite by bite we are in fact undergoing undetectable but accumulating changes. Nutrition is a lot like the metaphor of how to boil a frog. The premise is that if a frog is dropped suddenly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if the frog is put in room temperature water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the immediate danger and will be cooked. So what should we be aware of so we don’t gradually eat ourselves into greater anxiety?
With the availability of Google most of us are capable of finding generally good information on what to eat, and some general principles of nutrition to follow. Drink enough water to stay hydrated, limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine are recommendations that should be followed and will show up in high ranking articles in the search results. But when it comes to carbs and the types that are most effective, or if we should eat carbs at all, the dietary information can get a little confusing or appear contradictory.
In general most of us should eat carbs, and here's why. Eating a meal rich in carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin which pulls glucose into cells where it can be used for energy, while at the same time triggering tryptophan to enter the brain. Tryptophan affects the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin which play key roles in mood and sleep and wake cycles.
The recent popularity of low-carb diets may interest some to give it a try after hearing about the panacea of symptoms it is reported to alleviate. The problem is that the initial stress for some of going into ketosis may cause them to not feel as calm or comfortable as the body transitions into a fat as fuel state. For others, trying a low-carb diet may be temporarily uncomfortable but a valid option.
When it comes to carbs, complex carbs are the best choice because they are metabolized more slowly due to the higher fiber content and therefore help maintain more even blood sugar levels, and help us feel fuller longer which can create a calmer feeling. Whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and fruits would fall in the category of complex carbs. Simple carbs found in processed foods (cakes, candies, cookies and baked goods) many times leave us feeling initially very good, but doesn't satisfy our hunger for long and results in snacking and eating later into the evening to fully satisfy our hunger cravings.
Adequate protein is essential for mental health, and another factor that will keep you feeling full longer than carbs, and provide the building blocks of life, amino acids. Essential amino acids must be consumed through our diet and are key to brain health. Foods rich in high quality protein include meats, milk and other dairy products, and eggs. Plant proteins such as beans, peas, and grains may be low in one or two essential amino acids but should still be included for fiber and protein variety. Many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids. The neurotransmitter dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine and the neurotransmitter serotonin is made from tryptophan. If there is a lack of these two amino acids, there will not be enough neurotransmitters, leaving a higher risk for anxiety and depression.
Fat is also essential to controlling hunger cravings and keeping us full, and may even help to support glucose responses in our body during meals but more importantly fats play key roles in the health of our brain and nerves. The brain is the one organ that is primarily made of fat. The type of fat in the brain is mainly composed of fatty acids. These phospholipids are literally part of our neuron and cell membrane structure throughout our entire body. About half of the gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control, is made of up of fatty acids. Over 30% of all the fat in the brain is comprised of omega-3's. Fish oil is where we consume the majority of the essential omega-3's, DHA, EPA and DPA. Experimental studies have revealed that diets lacking omega-3 (EPA and DHA) lead to considerable disturbance in neural function. And studies also show that the type of fat we consume, or lack of the proper type of fat in our diet, can play a role in anxiety. In general most diets lack omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA, ALA, DPA) but have an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, which in excess can drive inflammation, and are associated with poor mental health. Other fats that have proven benefits for brain health include coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and other monounsaturated fats from nuts and seeds.
Timing can also play a role in how we feel and influence the body's circadian rhythm. If you skip meals or eat sporadically you may experience a drop in blood glucose, and lack of essential amino acids and fatty acids, making you feel jittery, nauseous and generally uneasy. Intermittent fasting, time-restricted eating and long fasts are currently trending however they may not be the best place to start. Starting by simply adding nutrient dense whole foods on a consistent basis (3 meals, 2 snacks daily) may be a better strategy until anxiety symptoms are under control. Instead of restricting eating times focus on getting whole foods on a regular basis first to give your body a predictable schedule and consistent intake of essential nutrients.
Our brain is also influenced by what our gut microbes feed on, and the types of microbes we consume. A big part of what our microbes produce is serotonin. In our gut serotonin and also enter our bloodstream acting as a metabolic hormone with peripheral nerves, and other tissues, but doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier. A large percentage (about 95%) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut where serotonin can also interact with nerves in our intestines (vagus nerve and other enteric nerves) that do send direct signals to our brain. This connection is referred to as the gut-brain axis. Research is examining the potential of prebiotics and probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression. A study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. A diet rich in fermentable fibers (prebiotics) such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and fermented foods (probiotics) such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh is believed to prevent neurotoxicity and neuron hyperexcitability. Yogurt contains the probiotics, Lactobaccilus and Bifidobacteria and in a recent clinical review, yogurt and other dairy products were found to produce anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Emerging research and multiple studies have found consuming beneficial bacteria increases happiness.
Other key nutrients that should be consumed for anxiety and have a lot of evidence are:
Magnesium is on the top of the list for a reason, as deficiency can lead to anxiety and stress. Supplements are available and should be taken to help get symptoms under control. Along with supplementation should come an addition of magnesium rich foods with the combination allowing you to reach a minimum of 400 mg per day as a male and 310 mg per day as a female.
Magnesium in Foods: In general rich sources of magnesium are greens, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains and dairy products.
-Pumpkin seed - kernels: Serving Size 1 oz, 168 mg
-Almonds, dry roasted: Serving Size 1 oz, 80 mg
-Spinach, boiled: Serving Size ½ cup, 78 mg
-Cashews, dry roasted: Serving Size 1 oz, 74 mg
-Pumpkin seeds in shell: Serving Size 1 oz, 74 mg
-Peanuts, oil roasted: Serving Size ¼ cup, 63 mg
-Black beans, cooked: Serving Size ½ cup, 60 mg
-Edamame, shelled, cooked: Serving Size ½ cup, 50 mg
-Dark chocolate -60-69% cacoa: Serving Size 1 oz, 50 mg
-Peanut butter, smooth: Serving Size 2 tablespoons, 49 mg
-Avocado, cubed: Serving Size 1 cup, 44 mg
-Potato, baked with skin: Serving Size 3.5 oz, oz, 43 mg
-Rice, brown, cooked: Serving Size ½ cup, 42 mg
-Yogurt, plain: Serving Size 8 oz, 42 mg
-Oatmeal, instant: Serving Size 1 packet, 36 mg
-Kidney beans, canned: Serving Size ½ cup, 35 mg
-Banana: Serving Size 1 medium, 32 mg
-Cocoa powder– unsweetened: Serving Size 1 tablespoon, 27 mg
-Salmon, Atlantic, farmed: Serving Size 3 oz, 26 mg
-Milk: Serving Size 1 cup, 24–27 mg
-Halibut, cooked: Serving Size 3 oz, 24 mg
-Raisins: Serving Size ½ cup, 23 mg
-Chicken breast, roasted: Serving Size 3 oz, 22 mg
-Beef, ground, 90% lean: Serving Size 3 oz, 20 mg
-Broccoli, chopped & cooked: Serving Size ½ cup, 12 mg
-Rice, white, cooked: Serving Size ½ cup, 10 mg
-Apple: Serving Size 1 medium, 9 mg
-Carrot, raw: Serving Size 1 medium, 7 mg
Zinc is next on the list because it also play a role in preventing anxiety and excess physiologic stress on the body. Studies show that that higher zinc plasma levels are associated with less anxiety compared to controls. Furthermore, zinc supplementation was shown to lower oxidation and inflammation and improve anxiety symptoms.
Zinc in Foods: In general seafood and meat are going to provide the majority of zinc in our diets.
-Oysters, cooked, breaded and fried, 3 ounces 74 mg
-Beef chuck roast, braised, 3 ounces 7.0 mg
-Crab, Alaska king, cooked, 3 ounces 6.5 mg
-Beef patty, broiled, 3 ounces 5.3 mg
-Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces 3.4 mg
-Pork chop, loin, cooked, 3 ounces 2.9 mg
-Baked beans, canned, plain or vegetarian, ½ cup 2.9 mg
-Chicken, dark meat, cooked, 3 ounces 2.4 1mg
-Pumpkin seeds, dried, 1 ounce 2.2 mg
-Yogurt, fruit, low fat, 8 ounces 1.7 mg
-Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce 1.6 mg
Vitamin D is a nutrient that acts more like a hormone in our body and has receptor sites in our brain, so it's no surprise that it plays an essential role in brain health and anxiety. A 2015 review study showed that people with symptoms of anxiety or depression had lower levels of vitamin D. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Research found that taking vitamin D supplements improved both depression and anxiety in women with type 2 diabetes.
The best source of vitamin D is from the sun but small amounts can be attained from our diet. In situations of depleted vitamin D, deficiency or anxiety and depression supplementation of vitamin D3 would definitely be warranted. Taking a daily dose of 2,000 IU (50 mcg) - 5,000 IU (125 mcg) would be sufficient for most to maintain current levels and gradually increase the levels in their body.
Vitamin D in Food. In general most vitamin D is going to come from seafood, meat, dairy and eggs.
-Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon 1,360 IU
-Swordfish, cooked, 3 ounces 566 IU
-Salmon (sockeye), cooked, 3 ounces 447 IU
-Tuna fish, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces 154 IU
-Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 2 sardines 46 IU
-Liver, beef, cooked, 3 ounces 42 IU
-Egg, 1 large (vitamin D is found in yolk) 41 IU
B Vitamins are found in high amounts in nuts like almonds, avocados, green vegetables, meats and fruits. There are too many studies to list on the benefits of B vitamin supplementation and their benefits with anxiety. In general the majority of the evidence shows that vitamins B9 (folate), B12, B6 and B2 (riboflavin) are essential for reducing anxiety. A 2017 study found that people who had lower blood levels of vitamin B12 were more likely to have depression or anxiety.
Antioxidants also play a key role in reducing inflammation and anxiety. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, fruits, many traditional spices such as turmeric and giner, and nuts. These foods contain high amounts of selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E which are master antioxidants in the body.
A study of 80 patients with generalized anxiety disorder and depression all had decreased levels of vitamins A, C, and E compared to healthy control participants. Researchers supplemented these antioxidants and vitamins for 6 weeks and found decreased anxiety and depression scores. The findings suggest that antioxidant supplements in conjunction with therapy is useful in patients with stress-induced psychiatric disorders.
There is no question that diet and supplementation in combination can influence anxiety. If you're ready to make some changes with your diet but don't know where to start I've created a 7-Day Anxiety Diet that takes out all the guess work. It includes recipes, a shopping list and weekly meal plans. For $7 it's hard to pass up on something that can save you time and the added stress of trying to improve your anxiety on your own.