By Erin Appleton
Anxiety affects about 40 million adults in the United States, or 18% of the population, each year1. Particularly in such uncertain times, managing anxiety can be very challenging. While there are many treatment options for anxiety such as therapy and medication, what about diet?
We know that physical health and mental health are connected, so can diet changes help improve symptoms of anxiety?
While there is no specific diet that will cure anxiety, making dietary changes may improve your physical and mental health. For anxiety, consider these strategies:
Eat a healthy, balanced diet - Make sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Eating a balanced diet is essential for not only your physical health, but your mental health as well.
Stay hydrated! Not drinking enough water causes dehydration which has been shown to influence mood and lower alertness2. Make sure you are paying attention to your thirst. One easy way to help yourself remember to drink water is to keep a water bottle by your desk.
Drink less caffeine – While caffeine may help with focus, it can also cause you to feel nervous and restless. Research suggests that people with anxiety disorders may be more sensitive to the anxiety producing effects of caffeine3. Also, caffeine can also make it more difficult to sleep which can worsen anxiety.
Drink less alcohol – In excess, alcohol has been shown to negatively affect mood and overall health. While you may initially experience a positive effect from alcohol, it can worsen symptoms of anxiety as it is being processed hours later or the next day4,5.
For those with diabetes who take insulin, avoid skipping meals – skipping meals while taking insulin may cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)6. Symptoms of hypoglycemia may include shakiness, anxiety, and irritability6.
Are there any specific foods that will reduce my anxiety?
While we have been seeing more studies on the connection between diet and anxiety, we still have a lot to learn. This connection is not yet well understood, and more research needs to be done before we can say for sure that certain foods will reduce symptoms of anxiety. Instead of focusing on specific foods, focus on eating an overall healthy and balanced diet. If you are eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, you are likely already getting the nutrients you need to support your body and mind.
Research shows that people with depressive and anxiety disorders consume lower quality diets compared to people without these disorders7. Additionally, a higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods may be associated with increased anxiety in both men and women8. While some studies have found that improving diet quality also improved mood9, it is difficult to conclude whether or not specific foods improved or worsened symptoms of anxiety. That being said, two nutrients that are currently under study for their role in mental health are omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fish and certain nuts such as walnuts. Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to have an effect on mood by reducing inflammation as increased inflammation is often found in people with anxiety9,10. There is some evidence that suggests omega 3 fatty acids may improve symptoms of anxiety9, but more research needs to be done before we can be certain.
Probiotics are helpful bacteria that are important for the health of our gut. Our gut is full of beneficial bacteria that do a variety of useful functions. Good sources of probiotics include fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. There is a lot of research currently being done about the connection between our gut health and our brain health. There is some research to support the use of probiotics in reducing anxiety symptoms9, but more still needs to be done.
Remember, there are so many more factors for anxiety than diet. Also, there are so many more ways to manage anxiety than diet alone – make sure to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and talk to your friends and family. If anxiety is negatively impacting your life, reach out to your doctor to explore further treatment options.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Facts and Statistics. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Benton, David, & Young, Hayley A. (2015). Do small differences in hydration status affect mood and mental performance? Nutrition Reviews, 73(Suppl 2), 83-96.
Lara, D. R. (2010). Caffeine, mental health, and psychiatric disorders. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 20 Suppl 1(S1), S239-S248.
Sawchuck, C. N. Coping with anxiety: Can diet make a difference?. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/coping-with-anxiety/faq-20057987
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Mayo Clinic. Hypoglycemia. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypoglycemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20373685
Gibson-Smith, Deborah, Bot, Mariska, Brouwer, Ingeborg A, Visser, Marjolein, & Penninx, Brenda W.J.H. (2018). Diet quality in persons with and without depressive and anxiety disorders. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 106, 1-7.
Jacka, Felice N, Mykletun, Arnstein, Berk, Michael, Bjelland, Ingvar, & Tell, Grethe S. (2011). The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: The Hordaland Health study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73(6), 483-490.
Taylor, Andrew M, & Holscher, Hannah D. (2020). A review of dietary and microbial connections to depression, anxiety, and stress. Nutritional Neuroscience, 23(3), 237-250.
Felger, J. C. (2018). Imaging the Role of Inflammation in Mood and Anxiety-related Disorders. Current Neuropharmacology, 16(5), 533-558.