List of Foods that Help and Hurt Anxiety
Foods can help anxiety, and foods can hurt anxiety. What we eat directly impacts our body, brain, and even biochemistry. It makes sense, then, given that anxiety has biological components, nutrition plays a vital role in anxiety. Decades of research has consistently shown that some foods help with anxiety and a sense of calm while other foods can cause, or at least contribute to, anxiety and stress (Bourne, 2010).
Our being functions as a whole unit. Especially in the Western world, we often think in terms of “body,” “mind,” and “spirit” as separate entities. However, in reality, we are one system functioning together. What we eat affects how we feel, which in turn influences how our mind perceives the world and how it thinks. Thoughts impact mood, which also affect thoughts; together, these influence what we eat. Food does both help and hurt anxiety in many ways.
It’s encouraging that food can have a direct impact on anxiety. What we eat is in our control. We are in charge of what we eat and how we eat it; thus, we can not only avoid aggravating anxiety but actually reduce it with food.
Foods That Reduce Anxiety and Stress
Certain foods have the power to reduce anxiety and feelings of stress in many ways. Different foods offer a variety of benefits. General ways that foods help with anxiety include:
- protecting the nervous system to ensure healthy functioning,
- calming the brain in ways that mimic meditation,
- increasing serotonin to induce relaxation,
- inducing muscle relaxation,
- providing tranquilizing effects similar to the prescription sedative Ativan but without side effects,
- soothing the digestive system, which is often aggravated by stress and anxiety,
- counteracting excess cortisol, one of the hormones implicated in anxiety and stress.
Collectively, the foods on this list are some of the best foods to reduce anxiety and the feelings of stress:
- vegetables in general (celery, lettuce, green beans, asparagus, artichokes, beets, onion, leeks, garlic in particular),
- fruits (especially citrus, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, bananas),
- salt (in small amounts, regulates adrenal gland’s production of cortisol and aldosterone),
- omega-3 fatty acids,
- complex carbohydrates
- whole grain breads, rice, cereal
- green tea
Foods to Avoid with Anxiety
Food can hurt our experience with anxiety for a variety of reasons. In general, foods can
- spur the body into fight-or-flight mode
- increase the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, the over-production of which causes an unhealthy level of arousal and releases adrenaline (courtesy of caffeine)
- lead to chronic tension, increasing vulnerability to anxiety and panic (caffeine is one of the culprits of chronic tension)
- cause poor blood circulation in the brain
- inhibit the production and/or absorption of neurotransmitters
- stimulate the adrenal glands to create cortisol
- create symptoms in the body that mimic a panic attack
Just as some foods help anxiety, some foods exacerbate it and contribute to the effects of stress. Foods that cause or increase anxiety should be reduced or eliminated from your diet:
- salt (while some salt helps the adrenal glands, too much depletes the body of potassium, an important nutrient for nervous system functioning)
- saturated fats
- chocolate (because of caffeine and sugar)
- processed foods
- refined sugar
How You Eat Can Help Anxiety
Perhaps you’ve heard the old statement, “You are what you eat.” When it comes to anxiety and stress, there is wisdom in that statement. There is further wisdom in the statement, “You are how you eat.”
The way we consume our food has been shown to play a role in anxiety and how we experience stress. Methods for eating in a way that reduces anxiety and increases a sense of calm and overall wellness involve:
- grazing, or eating five- to six small meals a day every two- to three hours to keep your blood sugar and stream of nutrients balanced and stable,
- eating breakfast to supply the proper nutrients and prevent your body from feeling starved, which kicks in the fight-or-flight response,
- slowing down rather than eating on the run,
- chewing thoroughly to aid digestion and the proper absorption of nutrients,
- drinking no more than eight ounces with a meal to avoid the dilution of digestive enzymes and stomach acid
- practicing mindful eating, during which you slow down, put work and worries aside, and focus on the experience of eating and the food itself.
Says psychiatrist Ted Dinan of Ireland’s University College Cork, “You can’t have a healthy brain without a healthy gut” (White, 2016).
Food is important in anxiety reduction and stress management. You can make a positive difference in your mental health and wellbeing by being intentional about what you eat and how you eat it.
Last Updated: 17 May 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD