Foods to Fight Anxiety

Jul 11, 202414 min
Author's Profile picture
Afeefa Rafath
Practicing Psychologist | EAP Counsellor | Content Writer
foods that fight anxiety fast

Nutrition can play a crucial role in managing anxiety. Explore the connection between diet and anxiety, and learn about the best foods for anxiety, including leafy greens, fatty fish, dark chocolate, and bananas, and get tips on creating an effective meal plan to support mental well-being.

Feeling Anxious? Fight Back with these calming foods

Anxiety is a natural survival mechanism that kicks in during stressful situations. The role of anxiety is to enhance our alertness to stressful or threatening situations.

However, when the level of anxiety becomes more harmful than helpful, it may hinder our ability to perform our daily tasks and handle stressful situations. Common symptoms of high anxiety include restlessness or feeling on edge, muscle tightness, tension headaches, difficulty concentrating and feeling tired or low on energy despite getting adequate rest.

Research has investigated the role of diet in managing anxiety, proposing a nutritional approach to correct any nutritional imbalances and aid management. Nutrient-rich foods that fight anxiety include fatty fish, dark chocolate, eggs, turmeric, and more.

Kindly note that diet or lifestyle changes alone may not be sufficient, and anxiety management may require regular therapy and medication under the guidance of a mental health professional. 

Gut-Brain Axis: A Look At The “Second Brain” In Your Gut  

Our brain and digestive systems have evolved together over time to ensure our survival through the food sources available. The brain and digestive system or gut send signals to each other via the gut-brain axis to communicate. The gut is sometimes called the "second brain" because it contains a complex network of neurons called the enteric nervous system (ENS) that is similar to the brain. What makes the ENS unique is its capability to somewhat operate independently from our brain, and it is responsible for our “gut feeling”

The gut contains trillions of microorganisms or “good bacteria” (microbiome) that influence our digestive and overall health. A diet lacking micronutrients, and containing preservatives, and additives are harmful to the microbiome. Environmental toxins like smoke, tobacco, alcohol, pollution, antibiotics and other medications can kill good bacteria in the microbiome and alter its environment. 

Recent studies have found the gut plays a role in certain illnesses where there is a significant overlap between gastrointestinal and mental disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) having no clear physical causes present.

Research into the gut-brain connection, including the role of the microbiome, is ongoing but increasingly shows that maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria through diet, probiotics, and lifestyle changes may help in managing anxiety symptoms.

Understanding the Power of Nutrition

Nutrition comprises two vital components: micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (carbs and fats). Both are essential for a balanced diet and overall well-being. Nutrient deficiencies can contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues. Specific vitamins and minerals that may impact anxiety by regulating stress responses and brain function include:

Vitamin B complex

Deficiencies in B vitamins, including B1, B6, B7, B12, and B complex, can contribute to anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Foods rich in B vitamins, like avocados and almonds, may help manage stress levels and regulate anxiety symptoms. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) or daily adequate intake (AI) is 2.4 mcg.

Vitamin C

People with vitamin C deficiency often report feeling fatigued and low and may experience anxiety and depression as well. Vitamin C (antioxidant) is the best food for the nervous system. It improves mood and boosts immunity. It is abundantly present in blueberries, oranges, and red peppers.  The recommended amount is 75 mg, with an upper limit of 2,000 mg. Smokers are recommended to add an extra 35 mg.

Magnesium and zinc

These play a role in vital brain functions such as the production of melatonin that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycles. A Harvard study reported that mice with low-magnesium diets were found to have an increase in anxiety-related behaviour. Foods rich in magnesium like spinach and other leafy greens are found to have a calming effect. The RDA for adults aged 18+ is 420 mg for men and 320 mg for women. Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, and beef improve bone strength and immunity. The RDA for zinc is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women respectively.

Iron

The body requires iron to produce happy hormones (dopamine). An iron deficiency restricts the production of dopamine thus, leading to unpleasant symptoms of anxiety and depression, including fatigue, restlessness, palpitations and headaches. The RDA for iron for individuals aged 19–50 years is 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women. Adult men and women aged 51+ are recommended 8 mg. 

Omega-3 fatty acids. 

These fatty acids are found in mackerel, salmon, walnuts and chia seeds. They support brain health, cardiovascular health and endocrine systems. Clinical trials have found that consuming omega-3 supplements lowers inflammation and anxiety symptoms. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 1–1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day as part of a healthy diet, and it's best to get them from food rather than supplements.

Plant-Powered (or veg) Choices for Calming Your Mind

Here is a list of plant-based foods that reduce anxiety and their nutritional benefits:

1.Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and turnips are rich in vitamins and minerals that support overall health, including brain health.

Sweet Potatoes are high in complex carbohydrates and magnesium, which can help stabilize blood sugar and promote relaxation.

Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are high in magnesium, which can help regulate cortisol levels and promote relaxation. 

2. Nuts and Seeds

Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are rich in magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which can support brain health and reduce anxiety symptoms.  Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and hemp seeds are rich in magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins, supporting overall mental health.

3. Whole Grains

Oats, quinoa, and brown rice are complex carbohydrates that can help stabilize blood sugar levels, promoting steady energy and mood.

4. Fruits 

 Blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are high in antioxidants and vitamin C, which can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation associated with anxiety.

Bananas are high in potassium and magnesium, as well as tryptophan, which can help improve mood and promote relaxation.

Avocados are rich in healthy fats, B vitamins, and potassium, which are essential for brain health and stress reduction. 

5. Legumes

Lentils, chickpeas, and black beans are good sources of magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins, which are the best food for the nervous system.

6. Fermented Foods

Kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yoghurt and tempeh contain probiotics that support gut health, which is linked to improved mood and reduced anxiety.

9. Dark Chocolate (in moderation)

contains flavonoids and magnesium that can help reduce stress and improve mood. Dark chocolate and anxiety are often positively linked due to these properties.

7. Herbal Teas

Chamomile, peppermint, lavender, and lemon balm are known for their calming effects and can help reduce anxiety.

Non-Vegetarian Options to Ease Anxiety

Non-vegetarian foods can also be beneficial in managing anxiety due to their rich nutrient profiles. Here are some top non-vegetarian foods that reduce anxiety:

Bone Broth

Is rich in amino acids like glycine, which has calming effects, and minerals that support overall health.

Poultry

Chicken, and turkey are good sources of protein and B vitamins, supporting overall brain function and mood.

Beef, particularly grass-fed beef, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and B vitamins, all of which are important for mental health.

Shellfish

Oysters, clams, and mussels are excellent sources of zinc and selenium, minerals that support brain function and mood regulation.

Organ Meats

Liver meat is high in vitamins B12, B6, and folate, which are important for mental health and can help reduce anxiety.

Eggs are rich in choline, which is essential for brain health, and contain tryptophan to help boost serotonin levels.

Lean Meats

Chicken, and turkey contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.

Fatty Fish

Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to reduce inflammation and promote brain health.

Spice Up Your Life and Reduce Anxiety

Herbs and spices not only make our food flavourful but are anti-anxiety foods and have calming benefits when consumed in moderation. Here’s what you need to know about them:

  1. Turmeric - known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that may help prevent anxiety disorders and promote brain health by improving blood flow to the brain.
  2. Saffron - This may help reduce anxiety and depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, and higher levels can promote feelings of well-being and reduce anxiety.
  3. Ginger - Apart from its medicinal properties, ginger promotes gut health, stabilises blood sugar levels and helps in the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the nervous system, and increased GABA activity may help reduce anxiety.
  4. Basil or Tulsi - A natural immunity booster that promotes balanced blood sugar levels, and GABA production. It also improves cognitive functioning like memory and concentration. 
  5. Cardamom - Also known as elaichi, this Indian spice is rich in antioxidants, the aroma of cardamom has a calming effect, improves digestive health, helps regulate blood pressure and can help relieve stress and anxiety. However, it can raise body temperature and is best limited to two pods per day. 
  6. Ashwagandha - Also known as winter cherry, this herb contains flavonoids and other ingredients that can help fight stress and anxiety. It can also improve sleep and reduce inflammation.
  7. Chamomile - This herb is famous for its calming and stress-relieving properties. It has a mild sedative effect and can help people with disturbed sleep. It is available as tea as well as supplements. It is best consumed post-dinner to ease your mind and calm your nerves for restful sleep.

Squeeze Away Stress with Fruit Juices (But Choose Wisely!)

Drinking juices is a convenient way to consume essential vitamins and minerals as part of our daily diet. However, it is crucial to be mindful of the natural sugar content present as too much of anything may be bad for us.  It is recommended to drink juices without added sugar or use substitutes like natural sweeteners (stevia, honey, jaggery) can be helpful. But bear in mind that this doesn’t solve for the concentrated sugar found in freshly squeezed juice. 

Opting for low-sugar varieties or diluting them with water to mitigate the sugar intake while still enjoying the benefits is another option. This way, you receive the stress-relieving benefits without the potential drawbacks of excessive sugar consumption. 

Foods that cause anxiety and one should avoid.

Certain foods worsen anxiety and stress levels, alter mood, and affect our physical functioning. Here’s a list of foods to avoid and why:

  1. Processed meats (high in saturated fat) - Saturated fats can cause inflammation in the body, which has been linked to mental health issues, including anxiety. Chronic inflammation can affect brain function and mood.
  2. Fried foods - They often contain unhealthy fats and can lead to inflammation and poor gut health. Both factors have been associated with an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression.
  3. Refined cereals - These cereals are often stripped of fibre and essential nutrients, leading to quick digestion and rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Such fluctuations can contribute to feelings of anxiety and irritability.
  4. Candy, pastries, and baked goods - These sugary treats cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, followed by sharp declines. The resulting blood sugar rollercoaster can lead to mood swings and heightened anxiety.
  5. High-fat dairy products - Similar to processed meats, high-fat dairy products can contribute to inflammation. Additionally, they may affect the balance of healthy gut bacteria, which plays a role in mental health.
  6. Caffeine - As a stimulant, caffeine can make you feel jittery and tense, increasing stress hormone levels like cortisol. Excessive caffeine intake can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and interfere with sleep, further worsening anxiety.
  7. Alcohol - It can affect serotonin levels and disrupt neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to increased anxious behaviours. While it may initially seem to have a calming effect, its long-term impact can worsen anxiety.
  8. Simple Sugars - Consuming artificial sweeteners (white sugar) in various packaged foods or even consuming excess simple sugars naturally found in fruits (dates, pineapple, mango, banana, grapes) can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by quick drops. These fluctuations can result in mood instability and increased anxiety.
  9. Refined carbohydrates - Ideal examples include white bread and pasta, which can cause sharp glucose spikes and falls. They can also negatively impact gut health, which is increasingly recognized as being closely linked to mental health.

The "Secret" Brain Foods for Anxiety Relief

The idea of a single "secret" foods that cure anxiety is a myth. While certain foods that reduce anxiety are considered “super foods” due to their immense nutritional benefits to overall mental health and anxiety management, relying on one specific food to treat anxiety is neither realistic nor effective. 

Anxiety is a multifaceted condition influenced by genetic, psychological, environmental, and lifestyle factors that cannot be completely addressed by a single food. Individual differences in biochemistry and the complexity of nutritional science indicate that diet is part of a broader treatment plan for fighting anxiety. Following diet fads or promoting a single food for anxiety relief risks the spread of misinformation and unhealthy diet practices.

A well-rounded approach to managing anxiety should include a balanced diet rich in a variety of nutrients, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques. Consulting with healthcare professionals, such as dietitians and mental health experts, can help with creating personalized strategies that are far more effective than relying on any one food.

When to Seek Professional Help

Changing your diet might help a bit with your mood, but it won't replace real treatment for anxiety. It's also important to improve your sleep, reduce stress, get support from friends and family, and exercise regularly. These changes can help, but they take time to make a difference.

If your anxiety is severe or stops you from enjoying life and doing everyday things, it's important to get professional help. Talking to a therapist, taking medication, or other treatments might be needed. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Sample Anti-Anxiety Diet (Indian food)

Meet Rina, a 10th grader who has been feeling anxious lately. Rina loves spicy snacks and sugary treats, but she knows her eating habits aren’t helping her feel better. She decides to try a healthier diet to see if it makes a difference.

Here's a sample 1800-calorie anti-anxiety diet plan for a day, filled with foods that can help fight anxiety. 

Disclaimer:

This diet plan is only an example and is not to be followed without professional guidance. Kindly consult a trained nutritionist for a diet plan based on your requirements. Remember, everyone’s dietary needs are different, so it’s important to customize your meals based on what works best for you!

Breakfast:

Oatmeal with Fruits and Nuts

  • 1 cup cooked oats
  • 1 small banana, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped almonds
  • 1 tablespoon raisins
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Why it helps: Oats release energy slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable, which can help with mood regulation. Bananas and nuts are rich in vitamins and minerals that support brain health.

Mid-Morning Snack:

Yogurt with Honey

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Why it helps: Yogurt contains probiotics, which can promote a healthy gut and reduce anxiety.

Lunch:

Vegetable Lentil Soup with Whole Grain Roti

  • 1 cup vegetable lentil soup (made with lentils, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, and spices)
  • 2 whole grain rotis (small)

Why it helps: Lentils are high in protein and fibre, which help keep you full and stabilize blood sugar levels. Spinach is rich in magnesium, which can help reduce anxiety.

Afternoon Snack:

Fruit Salad

  • 1 cup mixed fruit (apple, orange, pomegranate, and berries)
  • A sprinkle of chaat masala (optional)

Why it helps: Fruits provide essential vitamins and antioxidants, which can boost your overall health and mood.

Dinner:

Grilled Fish with Quinoa and Steamed Vegetables

  • 150 grams of grilled fish (like tilapia or salmon)
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup steamed vegetables (like broccoli, bell peppers, and carrots)

Why it helps: Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to support brain health. Quinoa is a great source of protein and fibre, and vegetables provide important vitamins and minerals.

Evening Snack:

Handful of Mixed Nuts

  • 1/4 cup mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews)

Why it helps: Nuts are packed with healthy fats, protein, and magnesium, which can help reduce anxiety.

Customization Tips

  • Vegetarian Option: Replace grilled fish with tofu or paneer.
  • Lactose-Free Option: Use lactose-free yoghurt or a dairy-free alternative like coconut yoghurt.
  • Gluten-Free Option: Substitute whole grain roti with gluten-free roti or rice.

By making these changes, Rina starts to feel more balanced and less anxious. Remember, while an anti-anxiety diet plan can help, it's important to seek professional help if you’re struggling with severe anxiety.

Conclusion

A key strategy in developing a meal plan for anxiety is to incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods. The best foods for anxiety include foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For example, a balanced anxiety diet plan might feature leafy greens, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds, along with dark chocolate and anxiety-reducing properties in moderation.

In addition to whole foods, understanding what candy helps with anxiety can also be helpful. For instance, dark chocolate is often touted as a beneficial treat due to its high magnesium content and ability to increase serotonin levels. Including a variety of these anti-anxiety foods in your diet can help create a well-rounded approach to managing anxiety.

Protein is also an essential part of any anxiety diet plan. Incorporating high-quality anxiety protein sources such as lean meats, fish, and legumes can help stabilize blood sugar levels and promote a calm and steady mood.

Finally, remember to include foods that relieve anxiety such as bananas. The high potassium content in bananas can help manage blood pressure and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Whether as part of a meal or a quick snack, bananas are a great addition to an anxiety diet plan. Pairing this with healthy habits and coping mechanisms can make a significant difference in managing anxiety. If anxiety becomes severe or interferes with daily life, don’t hesitate to consult a mental health professional.

Citations

  1. Anti-anxiety parfait bowl. (2023). Available from
  2. Anxiety disorders. (2018, May 4). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Mayo Clinic website
  3. Arlin Cuncic, M. A. (2012, October 23). Can a healthy diet reduce anxiety disorder? Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Verywell Mind website
  4. CaroMont Health. (2021, August 1). Five Foods that Increase Anxiety. Retrieved 9 July 2024, from CaroMont Health website
  5. Coping with anxiety: Can diet make a difference? (2017, May 24). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Mayo Clinic website
  6. Crichton-Stuart, C., & Dias, A. (ren). (2018, August 1). 9 foods that help reduce anxiety. Retrieved 9 July 2024
  7. Do the benefits of vitamin C include improved mood? (2022, October 8). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Mayo Clinic website
  8. faculty scholar. (2023, October 23). Your gut - the second brain? Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute website
  9. Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from WebMD website
  10. Gut microbiome. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Cleveland Clinic website
  11. Hadhazy, A. (n.d.). Think twice: How the gut’s ‘second brain’ influences mood and well-being. Scientific American.
  12. Herbs and spices that help reduce stress and anxiety. (2019, January 14). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Dr. Cynthia website
  13. Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 25(8), 1725–1734. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229
  14. Lang, A., BSc, & MBA. (2021, March 10). Juicing for Anxiety or Depression: Can it Really Help? Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Healthline website
  15. Listing of vitamins. (2020, August 31). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Harvard Health website
  16. Naidoo, U. (2019, August 28). Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Harvard Health website
  17. Norwitz, N. G., & Naidoo, U. (2021). Nutrition as metabolic treatment for anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 598119. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.598119
  18. No title. (n.d.-a). Retrieved 9 July 2024
  19. No title. (n.d.-b). Retrieved 9 July 2024
  20. Omega-3 fatty acids. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Cleveland Clinic website
  21. Pattemore, C. (2021, October 26). The 6 best foods to help with anxiety. Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Psych Central website
  22. Raman, R., MS, & RD. (2020, March 12). Calcium-magnesium-zinc: Benefits, side effects, and dosage. Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Healthline website
  23. University of Nevada. (2022, April 12). What spices and foods can help with anxiety and stress? Retrieved 9 July 2024, from University of Nevada, Reno website
  24. Vitamins and minerals: How much should you take? (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from WebMD website
  25. Vitamins and minerals: How to get what you need. (2007, October 1). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from familydoctor.org website
  26. Vitamins and minerals. (2012, September 18). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from The Nutrition Source website:
  27. Vitamins and minerals for older adults. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from National Institute on Aging website:
  28. What do calcium, magnesium, and zinc help with, and when should you take them? (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from MedicineNet website:
  29. What to eat to get more Omega-3. (2022). Available from
  30. What to know about the gut-brain connection. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 July 2024, from Cleveland Clinic website
Author's Profile picture
Afeefa Rafath
Practicing Psychologist | EAP Counsellor | Content Writer
Book Consultation Call