Living with an anxiety disorder is a common occurrence for over 40 million people in this country alone according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In fact, it’s the most prevalent mental health issue in the United States.
It’s well known that anxiety is highly treatable with medication and therapy, but did you know that many doctors and therapists also recommend adding specific foods to your diet in order to manage the symptoms of anxiety?
Whether you’re looking for new tools to help manage an existing anxiety disorder or you’re experimenting with ways to balance your mood, making certain dietary modifications could be the missing piece to your overall treatment plan.
But before you try any of these nutritional interventions, make sure your diet has a healthy foundation of fruit, vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
With that said, if you’re ready to see how the food you eat can help decrease your anxiety and boost your mood, consider adding these seven items into your diet.
Certain types of fish, such as salmon, have excellent health benefits, including lowering your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, reducing inflammation in the body and protecting your immune system.
But it’s the role salmon plays in cognition that has the attention of dietitians and mental health providers. Registered dietitian Lisa Hayim recommends salmon as part of an anxiety-reduction diet since it is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that play an essential role in normal brain function.
Just in case you need one more reason to include a little chocolate in your diet, we know that dark chocolate has plenty of health benefits, including possibly helping to curb sweet cravings, which trigger anxiety in some people.
“Not only does dark chocolate contain antioxidants that can improve brain function, but it tastes good, and you don’t have to feel guilty for eating some,” Dr. Rob Raponi, a naturopathic doctor, tells SheKnows. He says to be careful when selecting your chocolate, though, and make sure to choose something in the neighborhood of 85 percent cocoa or higher to keep sugar to a minimum.
Fermented foods attack anxiety in more than one way. “Low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid] has been linked to anxiety and mood disorders,” Raponi explains. “The fermentation process of foods actually produces GABA, creating a fantastic dietary source of this relaxation molecule.”
Plus, fermented foods are also high in probiotics, which help the gut, digestion and the proper breakdown and utilization of the foods we eat. Hayim suggests kimchi since it is fermented and loaded with healthy probiotics. Additionally, Raponi recommends adding sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh and kefir to your diet.
Sipping tea is a time-honored tradition that many people enjoy. And when you include a cup or two in the morning or before you go to bed, you may also notice that this warm drink can help calm your nerves.
One study, published in the journal Nutrients in 2016, reports an anti-stress effect from the main ingredient in green tea: L-theanine. And since green tea is the highest source of naturally occurring L-theanine, it makes sense to include this delicious drink in your day.
“L-theanine has been shown to increase GABA, serotonin and dopamine while decreasing cortisol (our stress hormone),” Raponi explains. “L-theanine tends to be fairly quick in action, and people can see a reduction in physical symptoms of anxiety within minutes of grabbing a nice cup of warm green tea.”
The next time you carve a pumpkin, make sure to hold onto the seeds. Pumpkin seeds have a lot of tryptophan in them — even more than turkey — but without the drowsiness. “Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is linked to sleep regulation and mood balance,” Raponi explains. And low levels of serotonin play a role in anxiety, he adds. So, make sure to stock up on pumpkin seeds if you’re feeling extra anxious.
Nuts in general play a significant role in keeping you healthy. But it seems that one specific nut may help reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Walnuts are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to support brain health, according to Hayim.
If you have mild to moderate anxiety, you may benefit from adding chamomile tea to your daily routine. Nutrition and health expert for NBC’s Today and host of Health + Happiness Joy Bauer tells SheKnows that chamomile appears to act as a mild sedative and may help relieve muscle tension and ease anxiety and irritability.
So the next time you're feeling anxious, grab something from this list or, better yet, incorporate it into your diet on a regular basis.