One of the most common mental health disorders in America is anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety affects about 40 million adults every year. These anxiety disorders can manifest as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or specific phobias. It is not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to suffer from depression, too. Anxiety disorders affect children, too. The ADAA reports that anxiety disorders affect 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18.
Our mood can affect what we eat. But did you know what we eat can affect our mood or, more specifically, our anxiety levels?
+ Unstable blood sugar levels can lead to or cause symptoms that feel a lot like anxiety or make any underlying anxiety worse. Regular, nutritionally balanced meals are key to preventing blood sugar highs and lows and having a calmer mood.
+ Dehydration can mimic anxiety symptoms so staying adequately hydrated is important. Too many caffeinated or sugary drinks, however, may contribute to feelings of anxiety.
+ Gut health is also important. Did you know that a large percentage of serotonin (feel good neutrotransmitter) receptors are in the gastrointestinal tract? Also, a diet high in processed foods and low in fiber-rich foods can diminish production of brain-protective short-chain fatty acids in the gut.
What are some specific food sources that can help with anxiety?
Zinc has many roles in the body and brain function is one of them. Prolonged zinc deficiency has been associated with emotional instability, irritability and even depression.
Foods rich in zinc include quinoa and other whole grains, broccoli, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes, oysters, beef, shrimp, cashews and other nuts, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
One study observed the effects of omega-3 supplementation on medical students. Students that received omega-3 supplements showed a 20% decrease in anxiety symptoms. Omega-3's are naturally found in cold water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines), nuts and seeds (chia, flax, hemp seeds, or walnuts), and plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil).
Vitamin D does more than just maintain bone integrity. Researchers are become more and more aware of its various important roles in brain function, such as signaling and neutrotrasmitter production. Vitamin D receptors in brain tissue are abundant. The active form of vitamin D - D3- has been shown to protect the brain.
While very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, some of the best sources are fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and fish liver oils (such as cod liver oil). Egg yolks, cheese, and beef liver also contain some vitamin D. Foods commonly fortified with vitamin D include orange juice, milk, cereals, and yogurt.
By limiting foods that trigger anxiety, filling your diet with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and keeping blood sugar levels stable with a balaced supply of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, your diet can have a positive effect on your mood and mental health.
Bourassa MW, Alim I, Bultman SJ, Ratan RR. Butyrate, neuroepigenetics and the gut microbiome: can a high fiber diet improve brain health? Neurosci Lett. 2016;625:56-63.
Russo A. J. (2011). Decreased zinc and increased copper in individuals with anxiety. Nutrition and metabolic insights, 4, 1–5. doi:10.4137/NMI.S6349
Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19.