Mental health helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Unfortunately, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the world.
In addition to healthy guidelines, such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety. Specific therapies and medications can help relieve the burden of anxiety, but only about a third of people suffering from this condition seek treatment. Unfortunately, in medical practice, only a few doctors discuss the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety when explaining treatment options.
In addition to healthy guidelines, such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling. Therefore, a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating large amounts of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important, which means sticking to the dietary regime and not skipping meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood glucose level that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.
Taking care of intestinal health is essential, since the gut-brain axis is also very important. A large percentage (about 95 %) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. Research is examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression.
Foods that Can Help Quell Anxiety
You might be surprised to learn that specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety. In mice, diets low in magnesium were found to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Foods naturally rich in magnesium may therefore help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens such as spinach and Swiss chard. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks, have been linked to lowered anxiety. Other foods, including fatty fish like wild salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acids.
A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. (This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids.) Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only. A recent study in the Journal of Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and lowering of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods, such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir, was linked with fewer symptoms.
Based on numerous studies, the Chinese government approved the use of an asparagus extract as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient due to its anti-anxiety properties. Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds, are also considered to be the “protectors” of the nervous system. These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety. Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. It stands to reason, therefore, that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Foods designated as high in antioxidants include: beans, apples, prunes, cherries, plums, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, walnuts, pecans, artichokes, cabbage, spinach, beets, and broccoli. Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.
Using diet for the improvement of mental health may be the first step on the way to treatment of anxiety and restlessness. Doctors should take into account the degree of manifestation of symptoms and their duration, relying on the basic principles of treatment, yet keeping in mind the success of properly chosen and adjusted diet.
While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute for other treatments, the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention. There is a growing body of evidence bringing doctors’ attention to the role of its use in practice.