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Better Nutrition Can Help Reduce Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion which is characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil. It is often accompanied by nervous behavior such as restlessness, somatic complaints, and rumination.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common mental disorder. 18% of the population struggles with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety.

Specific therapies and medications can help relieve the burden of anxiety, yet only about a third of people suffering from this condition seek treatment. In my practice I often discuss with physiologists the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety.

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.

A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery or ( hangry), which may worsen underlying anxiety.

The gut-brain axis is also very important, since 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.

A study in the journal “Psychiatry Research” suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kefir , Greek yoghurt or probiotic supplements was linked with fewer symptoms.

You might be surprised to learn that specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety.

  • Foods naturally rich in magnesium may help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard, 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: turkey, blueberries, dark chocolate and fatty fish like salmon, that contain omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Asparagus, known widely to be a healthy vegetable. Based on research, 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

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.

Enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Foods designated as high in antioxidants include:

  • Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney

  • Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums

  • Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries

  • Nuts: Walnuts, pecans

  • Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli

  • Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin ) and ginger.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if your anxiety symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks. But even if your doctor recommends medication or therapy for anxiety, it is still worth asking whether you might also have some success by adjusting your diet. While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute for other treatments, the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety has proven to be linked.

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