You’re not overreacting, and it’s not just you. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, impacting up to 18 percent of the population. The good news is that a few simple lifestyle changes, including changing up your diet, could mean the difference between a good night’s rest and a sleepless night replaying your conversation with the teller at the bank. While we all have occasional anxiety for a variety of reasons, research suggests there may be value in some mindful eating strategies. Let’s take a look.
1. Eat Good Carbs
Let’s be honest, you don’t have to pay a therapist $200 an hour to tell you that carbs make us happy. Research suggests that eating a meal rich in carbs triggers the entry of tryptophan to the brain, which increases our levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. But before you start bingeing on chocolate chip cookies, keep in mind that the type of carbohydrate matters. Lower glycemic index (GI) carbs (like fruits, veggies and whole grains) are metabolized more slowly than refined carbs (like desserts and white bread), helping us maintain a more even blood sugar level and create a peaceful feeling of calm. And much like their impact on our satiety, experts believe that low-GI foods also have a longer-lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood and energy level. So skip the refined pastries and sweets and load up on fiber-rich whole foods like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, broccoli and apples.
2. Pack in Protein
We know how important protein is for building strong bodies, but what about helping us flex our “happy muscles,” too? Protein is made up of a variety of amino acids, and it’s these amino acids that are the building blocks of emotion-regulating neurotransmitters. For example, serotonin is dependent on the amino acid tryptophan, while another happy neurotransmitter, dopamine, requires a healthy dose of the amino acid tyrosine. Emerging evidence suggests that an adequate intake of protein is essential for the maintenance of mental health. In fact, research directly links inadequate tyrosine or tryptophan intake to neurotransmitter deficiencies that can lead to severe psychological disturbances. Get your feel-good fill by loading up on dairy, red meat, poultry, fish, seeds, nuts, avocados and buckwheat.
3. Choose Omega-3 Fats
We know that omega-3 fats play an important role in physical brain health, so it’s not surprising that they support us emotionally as well. While past research focused on the role of omega-3s in depression, emerging studies suggest that getting plenty of these healthy fats may help reduce anxiety as well. Aim to add at least two servings of fatty fish—like salmon, trout and mackerel—to your week, and choose omega-3-fortified eggs, flax and walnuts often.
4. Kick the Coffee Habit
If you’re struggling with anxiety, you may want to start ordering decaf. Caffeinated foods and beverages lift us up, then knock us down, potentially exacerbating anxious tendencies. One 2016 study on adolescents in Korea found that higher levels of caffeine consumption was associated with worse anxiety scores. Another recent study of British high school students linked total weekly caffeine intake with higher anxiety and depression. If you’re a coffee addict or need a cup to get out of bed, start slowly. Ask your barista for “half caf” to wean yourself off, or opt for a mildly steeped green tea.
5. Build Up Better Bacteria
Considering that about 95 percent of our serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut, it’s not surprising that early evidence suggests probiotics may help lessen anxiety and depression. In fact, a 2017 literature review concluded that most studies testing probiotics against depressive symptoms found a significant reduction in anxiety and mood disorders. Until we have more definitive answers on the optimal bacterial dose, strain and duration of treatment, we suggest upping your intake of natural sources of probiotics like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles and kombucha.
6. Eat the Rainbow
According to a 2014 review, anxiety seems to be heavily correlated with antioxidant deficiencies. In fact, a clinical study in India found that patients with anxiety disorders and depression had significantly lower levels of vitamins A, C and E compared with their healthy counterparts. The good news is that after supplementing the patients with these vitamins for just six weeks, the scientists found both an increase in blood levels of antioxidants and a significant reduction in anxiety and depression. Boost your mood by filling your plate with a variety of antioxidant-rich colorful fruits and vegetables like kale, oranges, berries, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and pomegranate.
7. Don’t Go Hungry
Hey, we all get a little bit hangry when we’ve accidentally (or purposefully) skipped a meal, so take a tip from your body and just eat! Skipping meals not only tends to result in headaches, moodiness and fatigue, but also causes your blood sugar to drop, exacerbating any anxious jitters. Avoid the shakes and keep your blood sugars balanced all day long by planning three full meals a day, and a few nourishing snacks for between-meal fuel.
8. Munch on Magnesium
What started with findings related to magnesium and anxiety in mice has launched into strong speculation about the impact of this mineral on our brain. A 2017 literature review concluded that while the existing evidence definitively suggests that magnesium may improve anxiety symptoms, there’s still a need for more high-quality human studies. Until then, we don’t see much of a downside of upping the daily magnesium we get from foods, so load up on leafy greens, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
9. Find Zen with Zinc
Looks like zinc may help you glow outside and in! One early study found that people who reported frequent anxiety had significantly lower zinc levels compared with those who didn’t. The good news is that when zinc levels were normalized through supplementation, the patients’ perceived anxiety levels improved. While we definitely need more randomized control trials on humans, it may pay to focus on getting good amounts of zinc-rich seafood, meat, poultry, seeds and whole grains.
Lifestyle Anxiety Management Tips
There’s lots you can do to help manage your own anxiety if it is mild to moderate, says Jennifer Hirsch, M.D., a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “Get enough sleep, exercise often, and start a mindfulness practice. Challenge yourself in small ways to confront what makes you anxious. The more you face your fear, the less power it will hold over you.” Let’s take a look at some specific lifestyle recommendations that can help.
1. Move More
You don’t need to run a marathon to get that “runner’s high;” research consistently shows that any physical activity helps. Regular exercise boosts those feel-good endorphins that help enhance our sense of well-being and work much like antidepressants by promoting the growth of new brain neurons. In fact, studies have found that physical activity not only makes you feel good in the moment, but also actually helps alleviate anxiety symptoms for hours afterward. And it doesn’t have to be cardio. There’s solid evidence to suggest that strength training, yoga, and even just going for a leisurely walk outside can help reduce stress and anxiety. Staying active doesn’t have to be miserable. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each and every day with activities that you actually enjoy.
2. Catch Those Zzz’s
Hey, we all know we’re not our most sparkling selves when we’ve skimped on our beauty sleep, but research suggests that sleep deprivation can cause much more than a bad mood. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep each night for just a one-week stretch reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad and mentally exhausted. Our tip? Power down early. Electronics like cell phones and tablets emit a blue light that can interfere with a solid sleep, so make a vow not to use them in the hours before bed.
3. Try Stress-Reduction Exercises
Yes, hearing someone tell you to “just breathe” is enough to make you anxious on a good day, but research on the power of meditation looks incredibly promising. A comprehensive meta-analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation may help patients ease anxiety, depression and pain. Another 2017 study found that taking a mindfulness course helped patients with anxiety lower their hormonal and inflammatory response to stress. If you can’t find or access a group mindfulness course or retreat, simply check out the wide variety of free meditation videos and apps online.
4. Explore Natural Remedies
“Many patients who suffer from anxiety hope to have more treatment options, particularly those who cannot tolerate or did not benefit from traditional pharmaceuticals,” Hirsch suggests. Cannabidiol is up for debate as one of the hottest potential solutions. CBD is a type of cannabinoid (the chemical found naturally in marijuana and hemp plants). Unlike your stoner ex-boyfriend’s BFF Mary Jane, it doesn’t make you intoxicated or give you that stereotypical “high.” Rather, since serotonin deficiency has been linked to a heightened sense of anxiety, CBD is speculated to act on a brain receptor called CB1 to alter serotonin signals. While the positive impact of CBD on anxiety and sleep has been found in animal studies, we’re only now starting to see human trials emerge. One 2011 human study found that just 400 mg of CBD reduced anxiety levels in patients, but a 2017 comprehensive review of the literature found inconclusive results. “Long overdue, for the first time in over 40 years, a study of cannabis to treat mental health conditions is underway. I look forward to the results,” Hirsch says. We do, too! As with all drugs (even so-called “natural” ones), CBD doesn’t come without side effects or potential risks, so always speak with your doctor to determine if it’s right for you.
The Bottom Line
Everyone deals with stress at different times in their life, and to different degrees. But when it begins to interfere with your daily activities and your overall sense of well-being, it’s time to seek assistance. Oftentimes, a combination of these diet and lifestyle behaviors may help, but for many people, therapy and pharmaceuticals may be necessary. If you’re struggling with anxious or depressive thoughts or behaviors, speak to your doctor.