How food can help reduce anxiety

Have you ever suffered with anxiety? Chances are you, or someone you love, has. While it can also be linked with depression, anxiety itself is defined as an unpleasant state of inner turmoil. In this fast-paced, instant gratification world in which we live, it’s no wonder we end up with anxious feelings and thoughts and a general state of uneasiness when we think of all the decisions we are faced with in just a single day.

It’s also not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep due to worry, or finding yourself with the sensation of butterflies in your stomach when you ruminate about a problem you’re facing. Holistically, the practice of living in the present moment can go some way in helping control anxiety but that’s not always sustainable on a minute-by-minute basis. So, what can we do for ourselves, regularly, which can help with calming our minds and easing anxiety? The answers can be found in our diet.

Have you ever wondered why babies (or adults for that matter) find it easier to get to sleep with a glass of warm milk? This is because milk contains tryptophan (an amino acid) which produces serotonin when released into the brain. You may have heard of serotonin as a ‘feel-good’ chemical; an important neurotransmitter believed to help regulate moods, and aid with memory, social behaviour, digestion and appetite, to name a few. It is due to the calming qualities of serotonin that we can fall asleep faster. 

But if milk is not your thing, or perhaps you are dairy intolerant, don’t worry – there are plenty of other changes to your diet which can help with producing a state of calm and thereby helping eradicate anxiety. Let’s explore some now.

Low-glycaemic foods– such as sweet potato, yams, corn, oat bran, muesli, lentils and legumes, and most fruits and non-starchy vegetables.

Most of us will know that spikes in our blood sugar levels are not good for our body and neither are they good for our mood. Foods with a low GI (Glycaemic index) are more slowly digested and therefore less likely to cause those large spikes in blood glucose.

Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids– such as fish/seafood (especially cold-water fish like tuna, salmon and sardines), plant oils (such as soybean, flaxseed and canola oil), and nuts and seeds (chia, walnuts and flaxseed).

Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids which have a number of health benefits and which cannot be produced by our bodies alone. A high intake of Omega-3 fatty acids are linked with a reduced risk of inflammatory diseases and depression.

Magnesium– found in leafy greens (kale/spinach) and certain fruit, like raspberries, figs and avocado. In addition, nuts and seeds, legumes, vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts, and seafood such as mentioned above.

Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant, which is why foods containing this mineral help to calm us. People who find it difficult to sleep are often prescribed magnesium for it’s relaxing qualities on our nervous system.

Chocolate– most of us will love this one!

Dark chocolate contains flavanols, which are antioxidants known to benefit brain function. Flavanols help the brain to adapt to stressful situations by improving blood flow. Eating dark chocolate also helps to increase the levels of serotonin in our bodies, which as discussed earlier, may help reduce anxiety by improving our mood.

Organs – (skip this paragraph if you are a vegan, vegetarian, plant-based), such as livers, kidneys and hearts.

Organs are full of nutrients but also zinc and iron. Zinc helps to boost brain power and reduce anxiety. Studies have shown that a deficiency in zinc within our bodies is closely associated with our mental wellness. Zinc can also be found in oysters, and we all know the benefits of eating those!

The list above is by no means exhaustive – there are a host of other foods and drinks you can try out for yourself. Some people swear by a warm, milky chamomile tea, while others add turmeric to all their dishes – so we encourage you to do some research into what you like and how you could incorporate that into your diet.

But in a nutshell, to try and alleviate feelings of stress, worry and anxiety, choose foods which are low GI, high in protein, and boost your serotonin levels. It is also best to try and limit highly processed foods, sugary snacks and alcohol while you concentrate on getting your mental wellbeing back on track. If you focus on the present moment too, keep yourself hydrated and add some exercise into the mix, you will be well on your way back to your happy place and free from anxiety!