Eating Well for Mental Health
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. 40 million adults, 18% of the population, struggle with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety.
According to the Mayo Clinic, your diet cannot cure anxiety, but there are foods that help with anxiety and have a calming effect on the body
Deficits in key vitamins and minerals can mimic mental health conditions. Even if you don't have a medical deficiency, giving the body more helpful nutrients can still improve depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Following a nutrient-dense diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods may help some people manage their anxiety symptoms.
It is best to eat a varied and balanced diet that includes high quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Aim for whole foods, vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and especially fish.
Other foods that may help include:
turkey and other tryptophan-containing foods, such as eggs, dark chocolate, cheese, pineapple, bananas, oats, and tofu
nuts, especially almonds — an excellent source of vitamin E that may help prevent vitamin E deficiency, which is linked to mood disorders
chia seeds, which are a good source of omega-3s
protein sources, such as lean meat, fish, nuts, and dairy, which provide amino acids that the body converts into mood-lifting neurotransmitters such as serotonin
Spinach and Swiss chard, which are both high in magnesium
Fruits such as berries, cherries, and citrus
Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring, are high in omega-3s. Omega-3s are a type of fatty acids that have a strong relationship to cognitive function and mental health.
Vitamin D. Salmon and sardines are also among the few foods that contain vitamin D. Researchers are increasingly linking vitamin D deficiency to mood disorders such as anxiety.
Eggs, especially from pasture-raised hens, are another good source of vitamin D. Eggs are also an excellent source of protein. They are a complete protein, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids the body needs for growth and development. Eggs also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps create serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter found in the brain, bowels, and blood platelets that helps regulate mood, sleep, memory, and behavior.
Potassium rich foods. Eating potassium-rich foods, such as pumpkin seeds and bananas, may help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. An older 2008 study found that lower potassium and magnesium levels were associated with high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that the adrenal glands release.
Yogurt. Yogurt contains the healthy bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Emerging evidenceTrusted Source suggests that these bacteria and fermented products have positive effects on brain health. Including yogurt and other fermented foods in the diet can benefit the natural gut bacteria and may reduce anxiety and stress.
Green tea. Green tea contains an amino acid called theanineTrusted Source, which has been subject to increasing scrutiny because of its potential effects on mood disorders. Theanine has anti-anxiety and calming effects and may increase the production of serotonin and dopamine.
Maintaining Gut Health
Moods are not created in the mind alone, but in partnership with the body. Numerous studies have linked mental health problems with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. An unhealthy gut leads to improper absorption of nutrients, so it's crucial to be good to your belly if you have mental health issues.
Eating healthy food will not be as effective if your gut is out of whack. Organic grass-fed organ meats, skin, and bone broth are great for healing the gut because they contain collagen. Eat whole wild-caught fish, including the skin, and make yourself real chicken soup by boiling the carcass.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, fermented foods will help increase your good gut bacteria and improve your digestion. Include natural yogurt and unpasteurized pickles in your diet. Eat plenty of prebiotic foods, such as garlic, onions, and leeks.
Foods that Might Trigger Anxiety
Food can have a powerful impact on mood, stress levels, and mental health. Some foods have been shown to cause or worsen the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other chronic mental-health conditions. While symptoms and triggers are unique to every individual, research studies have found several common foods that can induce anxiety.
High sugar intake has been linked to many different health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, and tooth decay. Sugar has also been linked to depression, mood swings, and symptoms of anxiety. The initial energy boost gained from eating sugar keeps many people craving sugary foods and drinks. However, once the energy boost has peaked, blood sugar levels drop quickly; this leads to lethargy, low mood, and further cravings. The continual boosts and drops in blood sugar levels can trigger the release of adrenalin and cortisol into the bloodstream, causing anxiety and sometimes even panic attacks.
Junk food and fried foods, such as pizza, fried chicken, hamburgers, and fries, have little nutritional value and are extremely difficult for the body to digest. When the body is unable to digest and process food, excess gas, acid reflux, and other gastrointestinal complaints can produce symptoms that trigger anxiety. Long-term digestive health complaints, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sometimes cause sufferers to wake in the night gasping for breath, as acid reflux can bring about light vomiting that results in choking sensations.
Processed foods, such as canned soups, cured meats, and processed cheeses, contain high amounts of salt. Excessive salt intake raises blood pressure and increases the workload of the heart, causing the body to release adrenalin into the bloodstream and leading to anxiety. In addition, many cans and plastic containers are lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been linked to changes in mood and blood pressure. While research is still being conducted into the possible dangers of BPA, many experts believe the chemical can seep into food or drink and produce harmful effects.
Food additives, including aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and some food dyes, have also been linked to anxiety, depression, and mood changes. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many different foods, including sugar-free candies, chewing gum, and soft drinks, and studies have linked it to several health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Regular consumption of MSG, which is used to enhance the taste of many snacks, processed foods, and pre-cooked ready meals, has been linked to fatigue, headaches, depression, and anxiety. Some food dyes used in drinks, candies, cheese, and other processed foods have also been associated with anxiety symptoms.
Caffeine can be found in a range of products, including coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate, and some painkillers. Many people can tolerate small amounts of caffeine, but because caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, excessive intake can lead to heart palpitations, shaking, irritability, and insomnia. Caffeine can also inhibit the absorption of some vitamins, including B vitamins, which are needed to aid relaxation and control mood. In addition, some people are more sensitive than others to the effects of caffeine, so even small amounts can cause headaches, shaking, and anxiety.
A balanced diet is essential for controlling anxiety, depression, and long-term mental health conditions. Eliminating or cutting down on foods known to trigger anxiety symptoms is an important step in managing chronic anxiety disorders. In addition, food sensitivities can precipitate a range of unpleasant symptoms that can mimic anxiety, so it's important to talk to your doctor if you suspect specific foods may be causing you distress.