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For centuries we have understood that the food we eat affects our mood. Hundreds of years ago in France for example, artichokes were believed to be so strong an aphrodisiac that women were forbidden from eating them. 

In medieval times, if people were feeling depressed they would eat quince or dates or if they were looking for ways to relieve anxiety they would reach for lettuce or chicory. 

So the idea that there are foods for anxiety relief is nothing new. There has been increasing research in this area, proving that there is a link between the food we eat and our mental health. 

In fact, our brains are highly sensitive to what we eat. There is now so much evidence telling us that the quality of a person’s diet is a risk factor for anxiety and even depression.

In this article I’m going to cover:

What is a healthy diet for people with anxiety?

To reduce the risk of anxiety, lower the severity, or in some cases go into remission, we need to look at eating a healthful diet. This idea of a healthful diet varies from country to country and culture to culture. However one thing the evidence points to, is that eating a diet higher in plant food such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and wholegrains and eating lean proteins, in particular fish, leads to a reduced risk for anxiety.

Conversely, a diet high in sugary products and processed food leads to an increased risk for anxiety.

Not only does our diet influence our brain function, it can even change the structure of our brains. Research from Deakin University indicates that diets including large quantities of refined carbohydrates, fast food and sugar-laden drinks are linked with a reduced sized hippocampus, the part of the brain directly involved in memory. The hippocampus also forms an important part of the limbic system, the region that regulates emotions.

It has been proven time and again in scientific tests that our food choices can help to balance out our moods and emotions, or stress us out and cause anxiety.

Not only does our diet influence our brain function, it can even change the structure of our brains

Essential foods and nutrients to combat anxiety and depression

Although we need to look at our diet as a whole, certain foods and nutrients play an important part in balancing our moods and emotions. Let me explain the key ones below, what they are, what they do and what to eat to ensure you are getting enough of them.

Selenium

Selenium is a nutrient that has been proven in many studies to have an impact on mood. Scientists have shown that the lower the level of selenium in the diet, the more reports of anxiety, depression and tiredness. As selenium levels are raised in the diet, there is a general elevation of mood and in particular, a decrease in anxiety. Selenium in Australian foods is low. 

Sources
From highest quantity (per 100g) to lowest: Brazil nuts (commonly imported) 540-830ug/100g; Fish (in particular tuna) 12-63ug/100g; Meat (in particular lean pork, lean beef, chicken, turkey) 5-38ug/100g; eggs 9-41/100g; grains (in particular brown rice, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, popcorn, wholewheat bread) 1-20ug/100g; dairy 2-6ug/100g; fruit and vegetables trace-3ug/100g

Vitamin D

A deficiency of this vitamin is associated with many mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. It is estimated that as much as half the world have low levels of vitamin D. People with darker skin and people who mostly completely cover up their bodies  under the sun are most at risk. If you are vitamin D deficient and have anxiety and depression, then you are likely to benefit from correcting that deficiency. Having said that, even if you have sufficient vitamin D, it doesn’t rule you out from having anxiety and depression. My take on this is that it’s best to ensure enough regular sun exposure to be on the safe side.

Sources
Full body exposure to sun
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel

Omega-3 fatty acids

In a study posted to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers observed that populations that do not eat enough omega-3 fatty acids might have higher rates of depressive disorders. Eating omega-3 fatty acids may increase the level of healthy fats available to the brain, keeping the brain working at the highest level. This in turn reduces the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases.

Sources
Cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, nuts such as almonds and walnuts, avocado

The lower the levels of selenium in the diet, the more reports of anxiety, depression and tiredness

Blueberry and cacao smoothie
Antioxidants

Antioxidants fight free-radicals. Free radicals are produced as a by-product of the normal metabolic processes in the human body (plus other, environmental pressures such as natural and artificial radiation, toxins in the air, food and water; and miscellaneous sources of oxidizing activity, such as tobacco smoke).

Free radicals are electronically unstable atoms or molecules that take electrons from other molecules in an effort to achieve stability. In their wake they create even more unstable molecules that then attack their neighbours in domino-like chain reactions. By the time a free radical chain fizzles out, it may have ripped through vital components of cells causing extensive cell damage (which leads to accelerated ageing).

When there is a disturbance in the balance of free radicals and antioxidants, it is called oxidative stress. Stress and anxiety are linked with increased oxidative damage. 

The brain may be more prone to this type of damage than other areas of the body. As a result, it needs a good way to neutralise these free radicals and avoid problems. Foods rich in antioxidants are believed to neutralise free radicals by donating electrons to them and cutting off the chain reactions early in their course.

A recent study showed that people with anxiety and depression had lower levels of antioxidants in their system than the control group. After increasing the levels of antioxidants in those with anxiety and depression for 6 weeks, the study showed a significant reduction in their anxiety and depression scores.

The foods mentioned below contain antioxidants in the form of flavonoids and polyphenols (plant based compounds) that may support oxidative damage.

Sources
Vitamins A, C and E: found in orange or yellow fruit and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato, apricots, rockmelon. Dark fruits and berries: blueberries, cherries, grapes, prunes, goji berries.

Citrus fruit, garlic and onions (contain allyl sulphides which can actively work to reduce carcinogens (cancer causing substances)). Broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts.

Ginger, rosemary, turmeric 

Herbal teas and green tea

After increasing levels of antioxidants in those with anxiety, the study showed a significant reduction in their anxiety scores

B Vitamins B6, B9 and B12

Deficiencies in vitamin B are linked to panic attacks, anxiety and depression. In particular deficiencies in B6, B9 and B12. 

Vitamin B9, also known as folate, may help to decrease the risk of depression because folate helps to prevent the build-up of homocysteine, a substance that can impair circulation and delivery of nutrients to the brain. Excess homocysteine can also interfere with the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which regulate mood, sleep and appetite. (Homocysteine testing through your GP is an inexpensive way to diagnose if this is a potential cause of anxiety along with being a great “heads up” indicator of accelerated ageing and common lifestyle disease risk (eg. Heart disease).  Usually increasing your natural folate intake from plant based sources fixes the problem.

Sources
B6: Chicken, turkey, tuna, prawns, beef liver, cheese, beans, spinach, carrots, brown rice, sunflower seeds

B12: Wild salmon, prawns, grass-fed beef, venison, eggs, yogurt

B9 (folate): Dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, brussel sprouts, citrus fruit.

Beetroot dip
Zinc and Copper

There have been a few studies showing that individuals with anxiety have higher levels of copper and lower levels of zinc (than the control group). Elevated levels of copper have been associated with women having a history of postpartum depression. There is commonly an inverse relationship between zinc and copper in the body; when a person has elevated copper, their zinc level is low.

These studies suggest that ensuring adequate levels of zinc could work as a therapy for anxiety. Zinc is well known as one of the most important trace elements in the body. Dietary zinc deficiency is associated with anxiety as well as a variety of physiological defects including anorexia, skin lesion, and growth retardation.

Sources of dietary zinc
Oysters contain more zinc than any other food, but red meat and poultry are also good sources, as are crustaceans (particularly crab and lobster) and fortified breakfast cereals.  There’s a moderate content of zinc across lots of different foods so variety in your menu is the key.  Try to include pumpkin seeds, chick peas, yoghurt, milk, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, chicken and cheese.

Magnesium

Research suggests magnesium could be useful in treating mild to moderate anxiety. Magnesium is an essential mineral and is used in the human body in more than 300 biochemical reactions. 41% of men and 35% of women do not consume adequate amounts of magnesium. 

Sources
Dark leafy greens, seeds, beans, fish, whole grains, nuts, dark chocolate, yogurt, avocados, bananas and more. The current daily value (DV) for magnesium is 310-420mg. Australian foods may be low in magnesium due to poor soil content.

More than 90% of our dopamine and serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitters) are actually produced by beneficial gut bacteria.

Gut health

It seems that one of the answers to a clear, relaxed and happy brain may lie with the microscopic bugs (bacteria) living inside our digestive system. More than 90% of our dopamine and serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitters that send signals from our brain and around our bodies) are actually produced by beneficial gut bacteria.

To boost beneficial gut bacteria (and support production of dopamine and serotonin):

  1. Include fermented foods like live-cultured yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, tempeh and kimchi in your diet. These foods contain beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics).
  2. Base your diet on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. These foods have pre-biotic properties (they act like fertilizer for your good gut bacteria).
Stick to tradition

Study after study points to a good-quality, balanced diet being important to mental health. In fact, a recent Australian randomized control trial prescribing a Mediterranean diet for individuals with clinical depression showed significant improvement in dietary quality and association with improvements in depressive symptoms.

But it’s not just the Mediterranean diet that has been shown to be helpful – any ‘traditional diet’ is associated with a lower risk of mental health conditions. The common element seems to be whole, minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods. The benefits of the Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fish) have been recognised for many years, however research also demonstrates that the traditional Norwegian diet (fish, shellfish, game, root vegetables, dairy products, wholemeal bread) and the traditional Japanese diet (fish, tofu, rice, steamed greens) may be just as beneficial in the prevention of anxiety and depression.

A reliance on unprocessed ‘real’ foods appears to be the key factor in these positive health findings.

fish fillet

What to eat for anxiety – the top 10 tips

  1. Eat lots of plants There have been numerous studies linking our health and eating a plant-based diet. This type of diet is associated with a decrease in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers. The recommended daily guidelines are to consume about 5 serves of vegetables per day (where a serve is around 75g) and 2 serves of fruit. About half of us meet the fruit requirement, however only 7% of us meet the vegetable requirement.  Aim for half your plate to be vegetables and eat the rainbow: try for as many colours on your plate as possible to ensure you are getting all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.
  2. Use herbs and spices Not only do these help to flavour vegetables to make it easier to eat more of them, some of them may also help to alleviate depression and anxiety. Saffron and turmeric, for example, have been shown in some studies to be as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) in treating mild to moderate depression and saffron extract has been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant in treating people with depression.
  3. Use nuts and seeds They help to make your vegetables taste better. In addition, some nuts and seeds such as sesame seeds, walnuts and cashews contain tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, one of the body’s main feel-good hormones.
  4. Nourish your gut Having poor gut health is linked to low moods. Go for lots of vegetables, fibre and prebiotic foods such as bananas, onion, garlic, brussel sprouts and broccoli. Also look to eat probiotics such as yogurt and fermented foods (eg. miso, sauerkraut, kimchi).
  5. Go for healthy fats Fats feed our brain and it’s important to eat the right ones: omega-3s, omega-6sand omega-9s with omega-3s being the most important for your mood. Combined evidence from a number of studies have shown that in general, omega-3s were effective in improving depressive symptoms. Eat oily fish, walnuts, avocado, nuts, seeds and rapeseed oil. Moderate amounts of eggs, yogurt, lean meats, butter and milk are good too.
  6. Eat fish A study from New Zealand published in 2002 found that people who ate fish were more likely to report their mental health status as higher – that’s an individual’s personal perception of their mood, outlook and depression scores. Another study in 2008 found that women who ate more than 2 portions of fish per week reduced their chances of depression by 25%. Aim for the oily type (eg. tuna, mackerel, salmon) as they have omega-3 fatty acids which support proper brain function.
  7. Avoid sweeteners, added sugar and refined foods These make your blood sugar levels fluctuate, causing mood swings and irritability. Eating these also means that you then miss out on eating healthier, more nutritious food instead which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. They also trigger low-grade, chronic inflammation in the body, which is linked to mental health conditions, including anxiety.
  8. Go easy on the alcohol Drinking alcohol, especially heavily and over a long period of time, can actually increase your anxiety. See more below.
  9. Eat regularly Eating regularly (particularly breakfast) is more valuable than you think in managing anxiety and depression symptoms.  Get into a good routine and plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner and keep a nutritious snack on hand to avoid getting tempted by fast food options.
  10. Find the fun Although it’s important to eat well, the last thing we want is for any of this to stress you out. Just take small steps and make changes where you can. Don’t feel that any of this is something that needs to happen overnight, if you can swap your evening treat for berries and dark chocolate, that’s already a win. Everything else will happen slowly, in time and when you are ready.

The best food guide chart

I’ve put together this comprehensive food guide chart for you. It’s a great reference showing you which foods to eat lots of, which are sometimes foods and which to avoid. Many of my clients love this and stick it on their fridge as a handy guide.

People who drink more water tend to be in a better mood

Water

Water makes up about 60% of our body weight and it is essential for almost every function in the body. It acts as a building block, a solvent for chemical reactions, and a transport material for nutrients and waste. It helps to maintain blood volume and proper circulation as well as regulating body temperature and acting as a shock absorber for our joints and our brain. It also helps to lubricate the linings of our inner organs and maintains healthy kidney function. 

Another incredible thing about water that you may not know is that it boosts your mood. People who drink more water tend to be in a better mood. One study found that when people who regularly drank less than 1.2 litres of water per day increased their intake to 2.5 litres per day, they experienced less tiredness and confusion.

On the other hand, people who normally drank 2-4 litres of water per day who were restricted to 1 litre per day, experienced the opposite effects, such as feeling less contented, less calm and more negative emotions.

The amount of water you should aim for each day depends on your height, weight, whether you are male or female, the temperature, your activity levels and how much you sweat. Having said that, we can use the rough guidelines below.

Women should aim for minimum 2.2 litres per day.

Men should aim for minimum 3 litres per day.

I find the easiest way to ensure I am on track is by taking a one litre or 1.5 litre bottle of water with me wherever I go. I fill it up in the morning and check in with myself at lunchtime to ensure I’ve finished it. I then refill it and know that I need to finish it by the time I go to bed.

Alcohol and anxiety

It can be tempting to drink alcohol to help with the symptoms of anxiety; it is a sedative and depressant that affects the central nervous system. It also releases dopamine, a hormone which stimulates your reward pathway (something that makes you want to do it again and again). In fact, the effects of alcohol can be similar to the effects of anti-anxiety medications. 

However, drinking alcohol, especially heavily and over a long period of time, can actually increase your anxiety. The sense of relaxation you feel when you drink can be attributed to your blood alcohol content (BAC). A rise in BAC levels leads to temporary feelings of excitement, but feelings of depression occur as BAC levels fall. As a result, it’s possible that having a few drinks that make your BAC rise then fall back to normal again can make you more anxious than you were before.

In addition, alcohol actually changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety, making you feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours, or even an entire day after drinking.

So, during the course of this program, I would encourage you to avoid drinking alcohol.

Alcohol and sleep

Alcohol affects the quality of your sleep, which in turn affects your mood.

Alternatives to having an alcoholic drink

Sometimes that desire to have a drink can feel like an itch you need to scratch. Here are a couple of alternatives that you can try:

  1. Do a meditation
  2. A glass of kombucha can be a good alternative to a glass of wine with dinner
  3. One of my close friends uses this in place of a glass of wine in the evening: Light a candle and make yourself a cup of herbal tea, sit down and enjoy it in peace, perhaps with a magazine or book. It’s the ritual of taking time out and doing something pleasurable for yourself which can help us to relax and unwind.
Above all

Remember that while you might like to stick to these guidelines all the time, sometimes it is difficult. I like to apply the 80:20 balance; most of the time I eat nutritiously and avoid alcohol, but I do allow myself treats here and there and I enjoy them consciously, without guilt.

This isn’t about being perfect, it’s about finding the right balance for you, which is different for everyone.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Heidi Pryor says:

    Thank you , the information you provided is very informative , i have read all of it , and found it very useful ,and am very inspired to try it .
    Kind regards Heidi

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