A healthy diet, adequate sleep, and daily exercise are the building blocks of good health and well-being for everyone but are especially important in recovering from anxiety. Good nutrition is essential in supporting your new understanding about managing your anxiety symptoms and taking action to make changes in your life to reduce stress and anxiety.
Eating well to manage anxiety is not very different from a generally good diet: eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good fats, and lean protein (with or without dairy products, depending on your ability to tolerate them) while cutting down on refined carbs, sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, caffeine, and alcohol. Some foods and nutrients, however, are better at reducing symptoms of anxiety while others make things worse.
Foods that help lessen symptoms of anxiety contain the amino and fatty acids or vitamins and minerals that foster calm, relaxed feelings. You may have experienced the sleepy feeling you get on Thanksgiving after eating turkey or you drink warm milk when you have trouble falling asleep. Both of these foods contain L-tryptophan, an amino acid that improves sleep and mood by increasing serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that antidepressants affect. Vitamins B and C are depleted by stress so making sure you get enough of these vitamins can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. The B vitamins are found in various grains, vegetables, meats, eggs and dairy products while vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables. The minerals calcium and magnesium help to relax tense muscles and support the nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in cold-water fish and some oils, such as canola, walnut and flaxseed, are important to brain functioning so they also affect the reduction of anxiety. While it’s best to obtain these nutrients from food, your primary care provider may also recommend a vitamin/mineral supplement.
Some foods are known to increase anxiety. Although it’s good for everyone to avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates, it is especially important for those with anxiety to cut down on them. The fluctuation in blood sugar levels can induce anxiety and depression on its own so it certainly makes pre-existing anxiety worse. In addition, sugar uses up B and C vitamins, which also increases anxiety. While there is a debate about whether caffeine has a negative or positive effect in general, for most people with anxiety it is better avoided since it can cause and worsen many symptoms of anxiety such as nervousness, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, restlessness, and panic attacks. Similarly, alcohol impairs sleep and reduces the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that affect mood and anxiety.
Skipping meals can also induce anxiety, tension and mood destabilization so it is also important for those who deal with anxiety to eat regularly, at least three times per day. Many people skip meals because of the nausea and other stomach issues that arise from anxiety, and in the mistaken belief that skipping meals will result in weight loss. Not eating makes sense when nausea is caused by flu or food poisoning but it actually makes nausea associated with anxiety worse. Skipping meals releases stress hormones like cortisol to increase energy, which causes stress on the body and increases anxiety, as well as depression, diabetes and high blood pressure. Not eating regularly also depresses metabolism and decreases the ability to lose weight.
To learn more about the relationship between nutrition and recovering from anxiety, you can talk to your therapist, primary care provider or a registered dietitian, and consult the following resources.
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D.
The Heal Your Anxiety Workbook, by John B. Arden, Ph.D.
Submitted by Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist