Heart racing, dark thoughts swirling, anxiety can take over a person’s life. What if food can help keep it in check?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates. Many turn to medications, but some experts also advise trying a simpler approach.
Being mindful about what you eat can help ease anxiety symptoms, said Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School.
“I’ve actually seen in my patients a significant reduction in their level of anxiety as they pay more clear attention to what they’re consuming,” Naidoo told TODAY. “But if you’re eating poorly… it will drive your anxiety in the wrong direction.”
There aren’t enough human studies to say a healthy diet can prevent anxiety or replace traditional therapy, but it’s a complimentary treatment that can support psychiatric care, she noted. Naidoo still offers therapy and prescribes medications when necessary, but she tells patients a healthy lifestyle can help manage their symptoms.
Understanding the basics
To feel good, a person needs a balance of brain chemicals. But an imbalance of neurotransmitters — like serotonin and GABA — stress hormones and excitatory hormones can lead to anxiety.
Certain foods like sugar and processed fare lead to a rise in the brain chemicals that don’t help us feel good, Naidoo said. A sugar rush can mimic a panic attack, she recently wrote in the Harvard Health Blog. Regularly eating such foods can also lead to a vicious cycle of guilt, overeating and food cravings.
She has some simple rules for anxiety sufferers to help manage how they feel:
Be vigilant about sugar
Most people already know to limit desserts and other sweets, but that’s not enough: sugar has a way of sneaking into the diet. Many savory foods that don’t seem sweet, like store-bought tomato sauce, actually contain added sugar. Naidoo finds her patients don’t know how much sugar they really consume and they worsen their anxiety without realizing it.
Be sure to read the food nutrition labels to see how much sugar was added. It’s listed in grams, so remember that 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon to better visualize the amount.
Naidoo also advises patients to learn some simple recipes for favorites like tomato sauce to help them control the ingredients and skip the extra sugar. She tells patients that rather than drinking orange juice, it’s better to eat the actual fruit, which contains fiber and a full portfolio of nutrients.
Go for complex carbs
The advantage of complex carbohydrates, found in foods like oatmeal, quinoa and sweet potatoes, is that they break down more slowly in the body. You feel fuller longer and this provides a more even, steady state to your blood sugar. You’ll experience calmer feelings psychologically as well, Naidoo said.
Pay attention to nutrients
Foods rich in magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B may help ease anxiety, Naidoo noted. She’s not advising taking supplements without knowing if you’re deficient. But eating those foods may help to balance out your body. Here’s a list to get you started:
Magnesium sources: leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Zinc sources: oysters, cashews, beef and egg yolks.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources: cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines.
Vitamin B sources: avocados and almonds.
Don’t skip meals
This is all about keeping blood sugar levels steady, too. When you don’t eat for a long time, your blood sugar drops and you start to feel hypoglycemic — with symptoms that include feeling shaky, jittery, nervous and irritable. That precipitates anxiety, Naidoo said.
Be careful about alcohol
Drinking in moderation is important. If you drink a lot of alcohol, your body is in a constant state of mini-alcohol withdrawals the next day, Naidoo cautioned. So you might feel sweaty and uncomfortable and feel your heart racing, similar to an anxiety state.
Anxiety sufferers who follow all of these guidelines usually start to notice some changes for the better after 30 to 60 days, Naidoo said.