5 foods that ease anxiety and the science behind it

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With so many sources of anxiety in our everyday lives, it’s helpful to know there are also commonplace foods that will promote calming.

None of them will eliminate generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) on their own, of course, but numerous foods can play a role in reducing anxiety.

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Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, said she emphasized the role of diet when discussing treatment options with patients.

“In addition to healthy guidelines such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety,” she explained in a post on the Harvard Health “Mind and Body” blog.

“For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.”

Naidoo, who is also a culinary instructor and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food” emphasized that those experiencing severe anxiety should talk to their doctor, as should anyone with more moderate symptoms lasting more than two weeks.

“But even if your doctor recommends medication or therapy for anxiety, it is still worth asking whether you might also have some success by adjusting your diet,” she said.

“The relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention. There is a growing body of evidence, and more research is needed to fully understand the role of nutritional psychiatry, or as I prefer to call it, Psycho-Nutrition.”

For now, though, many items found in the fridge or pantry are already proven winners. Here are five foods that reduce anxiety, along with the science behind each:

Salmon

If you’re not already eating the Heart Association’s recommended two servings of fish per week — particularly fish like salmon, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids — here’s a second reason to start.

In addition to promoting heart health, the omega-3 fats in salmon could also calm anxiety, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of literature published online in the JAMA Network Open in 2018.

Researchers indicate that salmon’s nutrients may help our brains regulate dopamine and serotonin to produce a calming effect. It can also possibly minimize the inflammation and brain fatigue which are common symptoms of GAD.

Pickles or other fermented foods

Don’t take that sandwich topper or hot dog relish for granted.

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, those suffering from neurotic tendencies who ate more fermented foods, such as pickles or sauerkraut, reduced their levels of social anxiety.

The authors called for further research, but said “fermented foods that contain probiotics may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms for those at higher genetic risk ... these results suggest that consumption of fermented foods that contain probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety.”

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Asparagus

In a blog for California-based academic health system UCI Health, registered dietitian Katie Rankell gave a shout-out to asparagus. She said it “is rich in potassium, fiber, vitamins A, C, E and K, and the beneficial trace element chromium — also known to reduce anxiety.”

Chamomile

This herbal tea flower dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. It is both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and either of those traits may help take care of the inflammation associated with chronic anxiety.

One 2016 study published in Phytomedicine asserted that “long-term chamomile was safe and significantly reduced moderate-to-severe GAD symptoms, but did not significantly reduce the rate of relapse.”

It’s worth noting that the studies relied on chamomile extract taken in 1,500 mg doses daily, not the tea.

Chamomile contains low levels of blood-thinning coumarin, so anyone with ongoing health problems should get their doctor’s OK before steeping chamomile for anxiety relief.

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Chocolate

There’s good news for chocolate lovers — the sweet treat is linked to reduced anxiety.

“The flavonoids in cocoa help protect your cells,” according to a WebMD roundup reviewed by doctor of osteopathy Melinda Ratini. “They’re a type of antioxidant that may also help lower your blood pressure, boost the blood flow to your brain and heart, and make you less anxious.”

But not all chocolate has antioxidant potential.

The chocolate that is beneficial for mental health should be dark, at least 70% cocoa.

“But don’t overdo it,” WebMD reported. “The caffeine in chocolate can make anxiety worse if you have too much, and no one needs a lot of extra fat and calories.”

For best results...

Along with selecting certain foods, focus on the timing of meals and snacks, Naidoo said.

“When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.”

With any of these foods or beverages, give it a couple of weeks at a minimum before expecting results.

“It takes time for dietary changes to have a positive effect on your anxiety level, so be patient with yourself and stick with your plan,” Rankell said.

Nor can you expect a few new foods to replace tried-and-true treatments and habits.

“Nutrition is often a part of anxiety treatment, combined with counseling, increased physical activity, getting better sleep, addressing other lifestyle factors and medication,” Rankell said.

Recognize that the most effective treatment is not a “one size fits all” approach.

Even more important, If your anxiety is severe or it interferes with your day-to-day activities, be sure to seek medical advice, Rankell said.

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