Food

5 Anti-Anxiety Foods and Their Key Components to Help Calm Your Nerves

More Americans than ever before are stressed out, anxious and depressed.

Photo Credit: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

If you have a craving for Mexican food, or a dessert of berries and chocolate, you may be looking for a dose of anti-anxiety foods—and you wouldn't be be alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The range of challenges can be general anxiety disorders, panic disorders, social anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

Anxiety disorders, or serious psychological distress, are on the rise after the Great Recession of 2007, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services. A lot of people were displaced, lost jobs and their safety net. But there has been a general rise in anxiety for the younger generations since the 1930s.

Mental illness is on the rise. Suicide is on the rise. And access to care for the mentally ill is getting worse,” said Judith Weissman, a research manager in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City and the lead researcher in a recent study found that more Americans than ever before are stressed out, anxious and depressed, and many are unable to get the help they need.

While the lingering impacts of the 2007 recession may be playing a role, there's also the current political climate. So many Americans are suffering from political anxiety since the last presidential election that doctors have coined a term for their distress, another kind of PTSD: "President Trump stress disorder."

So what can you eat to calm your nerves? Avocados, spinach, red and yellow peppers, tofu and walnuts. You might as well add chocolate. (But remember, before changing your diet radically, always speak to your doctor first.)

An anti-anxiety diet is abundant in foods with eight key components.  

1. Zinc

Zinc has been shown to have antidepressant effects. Foods high in zinc include spinach, pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, flax seeds, watermelon seeds, oysters, meats, lima beans, garlic, peanuts, shrimp.

2. Magnesium

Magnesium is calming and relaxing. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that in elderly people, magnesium supplements helped to relieve insomnia. Some research indicates that magnesium may help relieve a host of psychiatric disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Foods high in magnesium include peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, spinach, chard, dark chocolate, banana, yogurt, almonds.

3. Antioxidant

Antioxidants provide a defense against oxidative stress in general anxiety disorder. Foods high in antioxidants include artichokes, elderberries, kidney beans, cranberries, goji berries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, teas, dark chocolate and broccoli.

4. Vitamin C

Vitamin C reduces anxiety by reducing oxidative stress. Foods high in vitamin C include oranges, peppers, kale, broccoli, papaya, strawberries, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, pineapple, kiwi and mango.

5. Omega-3 fatty acid

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and act as a healing fatty acid for the brain. Foods high in Omega-3 oils include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and fish (mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, herring and salmon fish oil).

6. Tryptophan

Tryptophan signals the brain to release serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, soy, cheese, oats, poultry, oats, lentils, eggs.

7. Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbs help to increase serotonin levels. Foods high in complex carbohydrates include sweet potatoes, quinoa, lentils and legumes, squash, whole fruits, heirloom grains such as millet, leafy green vegetables and vegetables such as beets, artichokes and asparagus.

8. B vitamins

B vitamins, including folic acid, can help to reduce depression. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology and conducted by researchers at the MRC Neuropsychiatric Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom, "Both low folate and low vitamin B12 status have been found in studies of depressive patients, and an association between depression and low levels of the two vitamins is found in studies of the general population."

Foods high in vitamin B complex include berries, legumes, eggs, dark green vegetables, seeds, avocados, lean meat, broccoli, green beans and spinach.

It is additionally important to eliminate all added sugar as there is a link between sugar and mood disorders. Foods low in added sugar include protein, vegetables, fruit and grains.

5 Go-To Anti-Anxiety Foods

We’ve filtered through the foods with these attributes and pulled out five that make for easy eating.

1. Avocado

Some consider avocados, which are rich in folic acid and B vitamins, one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Avocados are a fruit that provide a lot of folic acid (one avocado provides 41 percent of the percent daily value) and antioxidants including carotenoids. Folic acid and B12 are B vitamins that have a link to preventing depression and anxiety.

2. Spinach

These leafy greens are loaded with magnesium as well as other anti-anxiety nutrients such as zinc and folic acid. Magnesium helps regulate the nervous system.

3. Red and Yellow Peppers

Red and yellow peppers are loaded with healthy flavonoid and carotenoid antioxidants, plus vitamin C. They are anti-inflammatory as well, so they're healing for the brain.

4. Tofu

A vegetarian source of tryptophan, tofu is a soybean curd that has been pressed into blocks resulting in a firm texture. It can easily be cut into one-inch cubes, making it an easy addition to stir-fry and more. (Note: buy GMO-free tofu.)

5. Walnuts

Walnuts are anti-inflammatory and contain the essential omega-3 fatty acids as well as zinc. Research indicates that walnuts are the best nut for heart health, beating out top contenders like pistachios, cashews and almonds.

Powerhouse Anti-Anxiety Meals

Peruse the lists of foods that reduce anxiety above and you'll see how easily you can integrate them into almost any diet. Below are just a few ideas for ways to do this.

1. Roll-ups

You could eat all five of the above go-to foods easily in a roll-up. Using lettuce, enchiladas or tacos, just tuck in avocado (folic acid), spinach (magnesium), peppers (vitamin C), tofu (tryptophan) and walnuts (Omega-3 oils). Add your salsa of choice.

Dessert: Dark chocolate (antioxidants, magnesium, tryptophan).

2. Tofu-Stuffed Peppers with Avocado Sauce

Another way to easily eat all five of the go-to foods is to make stuffed peppers. Chop the spinach (magnesium), tofu (tryptophan), walnuts (omega-3 oils), and peppers (vitamin C) and stuff them into cleaned-out peppers. Bake at 350°F for half an hour. Remove from oven and smother with avocado sauce (folic acid).

Dessert: (vitamin C-rich) fruit.

3. Mexican Cuisine

This anti-anxiety Mexican meal suggestion can be adapted in many ways. Just find a few good tacos recipes, such as here or here. Make tacos with tofu (tryptophan), avocado (folic acid and B vitamins), spinach (magnesium), pumpkin seeds (zinc), red/yellow bell peppers, cilantro and garlic (flavonoid antioxidants, vitamin C), tomatoes (antioxidant lycopene) and organic corn tacos (complex carbohydrate for serotonin).

Dessert: Berries (antioxidants), figs (magnesium), walnuts (omega 3s) with dark chocolate (tryptophan and magnesium, antioxidants).

4. Asian Cuisine

A good Asian stir-fry can be free-flowing as long as you have a good sauce. Here is a sauce that includes miso (fermented food, tryptophan-rich). You can make this vegetarian and vegan by omitting the oyster sauce.

Heat oil in a wok or pan and and stir-fry pineapple (vitamin C), bok choy (antioxidants), almonds (magnesium), chia seeds (omega-3), bell peppers (vitamin C), various vegetables (antioxidants), brown rice (boost of serotonin). Add the miso sauce.

Dessert: Asian fruit salad (vitamin C, antioxidants).

5. Italian Cuisine

Alla carbonara would be a good anti-anxiety meal since the cheese and eggs are rich in tryptophan and parsley in folic acid. But for a healthier and cruelty-free version, make it vegan by frying tofu—an addition would make it even richer in tryptophan. Add a salad of dark leafy greens, tomatoes, walnuts and artichokes (antioxidants).

Dessert: Dark chocolate (tryptophan, magnesium, antioxidants).

6. Farm-to-Table Cuisine

Make ratatouille, including tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil and zucchini (antioxidants). Add a side of complex carbohydrates, such as quinoa (increased serotonin). Sprinkle with walnuts (omega-3) and cheese (tryptophan).

Dessert: Yogurt (magnesium), fruit (vitamin C).

Truthfully, it is hard to avoid many of these foods if you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. But armed with a heightened awareness of the calming attributes associated with these foods, finding your calm may be as easy as a quick stir fry.

Do you have any suggestions for anxiety-reducing foods? Share them in the comments.

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Annie B. Bond is the author of five healthy/green living books, including Better Basics for the Home (Three Rivers Press, 1999). She is the co-author of True Food: Eight Simple Steps to a Healthier You, winner of the Gourmand Awards Best Health and Nutrition Cookbook in the World.