Kale, quinoa and cashews may not sound like comfort foods, but they all contain nutrients that fight off anxiety, a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist says.
Uma Naidoo, MD, says there’s a natural overlap between food and mental health: 95% of the body’s receptors for serotonin (a chemical that stabilizes mood, appetite and sleep) are found in the gut. Dr. Naidoo, a trained professional chef as well as a psychiatrist at the MGH, uses diet as part of her “mind-body approach” to treat anxiety.
Anxiety affects about 40 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Traditional treatment includes talk therapy, medication and group therapy. Food-focused solutions may be joining that menu, as a complement to existing care.
Foods to Fight Anxiety
Turmeric Root Tea
1 cup hot water
¼ tsp turmeric root, ground
Pinch of finely ground black pepper
Sliver of fresh ginger
Sweeten to your taste
- Using a pestle and mortar, blend the turmeric root
- Add in the black pepper
- Add the boiling water and stir to combine and dissolve the spices
- Add the sliver of ginger (optional)
- Garnish with a lemon slice
Dr. Naidoo recommends foods that are rich in:
- Magnesium: Nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, freshwater fish, bananas, beans and legumes, figs, avocado, strawberries, yogurt, grapefruit, dark chocolate and blackberries. Raw nuts are better than honey-roasted ones, which can come with added sugars. To roast your own nuts, soak them overnight, rinse them and roast them in the oven at 200 degrees until they’re dry. You can add your own savory or sweet seasonings, and use coconut oil when roasting. Sugar-free yogurt from grass-fed cows is best.
- Zinc: Oysters, crab, lobster, whole grains like quinoa, vegetables like mushrooms, kale, broccoli, garlic and spinach, nuts and seeds like cashews, pecans, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts, beans and legumes, chicken, red meat, milk and yogurt.
- Vitamin B: Asparagus, kale, spinach, almonds, avocado, red meat and chicken.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Wild caught salmon, flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil. There are some benefits to taking Omega-3 fatty acids as a supplement, but it’s not as helpful as food. It’s always healthier to consume nutrients from natural sources.
- Probiotics and Fermented Foods: Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles.
Spices like turmeric and ginger may also help reduce anxiety symptoms. It’s best to use fresh ginger if possible, and organic turmeric powder is easily available at stores. Both can be easily added to a smoothie or tea, Dr. Naidoo says.
Magnesium, zinc, Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins have been shown to promote brain health by boosting its ability to send and process information. This is important for regulating mood and cognition. Probiotics improve the microbiome in the gut, which sends positive signals to the brain and may help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Eating Happy and Healthy
Dr. Naidoo suggests there are seven core principles for nutritional psychiatry:
- Choose complex carbohydrates over simple ones because they take longer to digest.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Avoid hidden sugars. Foods that seem healthy, like yogurt, dried fruits or roasted nuts, often come packed with sugars.
- Find a healthier swap for unhealthy foods.
- Avoid/limit alcohol and caffeine consumption.
- Hydrate well with water.
- Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals causes blood sugar to drop, which can lead to a bad mood and poor eating decisions. Low blood sugar also worsens anxiety.
People interested in relieving anxiety through food should keep a journal of their diet and anxiety symptoms over time.
People interested in relieving anxiety through food should keep a journal of their diet and anxiety symptoms over time. Don’t expect instant results. Dr. Naidoo checks in with patients about a month after suggesting dietary changes, to see if the food has helped; she assesses their anxiety level and any changes using a questionnaire at each visit to track changes.
Patients should always speak to their doctor before changing their anxiety treatment, Dr. Naidoo says. For some patients, new foods can cause indigestion, so they may need a gastrointestinal consultation. Others will not be able to eat the above foods due to allergies or interactions with medications.
“Anxiety is the most common disorder in this country, so many people will need medication,” she says. “[Food] is just another way to attack it.”