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  • Writer's pictureUta

What to eat to soothe anxiety

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

If you’re struggling with anxiety you’re not alone. We have seen a staggering increase in anxiety in the past couple of years which is not surprising. During 2020 almost half of UK adults reported high anxiety and average anxiety scores were at 5.2 out of 10, up from 3.0 in the last quarter of 2019 according to The Office of National Statistics.

Fortunately this topic has gained a lot of attention and more people are now aware of the warning signs. There has also been a booming wellness movement to support this growing issue. From meditation and mindfulness tools including classes and apps to a broader offering of therapies and a wide variety of course involving movement such as yoga.

All of the above are wonderful and have been shown to be effective in helping reduce anxiety. However, one key topic has not had as much publicity even though it plays a crucial role in our mental health and mood and provides the foundation for our body to function and restore balance. This topic is nutrition!

As a registered nutritional therapist I found early on in the pandemic that clients coming to see me for various concerns (from fertility to athletic performance and skin health) would often report back that they had found reduced stress levels and anxiety and more stable moods after implementing my recommendations. This soon led me to investigate this topic further. After creating and delivering numerous presentations on the link between nutrition and mental health I really felt so passionate about this subject and it has now become a major part of my clinical practice. So to give you an idea of how powerful food can be when it comes to your mental health I will share my top tips here on what to eat to soothe anxiety.

  1. Healthy Fats

Healthy fats such as omega 3 are crucial for brain function and strongly linked to our mental health. Research shows that an imbalance of omega 3 & omega 6 fats can increase our risk of developing mood disorders such as anxiety. Omega-3-rich foods provide two essential fatty acids: EPA & DHA. These regulate neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation, and promote healthy brain function. Most of us end up getting far too many omega 6 fats from processed foods and far too little of the omega 3 fats. To help restore balance and reduce anxiety try the following:

  • Include 3 portions of oily fish per week. These include salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines & herring. Oily fish are the best food source of omega 3 fats available.

  • Include shelled hemp seeds, ground or soaked flax/linseed and soaked chia seeds on a daily basis. These are an excellent source of omega 3 as well as protein, fibre and other beneficial nutrients. You can sprinkle these over salads, stir them into porridge or overnight oats. You can also try making a chia or linseed pudding. Seeds always need to be soaked or ground in order for your body to be able to access the nutrients from them.

  • Limit processed foods made with sunflower or corn oil (crisps, biscuits, chocolates, cakes and many ready meals). These are particularly high in omega 6 fats.

  1. Tryptophan

The amino acid L-Tryptophan is a crucial precursor of serotonin, our happy hormone.

Whilst serotonin also has many other functions in the body it is best known for it’s role in stabilising our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. Without enough tryptophan the body cannot make adequate amounts of this essential hormone.

To make sure you get plenty of tryptophan in your diet try the following:

  • Make sure you get at least 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight each day. Getting adequate protein is one of the best ways to cover your tryptophan needs.

  • Always eat protein with carbohydrates (from vegetables, fruit or whole grains). The body can only properly utilise tryptophan when consumed with carbs. This is because carbs are needed in order for tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier and be converted to serotonin! I often see clients who report chronic low moods and increase anxiety when trying to lose weight on a very low carb diet.

  • Include the following foods which are particularly high in tryptophan: turkey, oats, nuts & seeds, bananas and cherries.

  1. Magnesium

Otherwise known as nature’s chill pill (among nutritionists) magnesium aids relaxation and helps to regulate neurotransmitters. A 2017 review that looked at 18 different studies found that magnesium did reduce anxiety. The studies looked at mild anxiety, anxiety during premenstrual syndrome, postpartum anxiety, and generalised anxiety.

Including plenty of magnesium rich foods is important not just for anxiety but also helps build stress resilience and improves sleep quality as well as being involved in energy production.

To meet your daily needs I recommend the following:

  • Include at least 1 portion of leafy greens each day. Spinach, kale, chard and dark leafy salad leaves are all good sources. Add these into soups and stews, make a side salad or put them in your smoothie.

  • Other good source of magnesium to include regularly are nuts (especially almonds), avocado, dark chocolate and bananas.

  1. Blood Sugar Balance

A growing body of evidence suggests a relationship between mood and blood-sugar, or glycemic highs and lows. Symptoms of low blood sugar can mirror anxiety's symptoms or worsen existing anxiety. Shakiness, fast heart rate, irritability, nausea, difficulty concentrating, and panic are all shared symptoms.

To keep bloods sugar levels stable and avoid exacerbating anxiety follow these tips:

  • Include plenty of fibre with all your meals (from veggies & wholegrains)

  • Always include a source of protein with every meal and snack

  • Limit processed sugar and carbs

  • Eat roughly around the same time each day and stick to main meals and 1 snack rather than grazing

5. Feed Your Microbiome

Your gut microbiome is a collection of trillions of bacterial cells located largely in the colon. It is directly connected to the brain. Your gut bacteria produce many neurotransmitters such as dopamine and gaba, which are critical for mood, anxiety, concentration, reward and motivation. Research shows that if your microbiome is not balanced (something scientists call dysbiosis), the bacterial activities can have a negative impact on our mental health. To look after your gut be sure to:

  • Eat plenty of fibre (from veggies, fruit & whole grains)

  • Moderate sugar

  • Avoid artificial sweeteners

  • Include probiotic food such as live yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi on a regular basis

Written for Happiful Magazine (Published October 2022)


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