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Feeling anxious? Food can help. But it has to be the right kind of food, with specific nutrients that help relieve tension, promote relaxation, and balance brain chemistry. Here are our seven favorite foods for easing anxiety.
Contain choline, a vitamin-like nutrient that’s needed for the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that regulate mood and calm anxiety. In one study, people with the highest anxiety levels also had the lowest blood levels of choline. Eggs also contain vitamin D, which helps ease both anxiety and depression. Other good sources of choline include turkey, beef, seaweed, soybeans, and Swiss cheese.
Try this: Mash peeled boiled eggs with avocado and minced red onion for a healthier egg salad; top a salad of grilled escarole, onions, and olives with a soft-poached egg; layer fried eggs, sautéed kale, and salsa on a warm corn tortilla.
Is high in magnesium, which modulates the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, and can reduce anxiety. Low levels of dietary magnesium have been linked with increased anxiety, and magnesium deficiency adversely affects probiotic balance in the gut and exacerbates symptoms of anxiety. Seaweed, pumpkin, soybeans, peanuts, nuts, seeds, and spinach are also high in magnesium.
Try this: Sauté chopped chard in olive oil with golden raisins, chopped radicchio, and shallots; fry chopped chard with white beans, garlic, and red pepper flakes; purée chard leaves with basil, garlic, olive oil, and shredded Asiago cheese for a nutrient-dense pesto.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Are rich in fiber and complex carbs, which help keep blood sugar levels steady to balance mood. Studies show that high-glycemic foods such as white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, and fruit juice are associated with increased risk of anxiety. Other high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs include beans, winter squash, artichokes, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, raspberries, and blackberries.
Try this: Cut sweet potatoes into strips, toss with olive oil and paprika, and roast until tender for healthier fries; simmer sweet potatoes, carrots, and ginger in broth till tender, then purée with coconut milk and yellow curry; toss cubes of cooked sweet potato with black beans, yellow corn, minced red onion, and roasted pumpkin seeds.
4. Herbal Tea
Chamomile contains chemicals that reduce stress—in one study, people who took chamomile for eight weeks had a significant decrease in anxiety. Lemon balm and skullcap work with GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in calming anxiety. And in one study, passionflower was shown to be as effective at relieving anxiety as oxazepam, a benzodiazepine. Herbal teas are also good substitutes for coffee and caffeinated beverages, which can worsen anxious feelings and may even induce panic attacks.
Try this: Mix cooled chamomile tea with orange juice and fresh thyme sprigs, and serve over ice; brew a strong lemon balm tea, mix with lemonade and minced basil, and freeze into sorbet; combine dried passionflower with dried hops, hibiscus, and lavender, then steep in hot water, strain, and serve with honey.
5. Brown Rice
Contains a variety of B vitamins, which are crucial for the production of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Thiamine (vitamin B) has been shown to reduce anxiety and related symptoms, including headache, insomnia, and nightmares, and in one study, adults who took a B-vitamin complex had fewer symptoms of anxiety and an overall improvement in mood. Other good sources of B vitamins include nutritional yeast, split peas, spinach, barley, oats, nuts, and seeds.
Try this: Stir-fry cooked rice with diced carrots, green peas, scallions, eggs, and tamari for easy fried rice; sauté cooked rice in butter with thinly sliced mushrooms, onions, and almonds; mix cooked brown rice with mashed avocado, spread on a sheet of nori, layer with radish sprouts and shredded carrots, and roll up.
6. Kidney Beans
Are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts serotonin and has a calming effect. Several studies have linked low dietary tryptophan with increased anxiety and stress, and consuming more dietary tryptophan has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Soybeans, poultry, eggs, cheese, and pumpkin seeds are also good sources of tryptophan.
Try this: Purée kidney beans with chopped onion, minced garlic, olive oil, and cumin for an easy dip or spread; chop kidney beans, red bell pepper, scallions, parsley, flaxseed, and cooked rice in a food processor, form into patties, and grill or fry; simmer kidney beans, yellow onions, and tomatoes in coconut milk spiced with turmeric and cayenne for a traditional African dish.
Are high in zinc, which is associated with the regulation of GABA and has anti-anxiety effects. Zinc deficiency is common in several psychiatric conditions, including depression and bipolar disorder, and studies have shown that people with anxiety have lower levels of zinc. Other foods that are high in zinc include oyster, crab, lobster, pumpkin seeds, adzuki beans, nuts, beef, and chicken.
Try this: Purée cashew butter with garlic powder, onion powder, dried dill, and a splash of apple cider vinegar for a nutrient-dense, dairy-free ranch dressing; sauté cashews, broccoli florets, chopped scallions, and red pepper flakes in sesame oil; roast cashews, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers till tender, then toss with cooked penne pasta and shredded Asiago cheese.
View our Shiitake & Edamame Fried Rice recipe.