Can certain foods help me combat anxiety?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I suffer from anxiety but would rather not take medication. I already exercise and practice relaxation therapy. Could dietary changes help further quell my worries?

DEAR READER:

To help answer your question, I turned to my colleague Dr. Uma Naidoo. She is a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and a professional chef. She noted that the relationship between food, mood and anxiety is garnering more and more attention.

When thinking about dietary strategies to help relieve anxiety, start with the basics. That means eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine.

But there’s a lot more. Many other dietary considerations can also help relieve anxiety. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level.

Why is that important? When blood sugar levels swing from high to low, the heart begins to beat faster and more forcefully. The hands can start trembling. People start to sweat. All these physical changes often produce anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, makes all of these changes more prominent — leading to more anxiety, and a vicious circle.

So, maintaining a more even blood sugar level creates a calmer feeling. The take-home? Choose whole grains, vegetables and fruits over highly refined or processed foods to help keep blood sugar — and mood — more stable.

When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in a drop in blood sugar that causes you to feel jittery, worsening underlying anxiety.

Specific foods and nutrients can reduce anxiety. They spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of these brain chemicals are believed to play a role in anxiety and depression. These “feel good” foods are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety. They include:

  • Foods naturally rich in magnesium, including spinach, Swiss chard, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef and egg yolks.
  • Foods, like fatty fish, that contain omega-3 fatty acid.
  • Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds.

Anxiety may also be linked with lower levels of antioxidants in the body. It stands to reason, then, that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety. Foods containing high levels of antioxidants include:

  • Beans: dried small red, pinto, black, red kidney
  • Fruits: apples, prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
  • Berries: blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
  • Spices: turmeric and ginger.

Nutritional therapy is not intended to replace other treatments. Talk to your doctor if your anxiety symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks.