Whether you deal with situational anxiety or suffer from an anxiety disorder, adding these eats to your diet can help better your brain (and body).
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Healthy Superfoods Of Vegetables And Grains And Beans Healthy variety of vegetable and grain superfoods
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You're probably aware of the connection between food and energy, such as relying on that slice of peanut butter toast to help you push through your workout. And you might have recognized the connection between diet and sleep, such as finding it hard to suppress a yawn after a big bowl of mac and cheese. But the mind-gut connection doesn't stop there: What you eat can very well contribute to your mental health, too.

"We understand that there is a brain-gut connection, and there has been emerging evidence over the past couple of decades that what we eat impacts our mood and how we feel," says Uma Naidoo, M.D., a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and author of This Is Your Brain on Food. So much so, in fact, that there's now a seemingly ever-growing understanding of how certain foods can affect specific mental health conditions, such as anxiety. For example, foods that are highly processed as well as those that are high in saturated fat have been shown to exacerbate anxiety. Meanwhile, eats that are rich in antioxidants, for example, have been associated with lower levels of anxiety. (Related: What Is Nutritional Psychology, Exactly?)

Before getting into the latter (aka foods for alleviating anxiety), however, it's important to note that there's a difference between being clinically diagnosed with anxiety and experiencing anxious feelings at varying points in life, says registered dietitian Maya Feller, R.D. While most people experience anxiety from time to time — think: before a big presentation at work — chronic or clinical anxiety differs in that it involves more than a temporary worry, stress, or fear, it can get worse overtime, and its symptoms can interfere with daily life, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"In either case, diet is just one piece of the puzzle; it's important to manage anxiety in other ways as well, such as mindfulness," says Dr. Naidoo. "But diet can be quite a large piece of the puzzle, particularly for those experiencing chronic anxiety." This is because situational anxiety tends to be tied to the situation (e.g. being overwhelmed with family stress) while chronic anxiety is more likely to be tied to imbalances that could be occurring in the brain, something nutrients can play a role in helping with, she explains.

So what should your diet look like if you're looking to alleviate anxiety? Glad you asked. Ahead, nine foods for reducing anxiety and why each can be so beneficial for your brain, according to experts.

The Best Foods for Alleviating Anxiety

Vegetables

As if you needed another reminder to eat your veggies, vegetables across the board are helpful when using a diet to manage anxiety, according to both experts. One major reason why? They're full of fiber. "Fiber-rich foods break down in the body slowly, which helps keep blood sugar levels steady and helps you feel satiated," says Dr. Naidoo. Studies have shown that when blood sugar levels spike and drop, it can cause energy and anxiety to rise and fall too; this is why keeping blood sugar levels steady is key. When perusing the produce section, keep in mind that any veggie should fit the bill when it comes to fiber and, in turn, managing mental health. That being said, a 2010 study suggests that artichokes, kale, and beets are particularly good foods for anxiety. (Related: How Many Servings of Fruits and Vegetables Do You Actually Need Per Day?)

Blueberries

Just like vegetables, fruit is also chock-full of fiber, which, again, can play a role in easing anxiety. But blueberries in particular are especially beneficial to include in an anti-anxiety diet, according to Feller. "Blueberries have anthocyanins, which are a type of compound called flavonoids." They're not only responsible for the little orbs' blue hue but they also "have antioxidant effects and have been shown to reduce oxidative stress," she explains. ICYDK, oxidative stress — which is essentially the result of an excess amount of free radicals (aka potentially harmful molecules) in the body — has been linked to certain anxiety disorders, which is why the anthocyanins in blueberries are so noteworthy. Not a fan of bluebs? No problem. Blackberries, cranberries, and cherries all have anthocyanins, too. (And the same can be said of eggplants, although they're a type of veggie.)

Fermented and Probiotic-Rich foods

In general, foods that reduce inflammation — which, BTW, includes everything on this list of foods for alleviating anxiety — play a role in helping to manage anxiety, says Dr. Naidoo. But scientific research points to probiotic-rich foods as especially effective anti-inflammatories. "Fermented foods are high in probiotics, which helps change the gut bacteria makeup in your gut. This change may suppress the stress response through the hypothalamic-pituitary axis," explains Dr. Naidoo. Also known as the HPA, this axis plays a huge role in the body's response to stress. Translation: Adding fermented foods (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut) and other probiotic-rich eats (e.g. yogurt) to your diet can potentially help you maintain a more stable mind and adopt a calmer approach to anxiety-inducing triggers or situations.

What's more, your gut produces over 90 percent of your body's serotonin and about 50 percent of your body's dopamine — two neurotransmitters responsible for regulating your mood. So, it's quite possible that when your gut is out of whack — think: microbiome imbalance or an imbalance of good and bad bacteria — the neurotransmitters aren't produced as efficiently, thereby negatively affecting your mental health. Probiotic-rich foods, however, have the power to get your gut back into balance and, in turn, better your mental wellbeing. (Related: How Your Emotions Are Messing with Your Gut)

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are considered great anti-anxiety foods by both experts. Why? Because they're high in omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that's been directly linked to decreasing anxiety, and magnesium, which has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety. "One study found that people who were magnesium deficient were more likely to feel anxious," says Dr. Naidoo. But with so many varieties available, how do you know which nuts to choose for their anti-anxiety potential? While the aforementioned 2010 study suggests walnuts and pecans can be beneficial thanks to their high antioxidant content, brazil nuts are known for their impressive magnesium content. This, in addition to the fact that they're also stocked with anti-inflammatory selenium, solidifies brazil nuts as one of the best foods that reduce anxiety. And need not forget about chia seeds, which are also considered a top pick thanks to their high amount of omega-3s.

Legumes

Another major food group on Dr. Naidoo's list of foods for managing anxiety? Legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans, which are also full of mood-boosting magnesium, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They're also a good source of B vitamins, and one of the many reasons why B vitamins are important is because they're involved in neurotransmitter production and helping neurotransmitters communicate to each other, according to research. This, in turn, can help increase feelings of happiness and decrease those of anxiety.

What's more, a 2017 study and one from 2021 both suggest that folks who don't get enough B vitamins are more likely to experience anxiety as well as depression. On the flip side, a 2018 study found that people who ate foods high in B vitamins (specifically yeast-based spreads such as Marmite and Vegemite) had better anxiety and stress scores than those who did not. Don't live Down Under? While you can technically get these Australian-based products on Amazon, you can also get your fill of B vitamins by loading up on legumes as well as other sources, such as leafy greens.

Fish

Sure, nuts and seeds are super sources of omega-3s. But they're not the only ones: Fish is another powerhouse source of this nutrient, making it yet another food for reducing anxiety that's worth adding to your diet. If you don't eat fish, however, you can reap the same mental health benefits by eating kelp — a vegan-friendly way of getting enough of this nutrient, explains Feller.

There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which are believed to regulate neurotransmitters and reduce inflammation, among promoting other healthy brain functions, according to a 2015 scientific review. Therefore, a diet rich in EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) — via sources such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and seaweed — can potentially help reduce symptoms of anxiety. (Related: Try These Mantras for Anxiety When You're Feeling Overwhelmed)

Whole Grains

Whole grains are full of the many anxiety-reducing nutrients mentioned above, making it one of Dr. Naidoo's top dietary choices when it comes to eating for your mental health. But they're especially rich in fiber, B vitamins, and magnesium. Complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, thereby promoting a calming effect, according to the Mayo Clinic. While there's no problem noshing on simple carbohydrates (think: white bread) every once and a while, opting for oatmeal, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread — among many other whole-grain eats — can potentially play a role in easing anxiety and bettering your overall mental health. (And quinoa, for example, is also packed with protein, which can help you feel fuller for longer and keep your blood sugar steady so that you're better able to manage stress and overall mood.)

Herbs and Adaptogens

Integrating spices and herbs into your meals does more than add flavor; it can also support brain health, says Dr. Naidoo. This is because herbs can help lower inflammation and, remember, inflammation and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Some specific anti-inflammatory herbs to try cooking with more often include turmeric, ginger, rosemary, garlic, and cardamom. Turmeric, for example, contains curcumin, which is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Not only has it been shown to reduce anxiety in certain adults, but a 2015 study suggests the compound can increase levels of DHA in the brain, thereby further helping to ease anxiety.

Now, onto adaptogens: Essentially active ingredients or herbs in certain plants and mushrooms, adaptogens might be able to impact how your body deals with stress and anxiety, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In fact, a 2016 study suggests that when consumed regularly, adaptogens such as ashwagandha can significantly reduce stress levels and improve "the overall quality of life." And while you might not be able to find 'em in your local grocery store, they're easily available online, such as on Amazon — just make sure to do your homework before you shell out on a product, especially since adaptogens aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Consumer Lab is an independent third-party testing service that tests adaptogens (and other supplements) for authenticity and toxicity. You can search any brand or adaptogen on their site and it will tell you if it meets the cut.

Dark Chocolate

So, there's a good chance you already know that a chocolatey snack or dessert can make you feel good, but it's actually scientifically linked to helping with anxiety too, says Dr. Naidoo. "This is because dark chocolate is rich in magnesium." What's more, dark chocolate is chock-full of polyphenols, especially flavonoids. (Yes, just like blueberries.) While polyphenols are known to be potent antioxidants that help stave off chronic disease, the flavonoids in dark chocolate, in particular, might have the ability to benefit brain function. More specifically, research suggests that the compounds may increase blood flow to the brain and enhance cell-signaling pathways, thereby allowing you to better handle stressful situations that could lead to situational anxiety or worsen clinical anxiety. That being said, more research is needed to truly confirm these results.

Still, if you're searching for ways to eat to reduce anxiety, consuming a bit of dark chocolate (some research suggests 40 grams per day) might be a smart addition to your diet. Just be sure to go for dark chocolate and not milk chocolate, as the latter isn't high in magnesium or the other brain-benefiting nutrients, so it won't have the same effect. And while researchers have yet to come up with a hard and fast recommendation of how much dark chocolate to consume to reap these perks, experts typically recommend varieties with at least 70 percent cacao content or higher, according to John Hopkins Medicine. (See more: How to Ditch Diet Mood Swings Once and For All)