Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. The rate of adults who suffer from anxiety increased from 11% (one in ten) to 25% (one in four) over the last three years. The rate of adolescents ages 13 to 18 with anxiety is even higher at 33% (one in three), according to the American Psychiatric Association. Even though anxiety is common, you don’t have to live with its debilitating effects forever.
Having anxiety – a feeling of fear or unpleasant anxiousness – is a normal human response to an approaching stressful event or encounter. But for many people, anxiety is more extreme and persistent. In those cases, it is likely an anxiety disorder, especially when those feelings last longer than six months and interfere with normal life activities.
An anxiety disorder can affect anyone at any age, but women are twice as likely to be diagnosed. Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include having trouble concentrating, difficulty falling asleep and experiencing nightmares, panic attacks and rapid breathing, increased heart rate and restlessness. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, there are five major types of anxiety disorders:
- General anxiety disorder: Chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry and tension, even when unprovoked.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Recurrent unwanted thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors that provide temporary relief, and not performing them increases anxiety.
- Panic disorder: Unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or abdominal distress.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Develops after exposure to a terrifying event.
- Social anxiety disorder: Overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations.
For some people, an anxiety disorder can be treated with lifestyle changes. For more severe cases, psychotherapy and medication may be necessary. In addition to prioritizing sleep and getting exercise, research shows beneficial outcomes with these foods to reduce anxiety.
What to eat to help control anxiety
Foods high in EPA and DHA
These two potent omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on brain activity. Firstly, by reducing brain cell inflammation that can lead to the development of anxiety. Secondly, by regulating the release and flow of dopamine and serotonin, two hormones that have a calming effect. And finally, by improving your brain’s ability to handle stress and adapt to change. Foods that are good sources of EPA and DHA include salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and anchovies.
Foods high in magnesium
Studies have connected diets low in magnesium to anxiety-related behaviors. In the brain, magnesium plays a key role in regulating neurotransmitters that send messages to your brain and body. Get magnesium from avocados, beans, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Anxiety has been correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. A diet full of some of the highest antioxidant foods could help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Focus on berries, tart cherry juice, apples, prunes, walnuts, pecans, leafy greens, artichokes, broccoli, turmeric, ginger and beans.
Pre- and probiotic-rich foods
Studies have connected a healthy gut microbiome to increased happiness, improved brain health and lowered inflammation. A healthy microbiome thrives on a variety of probiotics. Get them from yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented products. The microbiome also thrives on prebiotics, the fuel that helps feed the probiotics in your gut. Prebiotic-rich foods are garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas and chicory root.
Green or chamomile tea
These two varieties of tea have been connected to reduced anxiety. Chamomile is an herb with high amounts of antioxidants shown to reduce inflammatory markers in people with anxiety. Green tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine that has an anti-anxiety effect by increasing the production of serotonin and dopamine.
Foods to reduce when you have anxiety
Too much caffeine
While a little caffeine can improve some people’s alertness, too much may increase anxiety symptoms. In fact “caffeine-induced anxiety order” is a condition recognized in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many mental health experts suggest reducing or avoiding caffeine as a natural defense against anxiety, or swapping higher caffeine choices like coffee, energy drinks or caffeinated soft drinks for lower caffeine choices like green tea or decaf coffee.
Though alcohol may have an immediate calming effect on nerves, it changes levels of serotonin in the brain, which can worsen anxiety symptoms. Alcohol also has a negative impact on sleep, and poor sleep is a known trigger for anxiety.
Artificial food additives
Research on the connection between artificial sweeteners/dyes and mental disorders in humans is still being researched. However, many experts believe regular use of products containing them causes a disruption in the normal function of the nervous system, which could increase anxiety.
Everyone should reduce or eliminate trans fats for overall health, and this is especially true for people with anxiety, since trans fatty acids have been linked to anxiety and depression. Artificial trans fats have been banned by the FDA, but despite this, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can list 0 grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. While this amount is small, it can add up quickly. Trans fats exist mostly in packaged baked goods, some margarine and vegetable shortenings, some microwave popcorns, fried fast food, non-dairy creamers, and refrigerated doughs and biscuits. If a product contains “partially hydrogenated oil” that’s a good indication it has trans fats.
High sugar foods
Research has connected high sugar intakes in humans to increased mood disorders and feelings of anxiety. A lot of sugar at once causes your blood sugar to spike and drop, which can increase worry and irritability. Sugar also inhibits the release of cortisol, which can weaken your natural ability to respond to stress and make you more reliant on sugar when feeling anxious. Desserts, baked goods, sweetened beverages, candy and packaged snacks are high in sugar. Conventional condiments and sauces, frozen meals, sweetened canned fruit, cereal, and flavored yogurt are less obvious sources of high sugar.
Supplements that can help with anxiety
Additional support from certain supplements could help reduce or lessen anxiety symptoms. Always consult your doctor before starting a new supplement.
Emerging research on cannabidiol (CBD) suggests that it can lower anxiety levels and improve sleep. CBD is a hemp-derived compound that doesn’t contain THC, so it doesn’t provide a psychoactive effect. Experts suggest organic, full-spectrum CBD is best for health since hemp is a bioaccumulating crop.
While the evidence isn’t conclusive, many people find relief from anxiety symptoms with regular use of herbal supplements, including valerian root, ashwagandha, kava and rhodiola rosea.
The anti-inflammatory properties of EPA and DHA, two potent omega-3 fatty acids, is connected to lowered anxiety symptoms and can be useful, especially for those who don’t regularly eat two servings or more of fatty fish per week.
Studies have shown anti-anxiety effects of regular use of magnesium supplements at doses ranging from 75 to 360 milligrams per day. Magnesium also has been connected to improved sleep, which can decrease anxiety.
Have anxiety? Do this first.
If you have persistent anxiety lasting longer than six months, talk with your healthcare provider about therapy options. Talk therapy has provided many positive outcomes for people suffering from an anxiety disorder. In terms of lifestyle changes, start by eliminating caffeine and alcohol, while increasing water intake and daily movement.
What else to know about anxiety
For people with an anxiety disorder, there are many factors that can make symptoms better or worse. Consider the above recommended dietary approaches with the following in mind.
Talking with a trained professional, whether a psychiatrist, therapist or psychologist, through one-on-one counseling or monitored support groups can be a helpful approach. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the gold standard for treating anxiety. By exploring the ways your thoughts are affecting your mood and actions, a trained professional can help you reframe anxious thoughts.
In some cases, your healthcare provider or psychiatrist may suggest medication to help treat an anxiety disorder. Common medications are antidepressants and sedatives, which can help balance brain activity and prevent severe symptoms.
Impaired sleep and anxiety have a cyclical relationship. Anxiety can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, while sleep deprivation can increase anxiety. Reducing caffeine and alcohol can help, as can establishing a regular sleep schedule (on weekends, too). Start by creating a relaxing ritual one hour before bedtime. You may also want to explore how talking with a trained therapist can improve your healthy sleep habits.
Meditation and journaling
Partaking in mindfulness activities – those which keep your mind in the present situation – can have a cathartic effect and help you process feelings. Writing down your emotions or learning how to “center” through meditation have been shown to improve anxiety symptoms in people of all ages.
Research suggests that regular physical activity plays a significant role in reducing anxiety and depression. There is no single activity or exertion level that provides relief for everyone, so the key is to find an activity that you enjoy and will partake in regularly. Aim to move at least 30 minutes a day for at least five days a week.
Drinking enough water has many health benefits, and research also shows its important for your mental capacity. Dehydration has been linked to increased anxiety, tension and confusion.
To put our recommendations into practice, check out our Meal Plan for Anxiety, designed by a dietitian.