The food you eat can have an impact on your mental health – and if you’re living with anxiety, adjusting your diet may help alleviate some of its symptoms. But filling up on nutrient-dense foods and plenty of fresh produce might not be the only solution. Research suggests that antioxidants might be able to have a noticeable effect on anxiety and its symptoms.
Antioxidants are best known for their ability to fight free radicals, the unstable molecules that can trigger oxidative stress and cellular damage, ultimately raising your risk for diseases of all kinds. The more antioxidants you get, the better you’re able to counteract the effects of those free radicals. And, as it turns out, you might be able to alleviate anxiety or anxiety symptoms.
How do antioxidants impact anxiety? And how much of a role do they play in your mental health? Here’s what the science says.
Getting too few antioxidants may be linked to anxiety
A review in the journal Current Neuropharmacology suggests that there might be a link between a lowered total antioxidant state – or getting too few antioxidants – and anxiety disorders.
The authors of this review note that there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests an imbalance between oxidative stress and the antioxidant defense system may be associated with neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. Both anxiety and depression are conneced to a lower overall antioxidant state; when you aren’t getting enough antioxidants, this can activate that oxidative stress. In fact, as the authors explain, antidepressant medications can actually offer therapeutic benefits by increasing an individual’s antioxidant levels.
So, if getting too few antioxidants in your daily diet can potentially put you at an increased risk for anxiety disorders and symptoms, then upping your intake may help.
How antioxidants can help your mental health
According to the above review, antioxidants can help combat the effects of oxidative stress by removing reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) by scavenging free radicals and suppressing the pathways that create oxidative stress. All of this together protects you against damage to your neurons – and it can even fight the sources of oxidative stress in the brain.
It’s that impact on your brain that may help with anxiety or depression. If free radicals aren’t able to create oxidative stress, and that stress isn’t wreaking havoc (or causing damage) to your cells, then you may see a decrease in anxiety or depression symptoms.
Additionally, it’s hypothesized that oxidative stress can play a role in everything from inflammation to brain plasticity to neuron signaling to mitochondrial function, all key pieces of anxiety and depression. Lessening oxidative stress, or stopping it from altering the brain on a cellular level, may become increasingly important in treating or preventing neuropsychiatric disorders.
However, it’s important to point out that scientists don’t yet have a complete understanding of how oxidative stress and disorders like anxiety and depression are related. More is being learned – and there’s increasingly more evidence being gathered that points to oxidative stress as a player in anxiety and depression. But more research is still needed.
These antioxidant-rich foods may help soothe anxiety
When it comes to anxiety, adding more antioxidant-rich foods into your meals may ease your symptoms, help you better manage anxiety or lower your risk, all by targeting that unwanted oxidative stress. And, of course, there’s no harm in upping your antioxidant intake to combat oxidative stress overall – those sneaky free radicals can wreak havoc in your body well beyond the brain.
And it’s super easy to increase the amount of antioxidants you’re eating. In fact, you have thousands of food options! A study published in Nutrition Journal examined the antioxidant levels of 3,100 foods, spices, herbs, drinks and supplements. This study provides a great starting place to pinpoint foods that are especially antioxidant-rich.
Some of the best foods for getting your daily dose of antioxidants? Plants! The study highlights that a plant-based diet may protect against chronic oxidative stress and its effects – like increased risk for various diseases – over time. Plant-based foods tend to contain high levels of antioxidants, which is why they’re such a potent choice.
If you’re specifically seeking out antioxidant-rich foods, the following are some of the top picks to try:
|Food or drink||Antioxidant content (mmol/100 g)|
You can also up your intake by combining antioxidant-rich foods with spices and fresh herbs that are also chock full of antioxidants. The following are a great place to start for both flavor and fighting free radicals:
|Spice or herb||Antioxidant content (mmol/100 g)|
|Clove (dried, whole or ground)||277.3|
|Mint leaves (dried)||116.4|
|Allspice (dried, ground)||100.4|
|Cinnamon (dried, ground)||77|
|Oregano (dried, ground)||63.2|
|Thyme (dried, ground)||56.3|
|Rosemary (dried, ground)||44.8|
|Saffron (dried, ground)||44.5|
|Sage (dried, ground)||44.3|
|Bay leaves (dried)||27.8|
An easy way to get more antioxidants? Choose plants at every meal. The more plant-based foods you’re enjoying throughout the day, the more antioxidants you’re likely to consume. Plus, it’ll save you the work of figuring out exactly how many antioxidants you’re getting from each food you eat.
For more on the connection between anxiety and nutrition, keep reading: