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The Experts Agree: What You Eat Can Directly Impact Stress and Anxiety


Food is our energy source and provides us with the nutrients we need to grow, fight disease and repair. Previous studies have linked higher fruit and vegetable consumption to a lower cancer and diabetes risk, improved vision, and better cardiovascular health. Now, a new study published in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health adds one more advantage to the list: potentially lower anxiety levels.


So how do we know whether our diet is causing or increasing stress?


  • Do you have a healthy balanced diet?

  • Do you eat regular meals (at least 3 a day)?

  • Do you eat breakfast?

  • Do you eat 5 portions of vegetables a day?

  • Do you eat red meat less than twice a week?

  • Do you eat fresh, home-prepared meals more than pre-prepared ready meals?


If you answered no to all or most of these questions, you need some help improving your diet to ensuring that it is not causing or increasing stress. 



Want to improve your mental health? Eat your greens.


Studies show that eating more vegetables can give you a mental boost equal to finding a new job or taking a daily walk


There are many ways to manage and even reduce stress levels when you’re feeling tense. Food can be one of your biggest allies — or enemies. Food can make your stress levels go down or up, so it’s critical to pay attention to what you’re eating when you’re feeling frazzled. Not to mention, just being stressed can increase your need for certain nutrients, such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, and niacin, according to research.



One article suggests that the amount and quality of nutrients you take in over time can impact the body’s neural circuits that control emotion, motivation, and mood. Additionally, the causal relationship between diet and mental health conditions like depression can be tricky to definitively identify, but some research suggests that diet can affect mental health, while mental health can also affect diet. Other research has pointed to gut microbiota — microorganisms in the intestine made up of good and bad bacteria — as an essential link to the relationship between what you eat and drink, and how you feel.



“Microbiome health, or gut health, affects your mood, emotions, and psychological health,” says Alice Figueroa, RDN, MPH, a nutritionist and author of Prediabetes Diet and Action Plan: A Guide to Reverse Prediabetes and Start New Healthy Habits.



Unhealthy eating patterns can send stress levels skyrocketing and potentially increase your risk of health problems in the future if you don’t address them. Fighting stress with food is a tactic available to everyone, Figueroa says. No expensive supplements or complex methodology is required. And it doesn’t take much. Even adding just ONE more serving of fruit or vegetables to your plate each day can improve your mood. Here are some of the recent findings.


  • A 2023 British study associated higher consumption of fruits with feelings of relaxation, confidence and energy.

  • A 2022 Australian study of fruit and vegetable consumption in more than 4,000 women, showed that those who consumed at least five servings of vegetables a day had 19 percent lower risk of developing depression over a period of 15 years compared with those eating a maximum of one serving. For fruits, four portions versus one meant 25 percent lower odds of depression.


  • A meta-analysis of 18 studies found that for every 100 grams of vegetables consumed, depression risk dropped by 3 percent.


  • A study of food diaries found that the benefit to mental health of eating more vegetables was equivalent to getting a job after being unemployed.


  • A U.K. study found that increasing one’s daily fruit and vegetable consumption by just one portion provides the same estimated increase in mental well-being as eight days of 10 minute walks.



SO HOW DOES IT WORK?


The mental health benefits may also be due to getting more fibre, which can lead to a healthier microbiome. “The more soluble fibre we have in our diet, the more the beneficial gut microbes will thrive,” says Stephen Ilardi, psychologist at the University of Kansas, who researches lifestyle effects on depression.


Studies show that gut microbes are key players in depression and anxiety, as the health of your microbiome influences the production of serotonin and regulates inflammation, both of which play a role in mental health. “We have mountains of evidence now that gut microbes are very good at influencing brain function and mental function,” Ilardi said.


Phytochemicals, which are naturally produced plant compounds, also have “profound anti-inflammatory effects,” Ilardi said. Research suggests that polyphenols, a type of phytochemical found in high amounts in berries, artichokes, onions, spinach, nuts and seeds, could increase concentrations of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that help regulate mood and motivation.


A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don't skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.



McMordie agrees. “Mood is regulated by the brain, and to work properly, the brain needs optimal fuel from nutrients in food,” she says. 


Mood is also affected by the microbiome in the digestive tract (or the gut), she adds. 


“[This] is why we're seeing even more emphasis on gut health in relation to mental health. Nutrient deficiencies and inflammation can be contributors to anxiety and stress, and what we eat can help or hurt these areas,” Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Lubbock, Texas.



Let's see how diet may impact anxiety and what foods help reduce it quickly if made a part of a well-balanced diet.





1. Avocado





Consuming regular portions of avocado might help with anxiety due to its vitamin B content. Research has linked B-vitamin-rich foods to reduced symptoms and lower feelings of anxiety.

One medium avocado has several B vitamins, including:

  • Folate (B9)

  • Niacin (B3)

  • Pantothenic acid (B5)

  • Riboflavin (B2)

  • Vitamin B6



2. Blueberries





Eating blueberries could be helpful for stress. Blueberries are rich in antioxidants, which help delay and prevent cell damage.


A study published in 2019 found that, in postmenopausal people, increased dietary antioxidants lowered anxiety scores.



3. Calcium-Rich Foods





A study published in 2022 found that increasing your calcium intake may be helpful for your mood. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products like milk and yogurt and vegetables like spinach and kale.


The researchers received data from 1,233 college students and found that those who ate more dairy and calcium were less stressed than others. They also noted that increased calcium intake often resulted in less anxious feelings and more resilience.



4. Eggs





Anxiety symptoms depend on hormones, like serotonin and dopamine, within your central nervous system. Egg yolks contain vitamin D, which can aid in nervous system function. Some evidence suggests that increased vitamin D levels reduce anxiety and depression symptoms and boosts mood.



5. Leafy Greens





A study published in 2018 found that college students felt calmer, happier, and more energetic when they ate more vegetables. Included among the vegetables were dark leafy greens, carrots, and cucumbers. It's unclear whether upbeat thoughts or healthy eating came first. Still, the researchers found that healthy eating patterns seemed to predict a positive mood the next day.



6. Nuts and Seeds





Research has linked zinc deficiency to anxiety. A 1-ounce portion of raw cashews has 1.6 milligrams of zinc, which is about 14% to 20% of the recommended amount of zinc for adults.


Some evidence suggests that magnesium also helps improve mood and anxiety symptoms. Chia seeds and pumpkin seeds are sources of magnesium.



7. Apples pears, bananas and citrus fruits





While increasing your intake of fruits in general may help reduce stress, a 2022 study found that eating specific fruits was associated with lower stress levels. 


The study found that, compared to those with the lowest intakes, the study participants with the highest consumption of bananas, oranges and other citrus fruits, and apples and pears had a 24%, 25%, and 31% lower risk of having high perceived stress, respectively.


The researchers suggested that the high amount of minerals, vitamins, and other phytochemicals found in these foods contribute to their stress-relieving properties. 


One medium-sized naval orange provides over half of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin C, an antioxidant. Research has shown that vitamin C plays a role in the body's stress response and improves mood. Some studies have found that high levels of vitamin C may help ease stress levels. One double-blind study reported that vitamin C reduced stress levels in participants taking 500 mg per day. Another review found that vitamin C supplementation could improve symptoms of stress-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Eating fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and strawberries is a good place to start.



8. Salmon





Stress can increase levels of anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.23 Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce those hormone levels. For example, research has found that omega-3s reduce cortisol levels by up to 33%.



9. Turkey Breast




Turkey is a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin. On its own, tryptophan may have a calming effect. A study published in 2015 found that high doses of tryptophan resulted in significantly fewer anxiety and depression symptoms and irritability.



10. Pumpkin Seeds





Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of potassium, which helps regulate electrolyte balance and manage blood pressure. An older 2008 study found that lower potassium and magnesium levels were associated with high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that the adrenal glands release.


Eating potassium-rich foods, such as pumpkin seeds and bananas, may help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.


Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of the mineral zinc. One study carried out on 100 female high school students found that serum zinc levels were inversely related to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. These results suggest that increasing serum levels of zinc could improve mood disorders in some people.


Zinc is essential for brain and nerve development. The largest storage sites of zinc in the body are in the brain regions involved with emotions.



11. Beans and Lentils





Diets high in legumes, like beans and lentils, have been linked to a number of health benefits, from reduced heart disease risk to improved mood. Beans and lentils contain several nutrients involved in mood regulation and stress response, including amino acids like L-tryptophan and minerals like magnesium. 


A 2022 study that included 8,640 people found that people with higher intakes of legumes were 26% less likely to have high levels of perceived stress. The researchers noted that legumes are rich in fiber and antioxidants such as polyphenols and carotenoids, which decrease oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Studies show that stress can activate inflammatory responses in the body and that people with elevated stress and anxiety levels tend to have higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress.


Therefore, eating legumes may help lower stress-induced inflammation and reduce perceived stress.



12. Berries




Berries are rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds as well as vitamins and minerals that are involved in cognitive function, mood regulation, and stress response. 


High dietary intake of fruits and vegetables, including berries, has been associated with lower perceived stress. A 2022 study found that, compared to those with the lowest fruit intake, participants with the highest fruit intake had 16%, 25%, and 27%, lower odds for lack of joy, worries, and tension, respectively.


Diets rich in berries have also been linked to higher levels of optimism, reduced levels of psychological distress, and protection against depressive symptoms.



13. Coca products




Cocoa products, like cacao nibs and cocoa powder, may help relieve stress and boost mood. Study findings suggest that eating cocoa products may lead to short-term improvements in mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Cocoa products may help improve mood and reduce stress by improving blood flow in the brain and interacting with neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation.


A small 2014 study that included 60 students found that the consumption of 40 g of dark and milk chocolate per day for two weeks significantly decreased average stress scores compared to baseline. However, the stress-reducing effects of the chocolate treatment were more significant in the female participants than the males!



14. Sauerkraut and other fermented foods




Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir, are best known for their gut health-promoting effects, but these foods may also positively influence your mood and stress levels. The gut and the brain are closely linked, and choosing foods that support a healthy gut bacteria community may help improve your mental well-being.


Studies show that fermented foods may influence stress hormones and help reduce stress perception. In a 2023 study that included 45 people, the participants were randomized to follow a  psychobiotic diet (foods known to influence the microbiota) which included fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and two to three servings of fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, or kombucha per day, or a control diet for four weeks. At the end of the four-week intervention, those following the psychobiotic diet reported a statistically significant 32% decrease in perceived stress, which was not observed in the control diet group. People who strictly adhered to the diet had more significant decreases in perceived stress scores.



A Quick Review


So while it’s impossible to completely cut stress from our lives, changing our diets can have a BIG impact on our stress levels and our ability to cope with stress


Following a healthy diet and prioritising foods linked to lower stress and anxiety levels, such as fish, berries, legumes, and leafy greens, could be an effective way to improve our resilience to stress and support our mental health.


So what simple changes / additions do you think you can make to your diet straight away?






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I'll try to eat more chocolate 😂 and get some avocados and blueberries. I'll try and learn to like fermented foods. I do make my own sauerkraut as Tony loves it and the shop bought is sometimes over processed. Thanks for the blog.

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