Since 2020, anxiety disorders have increased by nearly 25%, affecting a reported 374 million people worldwide. In America, it’s one of the most common mental health disorders. While there are various factors that contribute to anxiety (including chronic stress, poor sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle), one often overlooked aspect is diet. In fact, there is emerging 2023 research that suggests that certain foods may trigger and exacerbate anxiety symptoms, meaning, we must make mindful choices about what we eat.
Ahead, learn the science behind diet and anxiety as well as the foods that may make anxiety worse.
Behind Anxiety & Diet: The Gut-Brain Connection
While there are some foods that help to calm anxiety, there are foods that make anxiety worse. To understand this, it’s important to first understand the gut-brain connection. According to research, there is a strong relationship between the gut and the brain. In fact, there is a bidirectional pathway connecting the two! These two pathways are in constant communication, meaning they have a direct influence on each other’s functions.
Knowing this, we can understand how our diet plays an important role. When our gut microbiome is balanced and robust (through ingestion of certain foods and nutrients like antioxidants, fiber, omegas, and fiber), it tends to support not only our digestive health but also our mental well-being.
However, when this delicate balance is disrupted due to poor dietary choices (among other factors like increased stress and poor sleep), it can lead to a state of dysbiosis — which has been shown to disrupt the gut-brain axis and contribute to various mental health problems, including anxiety.
The Top Foods That Aggravate Anxiety, According to Science
Coffee & Caffeine
We get it — we’re coffee lovers, too! However, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that can easily trigger feelings of anxiety. While some can tolerate moderate amounts of caffeine without noticing a negative effect, others are more sensitive. If you’re noticing symptoms such as heart palpitations, jitters, nervousness, restlessness, or insomnia, it’s a good idea to opt for other energy-boosting alternatives in place of your morning joe.
Refined Sugar & Carbohydrates
High-sugar foods (such as candy, soda, and processed carbs like white bread) not only increase the risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, but they can also harm your mental health. Consumption of these ultra-processed foods triggers rapid blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes, fluctuations that can exacerbate anxiety and mood swings. Plus, if regularly consumed, these refined foods can disrupt the balance of hormones in the body, contributing to increased cortisol, our primary stress hormone.
Processed foods, including fast foods, have been shown to negatively impact brain health and exacerbate anxiety. Not only are these foods high in calories, but they’re also low in essential nutrients (including B vitamins and omega-3s) needed for mood and brain health. Not to mention, processed foods are often loaded with unhealthy fats, sugar, and preservatives — all of which can promote inflammation in the body, including the brain.
Additionally, fast foods can negatively affect the gut microbiome, which can lead to increased anxiety.
Similar to caffeine, alcohol impacts everyone differently. While some may be able to enjoy a drink or two in moderation, others may experience increased anxiety after a few sips. Plus, excessive alcohol consumption interferes with the gut microbiota and can disrupt sleep patterns, making it a potential trigger for anxiety, among other mental health conditions like depression.
High-Sodium & Saturated Fat Foods
It’s no news that consuming a diet rich in sodium and saturated fats has been shown to increase cholesterol. However, what you may not know is that this can increase strain on the heart and lead to poor cardiovascular health, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress, among serious cardiovascular conditions. Plus, high-sodium and saturated fat diets can contribute to chronic inflammation in the body, leading to oxidative stress, metabolic dysfunction, poor gut health, and increased cortisol — all of which negatively influence mood and mental health.
While gluten isn’t a trigger for all individuals, those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease may experience anxiety as a symptom of gluten consumption. According to research, for these individuals, going gluten-free has resulted in significant mental health benefits, alleviating symptoms of both anxiety and depression. While not a one-size-fits-all, avoiding gluten-containing foods may help to alleviate anxiety in these cases.
Healthy Swaps: Foods That May Help Reduce Anxiety
Trying to limit your coffee consumption without completely giving up caffeine? Support your mental health and anxiety by opting for matcha green tea. Not only is matcha full of antioxidants (like EGCG) that support brain health, but it’s also rich in L-theanine, an amino acid known for its calming effects. While it still contains caffeine, matcha offers a steady stream of energy, which can help reduce anxiety and promote a sense of tranquility — without the jitters!
Instead of indulging in refined carbs and other sugary snacks, reach for a serving of fresh berries. Berries — like blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries — are packed with antioxidants, particularly vitamin C, which has been linked to lower stress levels and improved mental health. Plus, these low-sugar fruits taste surprisingly sweet, making them a great option to satisfy your cravings in a nutrient-rich, anxiety-reducing way.
Fruits and Vegetables
Skip the processed foods and fill your plate with a variety of whole foods from colorful fruits and veggies! From leafy greens to cruciferous veggies to root veggies and more, these nutrient-dense foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which support a healthy gut and, in turn, better mental health. Plus, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help build a robust gut microbiome, which can further support your mood and mental health.
Although alcohol, coffee, and sugary drinks are some of the foods that make anxiety worse, adaptogens have been shown to help the body adapt to stress and reduce its negative effects! Whether you add them to your smoothie, blend them into a latte, or mix them into a stress-busting mocktail, boosting your diet with adaptogenic herbs (like ashwagandha, reishi, and turmeric) may help support your mental well-being.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While foods rich in saturated fats are among the foods that worsen anxiety, not all fats are created equal! In fact, healthy fats are some of the best anxiety-reducing foods — especially foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. With powerful anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to support brain health, cognitive function, and potentially alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, increasing your intake of omega-3s is a good idea. This includes foods such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
Rather than consuming refined carbohydrates (like white bread, pasta, or sugary cereals), opt for fiber-rich whole grains like oats, quinoa, and brown rice. Full of fiber, whole grains provide a steady release of energy, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels rather than spike them. This can prevent mood swings and anxiety-related symptoms caused by rapid blood sugar fluctuations. Plus, whole grains are rich in various nutrients that help to ease anxiety and support mental health, such as B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Eat Mindfully: The Secret to Help Ease Anxiety
While there’s much more to anxiety than diet alone, making mindful choices about what you eat can go a long way in helping to support your nervous system and improve mental health. By swapping out foods that trigger anxiety for stress-reducing alternatives, you can not only benefit your mental well-being, but you can support your physical health, too. When incorporated into a healthy lifestyle (combined with other practices like adequate sleep, and stress management), minding your plate can contribute to a more relaxed and resilient you.