If you're feeling a little more on edge than usual lately, you're certainly not alone. With the whole world trying to hold it together in the face of COVID-19, it seems everybody is at least a little anxious these days.
What to do? Well, the first step toward reining in that anxiety may be to look at what you're eating.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"A balanced diet helps us stay grounded and more resilient by balancing hormones, neurotransmitters and blood sugar, which all contribute to an emotional state of wellbeing," says Cindy Klinger, RDN, LDN, an integrative dietitian at Cambiati Wellness.
Indeed, a healthy diet is linked to lower levels of anxiety, according to a January 2017 study in BMC Medicine. And it may even have the power to increase happiness, life satisfaction and overall wellbeing, per an August 2016 American Journal of Public Health study that included more than 12,000 people.
Here, we'll dig into what healthy eating means in this context and some diet dos and don'ts when you're trying to find your zen.
1. Eat More Fatty Fish
The healthy diet described in the BMC Medicine study was based on the Mediterranean diet, and a staple of that eating pattern is fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout.
These are all high in zinc, Klinger says, which is a nutrient some people with anxiety may be lacking. Plus, the omega-3 fatty acids these fish contain play a vital role in brain health overall, she adds.
One meta-analysis, published September 2018 in JAMA Network Open, reviewed 19 clinical trials and found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements — which are usually derived from fish oil — may help ease anxiety symptoms in people diagnosed with a range of physical and mental health problems. (The authors noted that larger trials still need to be done, though.)
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend aiming for about two servings (8 ounces total) of seafood per week.
2. Nosh on Pickles and Sauerkraut
Probiotic-rich fermented foods, including pickles and sauerkraut as well as yogurt and kefir, have been linked to lower anxiety levels.
One August 2015 study in the journal Psychiatry Research found a link between probiotic foods and less social anxiety, specifically, although the authors note that more research needs to be done to establish more than correlation.
3. Up Your Fruit and Veggie Intake
Fresh produce tends to be a very good source of antioxidants, and anxiety is thought to correlate with a lowered total antioxidant state, revealed March 2014 research in Current Neuropharmacology. So it's plausible, then, that enjoying plenty of antioxidant-rich foods may help you feel more settled.
However, only one in 10 adults gets the recommended servings of fruits and veggies each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Aim to eat 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables every day, per the CDC.
4. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine
The immediate effect of alcohol may be calming. But as alcohol is processed by your body, it can interfere with sleep — and a lack of quality sleep can perpetuate anxiety, per Harvard Health Publishing.
5. Drink Plenty of Water
Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, according to an August 2018 analysis of 33 studies published in Physiological Reports.
How much water do you need? As a general rule of thumb, divide your body weight by two for the number of ounces you should consume every day.
6. Don't Skip Meals
Going too long without eating may cause your blood sugar to drop, making you feel jittery and worsening underlying anxiety, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
This is especially true if you're eating more simple carbs and processed foods (think: white bread and rice, sweets and soda), which can spike your blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are metabolized more slowly, and thus help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.
Examples of complex carbs include the following, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
- Brown rice
An Important Note to Keep in Mind
More and more studies are linking the foods we eat to our mental state, but plenty of research still needs to be done to fully understand the connection, especially when it comes to causation vs. correlation.
There's no drawback to adopting a healthier diet, but there's no evidence that certain foods or eating approaches can treat or cure mental illnesses. In other words, diet adaptations should not take the place of traditional mental health treatments. If your COVID-triggered anxiety is interfering with your daily life and you can't seem to manage it well on your own, consult with your doctor or another health care professional to get the help you need.
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- Physiological Reports: "Exercise-heat stress with and without water replacement alters brain structures and impairs visuomotor performance"
- BMC Medicine: "A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial)"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Sleep and Mental Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety"
- Psychiatry Research: "Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model"
- Current Neuropharmacology: "Novel Therapeutic Targets in Depression and Anxiety: Antioxidants as a Candidate Treatment"
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: "Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States"
- JAMA Network Open: "Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns: 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- American Journal of Public Health: "Evolution of Well-Being and Happiness After Increases in Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Carbohydrates"