Many foods contain nutrients that are vital to hormonal and neurochemical activity and balance in our brains. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are worsened by vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Foods rich in the following nutrients can help reduce anxiety and improve mood.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids relieve inflammation and facilitate communication between nerve cells in the brain. Individuals who are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, or who lack the proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are more susceptible to mood instability. Eating foods rich in omega-3s, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), improve symptoms of depression. There is also some evidence suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids may also alleviate panic attacks. Foods rich in omega-3 include fish (particularly fatty or cold-water fish), such as mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, salmon, halibut, bluefish and tuna; nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, flax seeds and pecans; oils such as flaxseed oil, cod liver oil and sardine oil; and leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens.
Tofu and soybeans also contain omega-3 fatty acids and are recommended additions to the diet.
A 1998 study published in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine lends support to using antioxidant therapy to improve mood. A sample of patients with peripheral arterial disease was given an antioxidant-rich treatment. Though the treatment had no significant impact on cholesterol or disease levels, significant improvements in mood were observed independent of disease status.
Foods with antioxidant properties are those rich in beta-carotene and vitamins C and E. Some of the best antioxidant food sources include fruits (berries, pomegranate, grapefruit, pineapple), legumes (broad beans, soy beans), vegetables (kale, peppers, spinach, beets) and nuts and seeds (pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds).
Vitamin D-rich foods boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with both depression and anxiety. Fish such as cod, tuna, herring, salmon, mackerel and sardines, and dairy such as eggs, margarine and fortified butters, are all good sources of vitamin D.
L-tyrosine is an amino acid used by the brain to make the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, both of which are related to mood. Foods rich in L-tyrosine include protein-rich foods such as poultry, beans, tofu, lentils, seafood and meat.
Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety and depression. L-tryptophan--the building block of the neurotransmitter serotonin--can boost serotonin and improve mood. Turkey, tuna, poultry, bananas, baked potatoes (with skin), kelp, tofu, dairy (eggs, milk, cheeses, yogurt), legumes (lentils, beans, nuts), soy (soybeans, soymilk) and seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds) all contain L-tryptophan.
Deficiency in L-lysine increases stress-induced anxiety. Protein-rich foods like meat, pork, poultry, cheese (parmesan), fish (cod, sardines), nuts, soybeans, tofu and eggs can boost dietary intake of L-lysine and reduce anxiety.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep. Insomnia can be a symptom of both depression and anxiety. In some cases, insomnia can be caused by insufficient melatonin secretion. Foods contain much smaller amounts of melatonin than can be found in supplement pills; nonetheless, some foods containing small amounts of melatonin include oats, rice, sweet corn, tomatoes, ginger, bananas, radishes and barley.
Vitamin B Complex
Vitamin B complex is made up of several B vitamins that support the nervous system and balance and transmission of neurotransmitters in the brain. Vitamin B6 is vital to the processing of the neurotransmitters serotonin, melatonin and dopamine. It can be found in foods like liver, red and green peppers, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashews, turkey, cod, whole grains, wheat germ, beef and pork.
Vitamin B12 is important in red blood cell formation, and deficiencies can lead to mood swings. Foods rich in B12 include shellfish (clams, mussels, oysters), liver, fish (mackerel, herring), cheese, eggs, meat, lamb, crab and lobster.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is important in hormone and acetylcholine formation, and deficiencies can lead to depression. Pantothenic acid is found in a wide variety of foods, so deficiencies are relatively rare. Some of these foods include liver, beef, sunflower seeds, salmon, poultry, nuts, dairy, potatoes and fresh fruits.
Sufficient amounts of niacin (Vitamin B3) are necessary to avoid symptoms of agitation, anxiety and cognitive deficits. Foods high in niacin include fish such as tuna and salmon, poultry and mushrooms.
Thiamin (Vitamin B1) is responsible for converting glucose into energy that can be used by the brain. Deficiencies can cause a host of problems ranging from fatigue to memory deficits to anxiety and insomnia. Foods rich in thiamin include lentils, peas, long grain brown and white rice, whole wheat/wheat germ, brazil nuts, pecans, spinach, oranges and cantaloupe.
Herbs and Drinks
Certain herbs and herbal drinks produce a calming and pleasurable effect. Chamomile and catnip tea, kava and valerian root are among the most effective herbal depression and anxiety remedies. Green tea containing the amino acid theanine may also have a calming effect on the brain.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Life Extension: Anxiety
- “Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine;” Impact of Antioxidant Therapy on Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression. A Randomized Controlled Trial in Patients with Peripheral Arterial Disease;G.C. Leng; December 1998