Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health condition across the globe. In the United States alone, an estimated 40 million adults—about 18% of the population—are affected by an anxiety disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Although there are various subclasses of anxiety, the HHS notes that the five major types of anxiety disorder include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Furthermore, despite being two very different conditions, depression and anxiety can manifest at the same time. “It’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder,” reports the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Both genetics and environment play a role in the pathogenesis of anxiety and depression, with more research focusing on diet as palliative. Altered concentrations of various micronutrients in the body, such as electrolytes, minerals, and vitamins, have been tied to psychiatric symptoms in patients.
Although research in this topic is limited and emerging, some observations can be made about the anxiolytic properties of certain foods.
Leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard, could help those with anxiety feel calmer. Some researchers have shown that changes in magnesium homeostasis may play a role in affective disorders. Nevertheless, results of such studies are mixed. In studies involving mice, researchers have shown a causal relationship between magnesium and anxiety, regardless of whether these levels are depleted naturally or experimentally. Researchers also demonstrated that dysregulations of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis could play a role in hyper-emotionality secondary to dietary-induced hypomagnesemia in murine models. However, comparable studies in humans are needed.
Foods rich in zinc—such as oysters, liver, beef, cashews, and egg yolks—have been tied to lower anxiety levels. In a preliminary study (n = 54), individuals with anxiety demonstrated lower plasma zinc levels compared with neurotypical control participants. Furthermore, zinc antioxidant supplementation was shown to improve anxiety symptoms.
Fatty fish, such as mackerel, trout, and seabass, could help decrease anxiety levels—even in those without anxiety disorders—due to their high omega-3 fatty acid content. Observational studies have tied lower levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and omega-6 PUFAs with depression and inflammation. However, randomized, controlled trials have offered mixed results.
One randomized, controlled trial examined whether omega-3 PUFAs lowered proinflammatory cytokine production vs placebo in 68 medical students (a highly stressed bunch). The investigators noted a 14% drop in lipopolysaccharide stimulated interleukin-6 production (an inflammatory marker) and a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms, without change in depressive symptoms.
“These data suggest that n-3 supplementation can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults. The reduction in anxiety symptoms associated with n-3 supplementation provides the first evidence that n-3 may have potential anxiolytic benefits for individuals without an anxiety disorder,” concluded the authors.
This veggie is particularly popular in China, where it has been used as a tonic, heat-clearing, antitussive, and diuretic agent in traditional medicines. Based on the clinically proven health effects of asparagus, as well as the growing interesting in plant-derived alternative medicine, the Chinese government supported the aqueous extract of asparagus stem (AEAS) as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient in 2013. Since then, some studies have investigated the potential anxiolytic effect of AEAS. In one Chinese study, AEAS proffered strong anti-anxiolytic effects in mice, suggesting that AEAS may hold promise as an alternative medicine for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
As if there needed to be another reason to chow down on antioxidant-rich foods! Anxiety and depression are two closely related psychiatric disorders mediated by stress. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, fruits, and nuts, may help with such disorders. Experts have hypothesized that individuals with anxiety have lower antioxidant states at baseline. And according to the results from one study (n = 80), patients with generalized anxiety disorder and depression harbored decreased levels of vitamins A, C, and E vs healthy control participants. Furthermore, dietary supplementation of these antioxidant vitamins for a period of 6 weeks decreased anxiety and depression scores among these patients. With the exception of vitamin E levels in patients with depression, serum levels of these vitamins went up post-supplementation.
Foods with B vitamins
Foods chock-full of B vitamins, such as avocados and almonds, could help stave off depression and anxiety. In one randomized, controlled trial (n = 60), researchers gave adults with major depression or other forms of depressive disorders, including anxiety, a daily vitamin B complex nutritional supplement to assess its effect on depressive and anxiety symptoms. Following the 60-day intervention period, the investigators found that participants who took the supplement demonstrated improvements in depression, anxiety, overall mental health, and quality of life.
Foods rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, might help to relieve symptoms of anxiety; however, study findings have been mixed. For instance, in a meta-analysis of 22 preclinical studies (743 animals) and 14 clinical studies (1527 participants), researchers concluded the following: “While preclinical (animal) studies suggest that probiotics may help reduce anxiety, such findings have not yet translated to clinical research in humans, perhaps due to the dearth of extant research with clinically anxious populations. Further investigation of probiotic treatment for clinically relevant anxiety is warranted, particularly with respect to the probiotic species [Lactobacillus] rhamnosus.”
Although 35% to 45% of individuals with depression who take FDA-approved antidepressants experience relief from symptoms, 55% to 65% experience reduced clinical response or adverse effects, such as sexual dysfunction, insomnia, weight gain, restlessness, and memory lapses. Moreover, benzodiazepines, which are specifically used to treat anxiety, have plenty of negative side effects, as well as the potential for misuse and dependence. With the complications of psychotropic treatment for depression anxiety disorders, natural remedies are of dire importance.