They say you are what you eat, and when it comes to mental health, it’s truer than ever.[1, 2, 3] Eating well not only lifts your mood but also contributes to a happy, healthy brain. A plant-based diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and gluten-free whole grains can calm the body and mind. Vegans, in particular, report feeling less stress and anxiety than omnivores or meat-eaters. If you’re looking to learn more about foods that reduce anxiety, read on.
Professional photographer Gia G. from Houston, Texas, gave up sugar, gluten, caffeine, and animal products — dietary contributors to poor mental and physical health — for 21 days while increasing her intake of healthy vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The difference in outlook and stress was unmistakable.
"I normally have a lot of stress in my body, like I’m rushing and buzzing. But when I cut out these culprits from my diet, I had reduced stress levels. It makes me feel very calm," she said. "I noticed a lot of mental clarity. I did not have the typical ‘scatterbrain’ that I usually deal with."
The relationship between food and how you feel goes both ways. If you eat poorly, there’s no doubt that you will feel bad. Refined carbohydrates and sugar spike your blood sugar, which gives you a temporary burst of energy. But that’s followed by a crash that leaves you feeling tired and bad-tempered. When you’re feeling low, you might reach for unhealthy snacks — but eating those foods can make you feel worse. It creates a cycle.
Food & Mood Connection: What’s It About?
The link between nutrition and mood has been dubbed the "food-mood connection." Essentially, it means that when you eat well, you feel well. When you eat poorly, you feel physically tired, anxious, stressed, and just "blah."[1, 2, 3] Too much fat, meat, sugar, and processed foods lead to brain fog, low energy, and even anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, eating a variety of fresh, natural foods ensures you have a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Eating organic also helps you to avoid chemical toxins, which strain your brain and body.
While you can get vitamins and minerals in fortified, processed foods, these synthetic nutrients are not absorbed well by the body. Fortified foods lack the full spectrum of nutrients present in whole, natural fruits and vegetables, such as antioxidants, enzymes, flavonoids, and other nutrients. These nutrients ensure your body and organ systems work at top capacity, full of energy and health!
Proper nutrition can specifically help mental health, reducing anxiety and stress. Complex carbohydrates found in certain fruits, vegetables, and grains help your body release serotonin, the body’s feel-good chemical. More serotonin leads to feelings of happiness and tranquility.
The Top Foods for Easing Anxiety
If you want to change your diet to incorporate foods that lift your mood and reduce daily stress, you’re in luck. We’ve pulled together the most effective food choices for you.
Fermented foods have an anxiety-reducing effect, both directly and indirectly. Fermented foods are made by adding good bacteria or yeast (probiotics) to a vegetable or fruit, which causes a breakdown of sugars. Unless they are cooked, fermented foods are also probiotic foods. Consuming these probiotic-rich fermented foods not only reduces oxidative stress in the body, it also calms the mind.
Enjoy the health benefits of the following fermented foods:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Umeboshi plums
- Dairy-free yogurt
- Dairy-free kefir
Foods High in Omega-3s
Omega-3s are fatty acids that your body doesn’t produce. You have to get them from the foods you eat. Omega-3 fatty acids support brain function and a healthy nervous system. Taking omega-3s was found to reduce anxiety and promote feelings of calm and restfulness among healthy young adults. One type of omega-3, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), may improve symptoms of depression.
Many people know of omega-3s from fish oil, but plant-based options are better because of the contamination found in our oceans and seafood. Thankfully, you can find them in many plant-based foods, including:
- Flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Olive oil
- Algae oil
Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), otherwise known as holy basil, is a powerful herb that has been used in Ayurvedic practice for centuries. It’s revered as a sacred plant by Hindus for its many benefits for mind and body. These include easing occasional anxiety and lifting mood, protecting the body from toxins that cause physical and mental stress, and promoting normal blood glucose levels.
Anxiety and sleep issues often go hand in hand. Taking tulsi can result in more restful and restorative sleep. When you sleep better, it not only reduces feelings of exhaustion but also gives you the energy to tackle your day.
Global Healing's Tulsi Raw Herbal Extract™ is a certified organic formula made from tulsi leaves. Picked fresh with nutrients extracted using our proprietary Raw Herbal Extract technology, you won’t find a better tulsi supplement on the market.
Gut health is essential to your entire well-being, and that includes mental health. People often talk about the link between anxiety and gastrointestinal issues without even thinking about it. When you are nervous before a job interview or a date, you might experience “butterflies in your tummy.” Or you may feel sick to your stomach when something upsetting or traumatic happens.
Stress can lead to changes in gut microbiota, which, in turn, affects your mood. Likewise, a healthy mind can lead to a healthy gut. Improving your gut health by supplementing with prebiotics, probiotics, and enzyme-rich foods can help you have a healthier outlook on life.
Digestive enzymes promote better absorption of vitamins and minerals and smoother digestion. Better-absorbed nutrients mean a better-functioning mind and body. These foods contain high levels of natural digestive enzymes:
- Raw honey
Moringa is a plant that grows throughout southern Asia and has a wide range of health benefits — including boosting mood and memory. It’s extremely high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. With all these nutrients, it naturally increases your energy levels while calming the nervous system.
Moringa is a versatile and useful plant with a pleasant, earthy flavor. You can eat moringa leaves, use them in tea, or take a moringa supplement. You can add moringa powder — or a liquid extract — to smoothies and other recipes.
Global Healing's certified organic Moringa Raw Herbal Extract includes Energized Trace Minerals™ for maximum nutrient absorption.
Turmeric, the vibrant yellow spice used in Asian cooking, offers remarkable health benefits. Curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, has a calming effect on the body and mind. It can also relieve symptoms of stress and promote a normal response to inflammation.
Turmeric supplements are a great alternative to using the spice in cooking. You can purchase an all-natural organic Turmeric Raw Herbal Extract from Global Healing, formulated without alcohol, additives, or fillers.
Taking time to care for yourself is essential to your total mind and body wellness plan. Self-care can include little treats that make you feel better. Dark chocolate, in particular, has a proven positive effect on mood, especially in women.
Dark chocolate causes your body to release endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals. Just a small amount, a square or two, can feel like an indulgent pleasure.
People have cultivated and enjoyed tea for generations. Making a cup of tea is a time-honored self-care ritual. From steeping your brew and inhaling its fragrance to warming your hands on the warm mug, enjoying tea is a stress-reducing activity. Drinking tea lowers cortisol levels, a stress hormone that has harmful effects on the body, especially when you get too much.
Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the Camellia sinensis plant and contain similar levels of L-theanine (though different levels of caffeine). This amino acid eases anxiety symptoms, like irritability, fatigue, and excessive worrying. It also may promote relaxation and encourage a restful night’s sleep. Since caffeine may increase anxiety, you might want to opt for green and white teas, which have less caffeine.
You can find magnesium in many foods. The body uses this vital mineral for bone strength, as well as nerve and muscle function. Magnesium also helps anxiety by relaxing and calming the body.
Magnesium-rich foods include:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
You can also buy magnesium supplements. Many people are magnesium-deficient, so make sure you get your recommended daily amount.
Points to Remember
The food-mood connection is real. The food you eat has an enormous impact on how you feel and your overall wellness. Eating healthy foods can improve your mental outlook, mood, and energy levels.
If you want to feel happy, healthy, and full of energy, eat a diet full of colorful, vibrant fruits and vegetables, as well as fermented and enzyme-rich foods. Keep your energy and mood levels stabilized by choosing complex carbohydrates and avoiding animal products, gluten, added sugars, and processed foods.
Try to eat a varied and balanced diet with plenty of natural, unprocessed produce and choose foods that have a proven positive effect on the mind.
- Murphy M, Mercer JG. Diet-regulated anxiety. Int J Endocrinol. 2013;2013:701967.
- Singh M. Mood, food, and obesity. Front Psychol. 2014;1;5:925.
- Mood And Food. Better Health Channel. Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia. Updated Oct 2017. Accessed 30 Oct 2019.
- Beezhold B, et al. Vegans report less stress and anxiety than omnivores. Nutr Neurosci. 2015;18(7):289-296.
- Rao TSS, et al. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):77-82.
- Selhub EM, et al. Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. J Physiol Anthropol. 2014;33(1):2.
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, et al. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011;25(8):1725-1734.
- Grosso G, et al. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of depressive disorders: a comprehensive meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. PLoS One. 2014;7;9(5):e96905.
- Cohen M. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: a herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(4):251-259.
- Saxena RC, et al. Efficacy of an extract of Ocimum tenuiflorum (ocibest) in the management of general stress: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:894509.
- Liu L, Zhu G. Gut-brain axis and mood disorder. Front Psychiatry. 2018;29;9:223.
- Saad K. A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of digestive enzymes in children with autism spectrum disorders. Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2015 Aug;13(2):188-193.
- Kaur G, et al. Evaluation of the antidepressant activity of Moringa oleifera alone and in combination with fluoxetine. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;894509.
- Hewlings S, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92.
- Al Sunni A, Latif R. Effects of chocolate intake on perceived stress; a controlled clinical study. Int J Health Sci. 2014;8(4):393-401.
- Steptoe A, et al. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology. 2007;190(1):81-89.
- Sarris J, et al. L-theanine in the adjunctive treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Psychiatr Res. 2019;110:31-37.
- Boyle NB, et al. The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress—a systematic review. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):429.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.