The Struggle Is Real: Anti-Anxiety Diet Tips and Recipes

Just in case you’re new here: Hi! I’m Serena, and I have an anxiety disorder. I had my first panic attack almost 9 years ago, and I’ve been working on managing my anxiety ever since. It’s a constant (and super annoying) struggle. I like to talk about it from time to time.

To my Internet friends, who are all too familiar with this weird blog lady’s favorite topic of conversation, WASSUP. Let’s dish.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I’m a big believer in a multi-faceted approach to taming the anxiety beast. Therapy is great. Exercise helps, as do certain supplements (snaps for magnesium!). You gots to stay hydrated and get enough sleep. Take plenty of alone time. I’d also like to stress the awesomeness of gathering and employing an arsenal of personal tips and tricks to both prevent and calm anxiety attacks. Sometimes you might need medication, and there ain’t no shame in that. (For the curious folks—no, I’m not currently on meds, but I think they can be a game changer for many peeps.)

With all of that said, the single thing that has had the largest impact on my generalized anxiety is diet. Certain things make me feel weird and panicky, while others have a soothing effect, and even when I’m the most well-rested, hydrated, talked out, #fitnessjourney fabulous version of myself, everything goes to hell in a hand basket if my diet sucks. Given how impactful nutrition can be on anxiety, I thought it could be helpful to run through some potentially harmful and helpful foods/nutrients, in case you too are grappling with similar issues. (Fun Fact: SO MANY people are.)

*I’d like to quickly preface the rest of this discussion by saying that everyone is affected by food in different ways, so the following lists of bad/good foods and nutrients are subjective and simply true for me (although there is some decent research to back a girl up—hair flip). xox, Captain Obvious.

Lets start with the stuff that make me feel icky on the anxiety front. There are three major thangs:

1. Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, and since anxious folks tend to be hypersensitive to any form of stimuli, it can be triggering. (Some people get the jitters after too much coffee, I get a full blown panic attack.) I’ve found that I do well with one cup of coffee in the morning, but I recommend doing some personal experimentation to find your sweet spot, which sadly could be zero…

2. Refined Sugar. Like caffeine, it’s a stimulant. No bueno.

3. Alcohol. This one is a biggie. Alcohol is a depressant, and since anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, it doesn’t do us anxious folks any favors. The annoying thing is that alcohol is the best you often feel calmer after a drink or two, but ultimately the sedative effect wears off, and the “withdrawal” tends to heighten anxiety and depression. (My anxiety when I’m hungover is straight up TERRIFYING.)

To be clear, I still get down with caffeine, sugar and booze (I have to LIVE, dammit!), but I feel better when I keep my consumption in check. And when I’m going through a particularly anxious phase, I will often cut out all three completely. It’s brutal, but sacrifices must be made.

Moving on to the good stuff! Certain nutrients have been shown to improve the symptoms of anxiety, and I tend to mainline foods that are rich in the following:

1. Antioxidants (like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, etc.). Antioxidants help protect your brain from free radicals that cause inflammation. And since inflammation can impair neurotransmitter production and affect your mood, we want to keep it to a minimum. Duh.

Foods rich in antioxidants: blueberries, acai, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, kale, citrus, red pepper, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, almonds, avocado, cashews

2. Omega-3s. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that’s known for promoting heart health, but it has also been shown to have fabulous effects on the brain—reducing inflammation as well as depression and anxiety. (Some studies shown it improves the function of serotonin,the neurotransmitter that helps regulate your sleep and moods.) Your body doesn’t synthesize omega-3s naturally, so you need to get them from your diet.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, avocado, spinach, grass-fed beef, eggs, wild rice, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, red lentils, salmon, albacore tuna, sardines

3. B Vitamins (like vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and Folate). B vitamins are essential for healthy nerves and brain cells, and many of us are deficient. A B vitamin deficiency, especially a B12 deficiency, has been shown to increase mood swings and depression.

Foods rich in B vitamins: sardines, shrimp, salmon, lamb, nutritional yeast, grass-fed beef, poultry, eggs, leafy greens, avocado, feta, cottage, and Swiss cheeses

4. Magnesium. A magnesium deficiency can manifest itself as fatigue, insomnia, muscle tension, and—you guessed it—ANXIETY. So, I make a conscious effort to hit my recommended daily value. You can eat magnesium rich foods, but honestly, I like to drink it. I mix Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm (a calcium-magnesium powder) into warm water and drink it once or twice a day when I’m feeling anxious. It could be in my head (which is fine by me!), but I swear it works.

Foods rich in magnesium: spinach, Swiss chard, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, avocado, yogurt, bananas, whole grains like rolled oats

5. Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body needs to produce serotonin.

Foods rich in tryptophan: turkey, nuts, seeds, beans, eggs

I know that was a lot of info, but in short, I feel best when I consume a lot of greens (I try to eat them at every meal), blueberries, chia and hemp seeds, avocado, sweet potato, nuts, eggs, chicken and fish with a couple servings of whole grains (mostly in the form of oats, quinoa, and sprouted grain bread). Oh, and dark chocolate.

In case you need some ideas for delicious meals that are chock full of anxiety-reducing nutrients, I’ve rounded up some of my favorite soothing recipes below. These are all things that I make and eat on the reg, and I rely on them to help keep me happy and healthy. I hope they’ll work some magic in your life too.

10 Easy Recipes to Help Manage Anxiety:

Less Fruit, Not Gross Berry Green Smoothie. Basically an antioxidant machine.

Banana-Berry Baked Oatmeal BitesThese babies are such a comforting on-the-go breakfast or snack, and they freeze amazingly.

Skillet Eggs with Spinach and CauliflowerWe’ve got the triple threat of omega-3s, B vitamins, and magnesium up in this skillet, which is my go-to anytime meal. (You’ve probably seen me make a version of this on Instagram approximately 1000 times.)

Avocado Toast with Charred Tomatoes Garlic Shrimp and Fried EggsSelenium, and B12, and omega-3s, oh my! This should probably be renamed “anti-anxiety toast.”

Spiced Turkey and Zucchini Meatballs with Basil Yogurt SauceI love these balls over zucchini noodles or whole grain pasta, but I also make them in turkey burger form and serve them on top of a salad or with some baked sweet potato fries.

Sheet Pan Chicken Thighs with Cauliflower, Sweet Potatoes and PomegranateSo easy and clean, this sheet pan dinner is beautifully bright (I’m a sucker for pretty things) and balancing.

Lemon-Dijon Chicken SaladPerfect for anxious sassy desk lunchers!

Carrot-Cauliflower Golden RiceMake a big batch at this antioxidant-rich rice and add it to salads and bowls (or eat it on its own as a light meal) throughout the week.

Thai Curried Butternut Squash SoupThis antioxidant-packed soup is a little sweet, a little savory, and a lot soothing.

Spicy Asian Salmon SaladThis salad never fails to leave me feeling cool, calm and collected, and the salmon-cooking technique is foolproof (be not afraid!).

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably an anxious person, so I just want to leave you with this friendly reminder: You do not need “a reason” to be anxious, and you do not owe anyone an explanation for your anxiety. You are not weird, less than, or damaged. And most importantly, you are never alone. (At the very least, I’m out here rocking my crazy pants too.) Virtual koala hug.

p.s. You know questions and sharing are always welcome in the comments. Don’t be shy.

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