The 5 Best Plant-Based Foods to Eat When Anxious, Says a Harvard Psychiatrist
Anxiety is on the rise as Americans are experiencing prolonged bouts of stress (and with good reason). Of course, if you’re experiencing chronic anxiety or depression, it’s best to check in with a psychiatrist or medical professional to get the help you need, experts always urge. But making lifestyle changes such as getting regular exercise and changing what you eat can help support your efforts to be mentally and physically healthy. The first step is revamping your diet to incorporate more stress-busting foods that allow you to be pro-active in taking better care of yourself.
Harvard Nutritional Psychiatrist, Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD knows a thing or two about food as medicine. As director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and more, she’s long promoted the link between what we eat and how we feel. Not surprising, in the world of whole plant-based foods, there’s no shortage of options to nosh on to help relieve your anxiety.
“There are a wide variety of plant-based foods, especially those rich in magnesium, vitamins C, D, B1, and B6 that can help to ease anxiety. Adding these into a whole-food, vegan diet can help lower stress and anxiety, so why not try them out?”
1. Dark chocolate by itself or melt it and dip your favorite berries in it
“Dark chocolate is rich in cacao flavonoids which provide antioxidants to the brain and lower inflammation. A human study showed that dark chocolate appears to be an effective way to reduce perceived stress in females,” says Naidoo. The secret lies in the cacao bean, she explains. “Once cacao beans are harvested, they are fermented and then dried in the sun. Due to the fermentation, raw cacao is full of probiotics which are the good bacteria for your gut. The rich flavonoids in dark chocolate make them rich in antioxidants. These are great because they decrease inflammation in the body, a common cause of mental health issues,” she says.
As a bonus, chocolate is also rich in the so-called “love molecule,” phenethylamine, and the “happiness hormone,” serotonin. “These good mood hormones are only present in real chocolate. It's the candy bars [laden with sugar, artificial ingredients, and the like that] we need to stay away from,” Naidoo adds. Look for pure dark chocolate bars with at least 70% cocoa content. For more on the many health benefits of cacao, read our guide here.
2. Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper in your smoothie or rice bowl
“The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, decreases anxiety and changes the corresponding brain chemistry, protecting the hippocampus. Curcumin’s positive effect on anxiety has been confirmed by animal studies and three trials in humans,” comments Naidoo.
Not much of a cook? If you’re not regularly adding turmeric and black pepper to curries, stews, homemade soups, and more, Naidoo suggests adding a ¼-teaspoon with a pinch of black pepper to a tea, soup, or smoothie each day. “The piperine from black pepper activates the curcumin in turmeric making it much more bioavailable to the brain and body,” she explains.
3. Vitamin D-rich foods like mushrooms and fortified plant-based milks
This link between vitamin D and your mood is pretty amazing: “Studies have demonstrated that adults with depression and anxiety have lower blood levels of vitamin D. In 2019, a study tested 51 women with diabetes and vitamin D deficiency to see whether taking a vitamin D pill every two weeks would change their anxiety levels. After sixteen weeks, compared to people who took a placebo, people who took the vitamin D were significantly less anxious,” shares Naidoo. “In another study, when vitamin D was administered as part of a micronutrient intervention to more than 8,000 people who were depressed and anxious, keeping vitamin D levels high was protective against anxiety,” she continues. Naidoo’s favorite plant-based foods rich in vitamin D include mushrooms and dried (dehydrated) mushrooms and fortified soy milk, rice milk or nut milks are good options.
These days, all of us are spending a lot of time at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s still important to find safe ways to get some fresh air as roughly 80% of our vitamin D comes from exposing our skin to direct sunlight, says Naidoo—and sunshine coming in through our windows isn’t a substitute for getting outside since glass absorbs the ultraviolet rays your body needs to convert into vitamin D.
4. Fiber-rich foods like broccoli and Brussels sprouts
In addition to keeping digestion running smoothly and keeping you fuller for longer (which can help curb overeating), fiber-rich foods prove a welcome partner in a holistic approach to fighting anxiety. “In 2018, researchers found that diets rich in dietary fiber may reduce the risk of depression, anxiety, and stress. Dietary fiber is a broad category of food ingredients that are nondigestible by our natural gut enzymes. However, though our guts themselves can’t break down fiber, different types of gut bacteria can. When dietary fiber can be broken down by bacteria, we call this being ‘fermentable,’” explains Naidoo, adding that this form of fiber encourages the proliferation of “good” bacteria in your gut.
“For example, when dietary fiber is broken down into certain smaller sugar molecules, the ‘good’ bacteria Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus increase, which has a positive effect on mood by activating brain pathways and nerve signaling that can alleviate anxiety,” she says. It’s also interesting to note that along with decreasing inflammation in your body, dietary fiber also does so in your brain. “There is considerable evidence that brain (and body) inflammation is elevated in patients with anxiety,” she continues, citing a 2016 research study that found that people with anxiety disorders have elevated levels of certain markers that signify inflammation.
The good news is, what you eat can help play a role in reducing inflammation. “Inflammation in the brain has been shown to affect areas that are linked to anxiety (for example, the amygdala), and dietary fiber can help by calming down the brain’s and body’s inflammatory responses,” says Naidoo.
Plant-based whole foods are naturally rich in fiber. Some excellent options for boosting your fiber intake that Naidoo recommends include pears, apples, bananas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, artichokes, almonds, walnuts, amaranth, oats, buckwheat, and pearl barley.
5. Fermented foods. Pass the kombucha
Feel calmer after a bottle of kombucha? Well, science may help explain that phenomenon.
“Fermented foods’ active cultures like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and miso are a great source of live bacteria that can enhance healthy gut function and decrease anxiety,” says Naidoo.
For your noggin, specifically, fermented foods may provide a variety of benefits. “In 2015, a study questioned 710 people about their fermented-food consumption, social anxiety, and neurotic traits. It found that eating fermented food frequently correlated with having fewer symptoms of social anxiety in neurotic patients. Taken together with previous studies, the results suggest that fermented foods that contain probiotics may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms for those at higher genetic risk,” offers Naidoo.
Beyond the options mentioned above, eating pickled and fermented vegetables are another way to incorporate these foods into your daily diet.
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