Is Your Diet Causing Your Anxiety?

One way of eating is linked to less anxiety, new research finds

Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.
Wise & Well

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Image of two feet chained to a ball with the word anxiety on it
Anxiety can be a heavy burden (Image: Adobe Stock)

My heart was pounding. My mouth was dry. I was speaking for the first time in a vast convention hall with thousands of seats. Anxiety had arrived along with my lecture.

Years later, I found that a cup of tea calms me before a big event. I wish I had known that day that the right foods can defuse anxiety. There is an exploding area of science on how food impacts health, and that food can be medicine.

And we certainly could use some simple, sensible treatments for anxiety, which is both common and debilitating. One in five US adults has anxiety. Celebrities experience anxiety, too: the actor Jonah Hill couldn’t promote his work due to anxiety; Prince Harry had panic attacks after the death of his mother Princess Diana; Whoopi Goldberg once took a bus across the country because of her fear of flying. Anxiety can even be so distressing as to cause addiction to opioids. A new study shows, however, that changing what you eat can lessen your worries.

The foods that anxious people eat

The MIND diet is associated with lower levels of anxiety, according to a recent study by Shima Jazayeri, PhD, and colleagues at Iran University of Medical Sciences.

The MIND diet — more like a way of eating than some extreme, strict fad — was developed in 2015 by Martha Clare Morris, ScD, at Rush University, to delay cognitive decline. It has other impressive health benefits and has helped drive the science of food as medicine. Morris passed away in 2020, but research into the concept continues.

Jazayeri and colleagues compared 85 patients with a diagnosed anxiety disorder to 170 individuals without anxiety. The researchers gave a detailed survey, known as a food frequency questionnaire, to each person about the foods they eat, and created a score for the similarity of each person’s diet to the MIND diet. They also had each person complete a survey on the severity of their anxiety.

Individuals who ate foods consistent with the MIND diet had a 97% lower risk of anxiety. The association was dependent on the degree of adherence to the MIND diet.

Adherence to the MIND diet involved increased consumption of:

  • green leafy and other vegetables
  • whole grains
  • berries
  • fish
  • beans

and decreased consumption of:

  • pastries
  • fast foods
  • butter
  • margarine
  • red meat

Mechanisms linking diet and anxiety

The mechanism by which the MIND diet could decrease anxiety is not fully understood.

Poor brain health is associated with damage from oxygen, known as oxidative stress, and immune-mediated damage, known as inflammation. Jazayeri and her co-authors speculate that the MIND diet reduces oxidative stress and inflammation.

In addition, they suspect that the MIND diet improves the bacterial composition of the gut, which in turn aids brain health. Bacteria that reside in the intestine are affected by diet, and the molecules they release have a profound influence on health. Different microbes thrive on different foods, and the foods we eat promote the growth of specific microbes.

Analyzing food as medicine

Despite the intriguing results of this study, it has some limitations. The number of people analyzed was small, and the comparison between two groups didn’t indicate whether the relationship between diet and anxiety is causal or correlative. It may be that anxiety causes dietary changes rather than the other way around. Also, the food frequency questionnaire doesn’t allow for perfect recall.

Finally, the authors didn’t include alcohol in their analysis, and alcohol consumption may have differed between the groups, affecting anxiety. Nonetheless, the results provide motivation for further studies on diet and anxiety.

Although anxiety is debilitating, the food we eat may mitigate its detrimental effect on quality of life. The science is evolving quickly, but this is not a new idea. As the theologian St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “This much thou hast taught me: that I should learn to take food as medicine.”

Image of a relaxed man and a woman eating a salad on the beach
A relaxed couple eating a MIND-diet meal (Image created using Midjourney)

Brent Stockwell is the Chair of Biological Sciences and a Professor of Biological Sciences and Chemistry at Columbia University. He is a top Medium writer in Science, Creativity, Health, and Ideas. His Medium stories can be found at: https://medium.com/@brentstockwell

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Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.
Wise & Well

Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Top Medium writer in Science, Creativity, Health, and Ideas