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Drawing of brain with one half filled with stress reducing foods broccoli, nuts, salmon and sprouts.

Which foods can reduce your stress and anxiety?

Anxiety can be complex and hard to navigate, but by making small swaps to what you eat, you could see big improvements in your mental wellbeing. With the help of a food scientist and nutrition coach, we unpack the best foods for anxiety - to help put you back in control.  

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Foods that reduce stress

According to a Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 survey, around 7 out of 10 adults had felt anxious within the previous two weeks, and for 6 out of 10, this Anxiety had interfered with their daily lives1.  

The rise of this mental health issue seems to suggest that the stresses of modern life is a key driver, although many factors are often at play. But what we eat is one lifestyle factor we can control - and relatively quickly.  

We look at the nutrients that are thought to help ease anxiety and stress, with the help of Nurit Raich, food scientist and holistic nutrition coach. 

Magnesium-rich foods 

Magnesium is an important mineral for your heart, bones, nerves, and muscles. Because it also supports neurological functions in the brain, it's thought that not having enough may trigger mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

"If you're looking for foods that reduce stress, there have been studies linking magnesium deficiency with anxiety," says Raich.  

Not having enough magnesium may increase your cortisol levels, the stress hormone linked to stress and anxiety2. However, research is ongoing, and there have been mixed results. While one review found magnesium could help with mild anxiety, it was not effective for people with generalised anxiety disorder or panic disorder3.  

Nurit recommends:

  • Leafy greens - like spinach and Swiss chard.

  • Legumes – like beans and lentils.

  • Nuts and seeds.

  • Whole grains – like oats and quinoa.

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Zinc-rich foods 

The food scientist says: "Zinc is another nutrient that has been linked to decreased anxiety."

We need zinc for cell and protein growth, tissue healing, and a healthy immune system. This important nutrient has been studied for its potential calming effect, and results are looking good.  

In a review of nine studies, people with anxiety had lower levels of zinc, compared to people with no anxiety. It also found that consuming more zinc could reduce your chances of experiencing anxiety within limitations4.  

Nurit recommends: 

  • Oysters. 

  • Cashews. 

  • Liver. 

  • Beef. 

  • Egg yolks. 

Foods with vitamin C

Vitamin C is another key nutrient in foods which can help ease anxiety, according to Raich. This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant that protects against cell damage, and it's thought that this helps reduce anxiety by keeping chemicals in the brain and nerves healthy. Vitamin C also helps to fight infections and heal wounds, among other major jobs in the body.  

People with lower-than-normal vitamin C levels are more likely to have stress-related illnesses like anxiety and depression, and studies have also shown that when they consume more vitamin C their moods could improve5.  

Nurit recommends: 

  • Citrus fruits - like oranges and grapefruit. 

  • Strawberries. 

  • Broccoli. 

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Foods with omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy, essential fats needed for things like making cells and hormones. They can help protect you against heart disease, stroke, and cancer and help control existing conditions such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. 

More recently, in a review of studies that included a combined 2,240 people, omega-3 fatty acids were found to treat clinical anxiety symptoms effectively6.  

However, not all research supports these findings. Another larger review of more than 46,000 adults found limited evidence of the effect of omega-3 in people with existing anxiety7

This said, omega-3 is a healthy addition to your diet, so there’s no harm in meeting the recommended daily requirements. The latter research concludes, "the review does not undermine the potential importance of foods rich in omega-3, such as oily fish, for a healthy diet for general health." 

Nurit recommends: 

  • Fatty fish - like salmon and tuna. 

  • Walnuts. 

  • Chia seeds. 

  • Flaxseeds. 

  • Hemp seeds. 

Fibre-rich foods

We need fibre for stable blood sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as good digestion.  

Because fibre contributes to a healthy gut - which is increasingly linked to a healthy brain - it's now thought that fibre may contribute to good mental health. We know that fibre promotes good bacteria in the gut, and that having these bacteria may influence your mood and how susceptible you are to anxiety disorders. 

While research needs to continue, early observational data suggests that high-fibre foods are a promising stress-relieving food group8.  However, there is no current evidence from trials to support supplementing fibre into the diet for relieving anxiety or depressive symptoms.

Nurit recommends: 

  • Crunchy vegetables - like broccoli. 

  • Beans. 

  • Lentils. 

  • Berries. 

  • Almonds. 

  • Pistachios. 

  • Avocados. 

Fermented foods

"There are some studies linking our gut microbiome - the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut - to feeling good. This is why fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir can be great addition too," says Raich.  

When foods are fermented, bacteria and yeast break down carbs and turns them into acids or alcohol. This process has been used to preserve food for centuries, but we now know this also breeds good bacteria - called probiotics - to support a healthy gut.  

The healthy gut-brain connection is one reason why it may help to eat fermented foods for anxiety9. Another is that fermented foods are made from vegetables like cabbage, onions, radish, and ginger. These are foods that reduce stress even before the fermentation process, because they supply a range of beneficial nutrients like vitamin C, a range of other vitamins, and fibre. 

Nurit recommends: 

  • Kimchi. 

  • Sauerkraut. 

  • Yoghurt. 

  • Kefir. 

A balanced and varied diet will gift you with all of these anxiety-reducing nutrients, while supporting your general health. Raich shares one of her go-to prepared foods for anxiety: "One of my favourite ways to incorporate a bunch of feel-good nutrients into one meal is to make a salad that contains spinach, avocado, lentils, almonds, salmon, and a yogurt citrus vinaigrette - it's super delicious."

If you are taking medicine for your mental health, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on generalised anxiety and social anxiety advise you to be aware of possible interactions of shop bought vitamins with any medications. Furthermore, The Royal College of Psychiatrists advises there is not enough evidence for omega-3 to be used as an alternative to medication, and the British Dietetic Association advises that omega-3 supplements are not needed in healthy individuals.

Further reading 

  1. Mental Health Foundation: Our new research reveals anxiety is gripping the UK as many people suffer in silence and aren't able to cope.   

  2. Sartori et al: Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment.

  3. Botturi et al: The role and the effect of magnesium in mental disorders - A systematic review.   

  4. Azargoonjahromi: A systematic review of the association between zinc and anxiety.   

  5. Moritz et al: The role of vitamin C in stress-related disorders.  

  6. Su et al: Association of use of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids with changes in severity of anxiety symptoms.   

  7. National Institute for Health and Care Research: Increasing omega-3 intake does not prevent depression or anxiety.  

  8. Aslam et al: Fiber intake and fiber intervention in depression and anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials.   

  9. Clapp et al: Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis.   

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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