SPOILER ALERT! ~ Poor nutrition is associated with depression and anxiety ~ Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, lean proteins, grains and nuts contribute to reducing the risk of developing anxiety and depression ~ Diets rich in processed foods, sugar and sodium are associated with a greater risk of anxiety and depression ~ Macronutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids have anxiolytic effects on anxiety ~ Micronutrients such as magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, lysine and arginine are helpful in the prevention and treatment of anxiety.
Malnutrition is associated with poor psychological health, including the development and worsening of anxiety and depression. The lack of intake or uptake of nutrients that occurs in malnutrition causes adverse effects on the body and mind. Particularly, the effects of nutrients on the endocrine system have been implicated in the effect that their absence has on mental health.
Diet and Depression
For example, nutrients like tryptophan, vitamins B6 and B12, and folic acids are involved in the regulation of mood and cognition. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, regulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which are essential for decreasing anxiety and depression.
Further support is found in studies demonstrating that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, seafood, olive oil, nuts, grains, and lean meat (e.g., a Mediterranean diet) improves the symptoms of depression in individuals with and without a diagnosis of depression.
Conversely, adherence to healthy dietary patterns such as high intakes of fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grain is associated with a reduced risk of developing depression.
Diet and Anxiety
Similarly, key nutrients have been implicated in anxiety through their role in regulating the stress response. Particularly, B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc and magnesium regulate the stress response via involvement in the production of serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine (i.e., neurotransmitters – brain chemical messengers), low levels of which may increase the risk of anxiety.
For example, studies show that typical Chinese and Mediterranean diets (i.e., gruel, oatmeal, whole grains, fresh yellow or red vegetables, fruit, and soy milk & vegetables, fruits, seafood, olive oil, nuts, grains, and lean meat, respectively) have been associated with a lower risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Epidemiological studies (i.e., studies that attempt to define the risk factors for a specific disease) further lend credence to those findings by showing that diets high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, grains, legumes and low sugar are associated with a low risk of anxiety. By contrast, diets high in processed foods and sugar (e.g., Western diets) are linked with a greater risk of developing anxiety.
Specifically, the macronutrient Omega-3 fatty acids has been pegged as having anxiolytic effects (i.e., reduce anxiety). Indeed, research shows that a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids contributes to the reduction and improvements of anxiety symptoms. For example men who ate salmon 3 times a week showed reduced emotional activation and worry than those who ate meat (e.g., chicken, pork or beef 3 times a week).
Likewise, micronutrients such as magnesium, zinc, and certain types of vitamins are also believed to alleviate anxiety symptoms. For example, an intake of 500mg of vitamin C for 14 days was found to reduce anxiety levels in individuals without anxiety disorders.
Kris-Etherton PM, Petersen KS, Hibbeln JR, Hurley D, Kolick V, Peoples S, Rodriguez N, Woodward-Lopez G. Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety. Nutr Rev. 2021 Feb 11;79(3):247-260. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025. PMID: 32447382; PMCID: PMC8453603.