Several foods can cause anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. This article lists and explains the various foods that are known to cause panic attacks or trigger anxiety symptoms and what to eat as part of an anti-anxiety diet.
Knowing which foods to avoid can help you keep your anxiety in check, even if you suffer from an anxiety disorder like panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
What is an anxiety attack?
If you’ve never experienced anxiety attacks before, you may be wondering: what exactly is an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack is a sudden feeling of fear, such as having a heartbeat or a feeling of impending doom. It can last anywhere from five to twenty minutes.
Whether you’re experiencing one or just worried about having one, learning how to handle these symptoms can help you live a happier life.
An anxiety attack can come on unexpectedly and cause you to feel panicked. Your heart rate increases to the point that you feel like you are having a heart attack. It may even feel like you’re choking.
When an anxiety disorder is untreated, it can lead to thoughts of suicide and self-harm. Your symptoms can make it difficult for you to function and have a good quality of life. Fortunately, there are things that can decrease the severity of anxiety attacks.
How to help manage anxiety?
The best way to manage anxiety is to identify the triggers. Most attacks are caused by perceptions and emotional triggers.
Ideally, you can avoid situations that trigger an attack. However, avoiding them entirely may not be possible.
In such cases, you may have to find professional help. If your symptoms are accompanied by chest pain or difficulty breathing, you should try to slow your breathing as much as possible.
Rapid or shallow breathing can cause inadequate amounts of oxygen to the brain, leading to feelings of worry.
While therapy medication are very effective solutions, food can also play a role in managing your symptoms.
Eating the right foods can help naturally calm your nerves and avoid heightening your anxiety levels, while others can worsen your symptoms.
Foods to avoid in an anti-anxiety diet:
Some foods can make your stomach do flip-flops or even send you into a full-blown panic attack. These foods can range from protein-heavy meats, cheese and fish to processed foods.
In most cases, these foods will not only set off an anxious reaction in your body, but they also contain high levels of tyramine.
This amino acid produces excess levels of norepinephrine in your brain, which is responsible for raising your heart rate, increasing blood pressure, and leading to chest pain, according to The Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA).
The following foods may trigger an anxiety attack:
Some types of fish such as tuna and shellfish, contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids but low amounts of omega-3s. This has been shown to increase the risk of developing mood disorders such as anxiety.
Moreover, seafood also contains high levels of tyramine, which sets off headaches and triggers anxiety.
Eighty-five percent of the US population consumes caffeine every day, and this could be a great contributor to the 31 percent of adults that suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Caffeine stimulates your fight or flight response which increases your alertness by blocking adenosine (a chemical in the brain that makes you feel tired) while increasing adrenaline which boosts your energy levels.
With too much caffeine intake, these effects become overwhelming to the brain resulting in a panic attack.
In fact, a study found that excessive caffeine intake could lead to symptoms similar to those of a psychiatric condition, including increasing hostility, sleep disorders, anxiety, and psychotic symptoms.
So be sure to eliminate caffeine from your diet or avoid consuming too much of it throughout your day, especially right before bedtime.
Alcohol abuse can exacerbate an existing anxiety disorder or trigger new anxiety symptoms and vice versa.
This is because alcohol induces panic due to its effect on GABA, a neurotransmitter that produces a calming effect. It also affects your serotonin, “the feel good chemical” in the brain, thus making your anxiety worse.
In addition, chronic alcohol use affects your ability to handle situations effectively and in a healthy manner leading to anxiety.
Since alcohol depresses the central nervous system, even small doses could likely affect those with panic disorders more than those without them.
So, cut back on how much you drink each week or switch to non-alcoholic beverages to help keep your nervous system happy!
4. Dairy and dairy products
Dairy is a major culprit of inflammation, causing bloating, diarrhea, constipation, among other issues, but that’s not all. Regular consumption of dairy and its products may also be your greatest anxiety trigger.
There are studies on both sides regarding whether milk causes allergies, but those who have asthma have found that dairy products, especially cheese, can be a problem.
5. Processed carbohydrates
Processed carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, white pasta, and refined grains release sugars into your bloodstream faster than whole foods that still have their fiber content intact.
This is quickly followed by a crash within a few hours, causing you to feel worn out and with low energy, and this may lead to mood sours with increased anxiety levels.
In one lab study, researchers found that when mice were fed a diet high in refined carbohydrates, they became obese, developed anxiety, and demonstrated depressive-like symptoms when exposed to stress.
A different study found that refined grains were significantly associated with depression and anxiety in women.
The same applies to refined sugar such as agave syrup, sucrose (table sugar), and high fructose corn syrup.
These sugars are often included in foods most people are likely to consume daily such as breakfast cereals, pastries, sodas, energy drinks, and other processed snacks.
Most people love to indulge in chocolate on occasion –but be aware that too much consumption of dark or sweet chocolates can trigger panic attacks because they are both rich in caffeine, so try to eat healthier alternatives like raw cacao instead!
Besides, most brands are high in added sugar, which can only worsen the situation.
7. Foods high in sodium
Sodium should be an essential part of a healthy diet. It’s needed for various functions, including proper nerve and muscle function and blood pressure regulation.
However, too much of it can raise blood pressure, which strains the heart. This can, as a result, stimulate the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream, leading to anxiety.
8. Processed vegetable oils
The omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils can increase inflammation throughout your body. So when you consume large amounts of these oils or products containing them, such as processed foods and baked goods, it can make you feel more anxious.
To feel less anxious about your food choices, switch to cooking with extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil as a replacement for other oils.
Be sure to choose organic sources of extra virgin olive oil as olive trees can be heavily sprayed with pesticides.
9. Artificial sweeteners
Another potential cause of anxiety is artificial sweeteners used as a “healthy alternative” to table sugar.
An animal study in 2005 found that when rats were fed doses of aspartame (an artificial sweetener) comparable to those permitted by regulators, they developed anxiety symptoms.
Another rat study in 2012 linked high doses of aspartame-containing water with compulsive behavior. However, other animal studies on aspartame haven’t been able to replicate these results.
A 2002 review concluded that it is unlikely that chronic ingestion of moderate amounts of aspartame would produce significant effects in humans.
So, more research is needed before experts can conclude about artificial sweeteners causing anxiety or panic attacks.
Foods essential for an anti-anxiety diet:
Having looked at the foods that can easily trigger or worsen anxiety, here’s what you need to eat to ensure calm.
1. Chamomile tea
Chamomile is a powerful ancient remedy for insomnia. It’s rich in compounds that have been shown to fight inflammation associated with anxiety.
It specifically regulates different neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, which play an essential role in mood regulation.
In a study involving participants with generalized anxiety disorder, consuming a chamomile extract for 38 weeks was shown to significantly lower anxiety symptoms more than the control group.
A similar study found that 8 weeks of chamomile extract supplementation resulted in reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a type of polyunsaturated fat known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which have been shown to help fight inflammation in your body and brain.
Some experts believe it can help relieve symptoms of depression and reduce panic attacks. A handful of walnuts each day could be just what you need for a happy mood boost.
Bananas are rich in potassium, and a lack of it has been associated with increased frequency of panic attacks.
It’s also rich in tryptophan—an amino acid that helps your body produce serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that helps promote feelings of well-being.
That’s why when you’re stressed or anxious, serotonin levels in your brain decrease. Bananas are also rich in magnesium—which aids in anxiety management.
In addition, banana contains high levels of potassium which has a calming effect on your nervous system and muscles.
Moreover, a 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that high potassium intake through food reduced symptoms of tension and anxiety in participants.
Also, like tryptophan, potassium also promotes the utilization of serotonin which promotes happy feelings and mood.
So the next time you’re facing an exam or an interview, and you’re nervous or anxious, just take a banana, and you can tell the difference.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been widely studied and shown to prevent anxiety disorders and improve brain health.
Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, and its ability to neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative cell damage may protect the brain cells against damage. This, as a result, may increase your body’s ability to counter stress and anxiety.
In one study, diabetic patients on daily curcumin supplementation for 8 weeks reduced their anxiety score more than a control group.
Another 8-week randomized, double-blind study found that a daily intake of 500 milligrams of curcumin extract improved anxiety symptoms in people with major depressive disorders.
To increase the bioavailability of curcumin, ensure you pair your turmeric with black pepper.
5. Natural plant-based yogurt
Many studies suggest that eating yogurt can improve your anxiety. Interestingly, yogurt can actually decrease social anxiety, which is the excessive fear of judgment, embarrassment, and offending someone.
This is potentially due to the high nutrients and good gut bacteria that promote a healthy digestive system. And a healthy gut is key to promoting a healthy nervous system and a strong immune system.
However, it’s important to note that some types of yogurt contain additives and do not contain probiotics. Instead, choose natural yogurt with live active cultures to get the most benefits. Besides yogurt, you can also eat fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso.
A recent study concluded that women who consumed 4.4 ounces of yogurt twice a day for four weeks were less anxious. The researchers also found that lower anxiety levels may be linked to better functioning of brain regions.
While eating these kinds of foods can calm your body down, it’s crucial to identify other stressors so that you can avoid them. If the situation is out of your control, you may want to speak with a therapist.
Final thoughts on an anti-anxiety diet:
Using nutrition as part of treatment for mental health issues is something experts now agree on. While it’s not a cure-all, many studies show food can make a big difference in how you feel — everything from alleviating daily stress to easing major depression.
Changing your diet can be one of the most effective ways to relieve anxiety. So, it’s essential to consider your food choices and make changes where necessary.
Whole food is best for your health and mood, so try to avoid processed foods, including coffee, processed vegetable oils, and dairy products.
Always choose whole-grain foods in addition to other foods such as bananas, walnuts, turmeric, chamomile tea, and natural yogurt.