We all suffer from anxiety at one time or another. Sometimes it is mild, as apprehension nags at our thoughts prior to a big event or work project. Other times it utterly consumes our thoughts and highjacks our lives, taking a pound of flesh at the same time as it overwhelms our ability to make rational decisions. Either way, we can all benefit from strategies other than medication to help soothe anxiety.
The good news is that there are several life-enhancing actions you can take to help tone down disquiet and get you on a path to tranquility. In addition to mind-body activities like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga that we are all familiar with, nutrition and exercise can have a powerful impact on anxiety.
But it’s not as simple as telling you to get moving and eat healthy. In fact, certain diets can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol or deplete nutrients the body needs to manage stress. Similarly, some forms of exercise may exacerbate anxiety by overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system and impairing your ability to recover properly.
The goal of any anxiety-lowering exercise and nutrition program will target four key aspects:
1) Optimize gut health.
About two-thirds of the neurotransmitters that regulate wakefulness, mood, and anxiety are made in the gut. And the bacteria that line the GI tract have been shown to impact brain function and depression, so getting your gut in tip-top shape is a first line of defense to lowering anxiety.
2) Eat a varied, nutrient-rich diet.
Anxiety and stress are nutritionally costly, causing you to burn through neurotransmitters and stress hormones at a rapid rate, depleting certain nutrients. Even with a nutritionally rich diet, it’s often difficult to provide the body with the building blocks necessary to replenish these chemical messengers fast enough. This leaves you with low or imbalanced levels of serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and epinephrine. Providing extra nutrients to manufacture and balance these chemicals can have a tremendous impact on raising mood and quieting your mind.
3) Achieve a healthy cortisol curve.
We call cortisol a stress hormone, but it is also a powerful metabolic hormone. Cortisol triggers release of glucose into the blood to prevent energy levels from dipping too low. In the morning after fasting overnight, it peaks to help you get out of bed. Over the course of the day, it curves downward with periodic spikes and dips that coincide with meals (spikes occur as blood sugar drops in the hours after eating and dips follow meals as blood. Physical activity also raises cortisol, and if you are not giving your body what it needs to recover between workouts, cortisol increases, impairing sleep and fueling the racing thoughts that are typical of anxiety.
4) Balance blood sugar and lower insulin.
Anytime you have irregular blood sugar or insulin issues, you are going to have problems with cortisol and other chemical messengers. The body makes a valiant effort to keep blood sugar in a narrow range. When blood sugar is too high, it damages cells, causes inflammation, and can even lead to coma. When blood sugar is too low, the body pumps out hormones to stimulate the release of glucose and fatty acids to keep you alive. Naturally, nutrition has a central role in this process, but exercise also has a powerful impact since it raises your demand for glucose and primes the muscle to bind with insulin.
What follows are specific nutrition and training tips you can use to counter anxiety and achieve a more serene and peaceful life.
Overview of Nutrition
Anti-anxiety nutrition should be designed around foods that lower the glycemic response, while providing an array of nutrients so that the body has what it needs to handle anxiety. This differs from the standard ultra-processed American diet that contributes to problems with insulin and cortisol and does not provide the nutritional building blocks necessary to get you through long, stressful days.
Strategy #1: Avoid Calorie Counting
Whether overweight or not, most people have some displeasure about their appearance, which can fuel anxiety and lead to dieting. The problem with diets, especially calorie-focused diets, is that they are inherently stressful. As you know, losing fat requires a calorie deficit, which makes your body feel threatened, sending cortisol up. Counting calories worsens the effect by drawing mental attention on the restrictive nature of your diet. Having to limit food intake and constantly be aware of calories compounds anxiety, magnifying the cortisol response. When dealing with anxiety, it’s critical that you get away from obsessing about calories and choose nutrition that will shore up your defenses against stress.
Strategy #2: Adopt A Set Meal Frequency/Avoid Randomly Skipping Meals
All too often, people experiencing anxiety and stress go long periods without eating, either due to lack of appetite or too much to do. Skipping meals elevates cortisol, worsening feelings of anxiety and a racing mind. Eating resets your hormonal cascade, allowing you to stay strong and steady instead of jittery and frazzled.
Strategy #3: Include High-Quality Protein At Every Meal
High-quality protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy) helps regulate appetite and blood sugar but it also provides amino acids that are depleted in the production of stress hormones. For example, higher intake of the amino acid tyrosine sends a message to the brain that you are full, leading you to eat less, while taurine raises the calming neurotransmitter GABA. Both of these molecules are deficient in vegetarian diets, which is theorized as one reason that vegetarians have higher rates of anxiety.
Strategy #4: Eat Colorful Plants
Designing your diet to include plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables will provide the abundant nutrients that help the body handle stress (for example, vitamin C and magnesium help the body clear cortisol, while B vitamins play a role in production of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin). A rainbow-colored diet will also provide fiber to feed the protective bacteria in the GI tract and antioxidants to help mitigate cellular damage caused by inflammation from high levels of stress hormones circulating in the blood. Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower), peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, berries, stone fruit, and citrus are just a few that you should include on a regular basis.
Strategy #5: Limit Refined Carbs
When stress and anxiety become chronic, it’s easy to revert to rely on junk food, either due to lack of time and energy to prepare nourishing meals or because cortisol stimulates cravings for these foods. Studies show that elevated cortisol blunts the desire for non-carb foods that are less palatable, while increasing drive for tasty carbs. This means you’re never going to crave salmon and broccoli, but you’ll be overwhelmed with desire for warm bagels, chocolate cake, or pizza when stressed. There is also the fact that diets high in refined carbs are associated with blood sugar irregularities, which can cause you to feel jittery, worsening underlying anxiety.
Strategy #6: Include Healthy Fat At Every Meal
Healthy dietary fat is important because it improves digestion of proteins and helps protect your gut. Fat is also satiating, helping you to manage appetite and avoid overeating—something that can lead to a lot of anxiety in its own right due to how it contributes to increases in body fat and general discomfort after meals. Seafood, fish oil, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, and dairy are all foods to include in your diet on a regular basis.
Strategy #7: If On A Low-Carb Diet, Consider Carb Cycling
Diets lower in total carbohydrate content can be useful for lowering insulin and addressing blood sugar issues, but they aren’t appropriate for everyone. Very low-carb ketogenic diets (less than 50 grams a day) may lower serotonin levels and increase cortisol, which could negatively impact someone struggling with anxiety. One solution is to incorporate carb cycling in which you include higher carb days periodically. Carb cycling can be done several ways: Some people simply save their carbs for dinner, whereas others will have a higher carb intake every 5 to 7 days. Another option is to eat low carb on rest days and higher carb on days you exercise. Whole carbs are recommended, such as boiled grains or high starchy vegetables like tubers, green peas, and potatoes.
Strategy #8: Be Smart About Caffeine
For some people caffeine is a godsend, boosting mood, motivation, and energy. But it can easily backfire, creating that jittery feeling that makes your mind race. For example, in one study, 250 mg of caffeine (the amount in a large coffee) increased self-rated anxiety and the feeling of being threatened. One alternative to coffee for people who can’t give up caffeine entirely is green tea. It contains less caffeine than coffee along with plenty of the anxiety-lowering l-theanine—a compound known for having a calming effect on the nervous system.
Strategy #9: Supplement With Easily Depleted Nutrients
Certain nutrients are rapidly diminished with anxiety. Supplementing can help your body modulate your stress response and give your mind some relief:
Vitamin C: High dose vitamin C (500-3,000 mg a day) has been shown to lower anxiety in a variety of settings and populations.
Magnesium: Well known for its anti-stress effects, magnesium combined with vitamin B6 appears to have a synergistic effect, reducing anxiety more than either nutrient alone.
Taurine: Although low-stress omnivores may get enough taurine, anyone who limits their intake of animal products or suffers a lot of anxiety can benefit from supplementing.
B Complex: B vitamins are easily depleted when cortisol is elevated. A methylated B complex will provide a bioavailable form that the body can use to cope with anxiety.
Fish Oil: Supplementing with a few grams of EPA and DHA fish oil has been shown to lower anxiety, particularly in women who were pregnant or going through menopause.
Probiotics: Giving your GI tract an extra dose of beneficial bacteria will help keep your gut healthy so that it is able to produce neurotransmitters that balance mood and allow you to cope with anxiety.
Overview of Training
Although this is changing somewhat, the most common reason people exercise is to lose body fat. The typical workouts for fat loss are aerobic exercise and high-volume strength training with short rest, both of which can exacerbate anxiety if cortisol goes too high. When you’re dealing with anxiety, your first priority is to train in a way that is enjoyable. Lower volume training with ample rest is recommended. For people with a history of despising exercise, this can seem impossible, but there are many options, a few of which will be discussed below.
Strategy #1: Strength Train
You don’t want to compound your anxiety by having to worry about body composition. That’s where strength training comes in: It helps you maintain lean muscle mass for a more attractive physique, while helping keep fat accumulation at bay. Lifting is particularly important when cortisol is elevated because cortisol breaks down lean tissue so that you lose muscle mass.
At the same time, you want to make sure your workouts aren’t too tough because this can jack up cortisol. Plus, if you’ve ever suffered through a series of punishing workouts, you know that awful feeling of dread that begins to haunt at the idea of another one.
The best anti-anxiety workouts will be shorter in length (45 to 60 minutes) and have a lower volume (say 2 to 3 sets) for 6 to 12 reps with longer rest periods (1 to 3 minutes). Multi-joint exercises (squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, presses, rows, and pulldowns) tend to be fun, while giving you the biggest bang for your buck. Training four days a week is ideal, but if this is too much, do what works. Any of these parameters can be adjusted to ensure that you enjoy training and aren’t overwhelmed.
Strategy #2: Be Smart About Conditioning
When dealing with a lot of stress, you might be inclined to do obliterating high-intensity workouts in pursuit of the well-known exercise “high.” Over time, this approach will backfire because it overstimulates the nervous system and can lead to elevated cortisol curve. That doesn’t mean you need to give up on conditioning workouts entirely.
Low volume interval training such as the Wingate protocol (four 30-second sprint repeats with 4 minutes) rest has been shown improve mood, enhance body composition (increase lean mass and reduce body fat), while resetting the HPA axis that regulates stress. Other protocols that you can try include 20 minutes of 1-minute intervals interspersed with 1-minute active rest (on a bike this would be easy cycling, on a track it would be walking), or 8-second cycle intervals alternated with 12 seconds active rest.
For some people, sprint training just isn’t the thing, in which case walking is a great option that can lower anxiety and cortisol while boosting mood and well-being. Hiking in nature is especially effective, but the key is to find a way to enjoy the movement, whether that means watching TV while you’re doing it, listening to audiobooks, or going with a friend.
Strategy #3: Ensure Recovery From Workouts
You know that rundown, achy feeling that comes over you when you just don’t want to train. What used to be one of the highlights of your day now feels like a drudge. You begin to dread your workouts, which can be a major cause of anxiety itself, especially if you are an athlete or concerned with body composition.
Counterintuitively, this is a time when you need to step back and focus on recovery. Most likely, cortisol is elevated, and you haven’t been giving your body what it needs to recuperate from the losses that it suffers through the act of hard training and living. At this point, it’s time to figure out a mode of exercise you enjoy, whether it’s trying a new sport (or picking up an old one), dialing back intensity and volume, changing your exercise mode, or adding yoga, pilates, or some other mind-body practice like meditation, tai chi, or deep breathing.
Massage and other forms of body work, saunas, swimming, dancing, and psychological therapy are just a few of the actions you can take to improve recovery and relieve anxiety. For more recovery ideas, check out the Massive List of 50 Tips To Improve Recovery.