Foods that reduce stress and anxiety in older adults have become a favorite topic among wellness enthusiasts and health gurus. Sneaker-clad, track-suit-wearing, yoga-loving ‘experts’ have been championing anti-stress and anti-anxiety foods with such enthusiasm, and for so long, that the healing properties of these foods have begun to sound almost magical, if not campy.
We have all heard about miracle diets and foods that reduce stress and anxiety before. Frankly, we could not blame you if you are beginning to view the hype with a healthy dose of skepticism.
At the same time, we have also been told that stress and anxiety are rational reactions to the unnatural conditions of the modern world.
But are they, really? Should we really toss stress and anxiety into the same bin as such maladies of modern life as high crime rates, high inflation, and environmental degradation?
If it is true that stress and anxiety are rational reactions to the chaos of the modern world, does that mean that our cave-dwelling ancestors were not as prone to both?
Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist with a practice in California and author of the book, The Stress-Proof Brain, says they were.
Human beings are creatures who care about the future and the past. That is our curse as a species. In evolutionary psychology, experts usually explain stress and anxiety as parts of the “fight or flight” reflex that our brains activate in the presence of danger.
In prehistoric times, stress was a natural response to a threat, like sensing a predator in the tall grass, says Greenberg. In modern human, it still fires up your reserves of adrenaline and cortisol, which help activate your brain and body to deal with the threat. “It’s the cognitive component of anxiety,” she adds.
The reflex is naturally selected. Animals that are incapable of stress often lack the wherewithal not to drink water in places along the river where crocodiles regularly wait in ambush. They become lunch as a result.
Or, in the case of organisms that lack the cognitive capacity to feel anxiety, they get flattened: crushed underfoot by a herd of mammoths because their instincts failed to warn them of an impending threat to their survival.
We are inclined to believe that human beings have survived – and, indeed, learned to dominate – this world precisely because they are able to feel stress and anxiety.
Hoping for good outcomes and worrying about bad ones comes with being a member of the species Homo Sapiens. It is a universal reality among us – and humans have lived with both for as long as the species has been around.
So much so that the words “stressed” and “anxious” have in themselves become universal terminologies that may mean different things to different people.
People will tell you that they are apprehensive. They feel nervous, jittery, and panicky. They are sick to their stomachs. They will say they are “scared shitless” or else they are “so scared they shit their pants.”
Each of these moods is arguably a form of stress or anxiety. But despite the multitude of variations, we know exactly – or at least we have a clear idea – as to what each of these expressions means. Cats, dogs, and turtles, presumably, do not.
That’s why it is difficult to imagine how regular helpings of nuts and fish can help stop the enormous tsunamis of worry and distress that rise and come crashing down onto the lives of countless millions of older people every day.
Seniors who care for ill spouses, who look after orphaned or abandoned grandchildren, who are battling the consequences of grief, disease, and failing health, or who are worried about their ability to live independently in the future – they all have sufficient reason to feel anxious and stressed.
Will regular helpings of nuts and some fish in our diets really help to quiet our many apprehensions?
- 1 Can What You Eat Really Affect Your Mood?
- 2 Nine Foods That Reduce Stress and Anxiety in Older Adults
- 2.1 1. Fatty Fish (Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines)
- 2.2 2. Leafy Greens (Spinach, Kale)
- 2.3 3. Berries (Blueberries, Strawberries)
- 2.4 4. Nuts and Seeds (Almonds, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds)
- 2.5 5. Dark Chocolate
- 2.6 6. Turmeric
- 2.7 7. Probiotics (Yogurt, Kefir, Kimchi)
- 2.8 8. Complex Carbohydrates (Oats, Quinoa, Whole Grains)
- 2.9 9. Chamomile Tea
- 3 A Question of Courage and Imagination
- 4 Food Can Be Empowering
Can What You Eat Really Affect Your Mood?
It turns out that the answer is yes, some foods do have a surprisingly significant effect on your mood. In recent years, large population studies have found that people who consume more nutrient-dense foods report less anxiety and greater levels of mental well-being.
Researchers published the results of one of the first major trials to shed light on this subject. They recruited 67 clinically depressed individuals and split them into two groups. They asked one group to learn and follow a Mediterranean-style diet guided by a dietitian. The other group received social support without dietary guidance.
Before the trial, both groups had habitually consumed high amounts of sugary foods, processed meats, and salty snacks while lacking fibre, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
However, the group that stuck to foods that reduce stress and anxiety made significant dietary shifts. They stuck to a diet of nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables. They chose whole grains over refined ones and swapped processed meats for seafood and lean red meats, as well.
Both groups continued their prescribed medications, as the study aimed to explore whether foods that reduce stress and anxiety could complement existing treatments rather than replace them.
After 12 weeks, both groups showed improved depression scores, possibly due to the added support from the trial.
The group that stuck to foods that reduce stress and anxiety experienced notably greater improvement. Doctors classified roughly a third of those individuals as no longer depressed, compared to only 8 percent in the control group.
This suggests that adopting a healthier diet could significantly contribute to alleviating depression symptoms alongside other lifestyle adjustments.
“Nutrition is not the only thing you need to take care of for your mental health,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of the book, “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety,” and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York. “Mental health is a lot of work, but nutrition has got to be something you get right.”
How Foods That Reduce Stress and Anxiety Benefit Mental Processes
The research analysis has not been the only study on the subject. In recent randomized trials, including one involving 150 adults with depression, researchers discovered that participants who followed a Mediterranean diet for three months experienced significant reductions in symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Exactly how do supposed foods that reduce stress and anxiety in older people work on our mental well-being, anyway?
Over the years, a growing body of research has provided intriguing hints about how these foods function to affect our mood. One way is by promoting a healthy digestive system.
The bidirectional communication pathway between the gastrointestinal tract – the gut – and the brain is called the gut-brain axis. This connection is facilitated by various pathways, including the nervous system, immune system, and hormonal signals.
Several types of food interact with this axis to create a positive influence on our mood and mental well-being.
A healthy diet plays a crucial role in maintaining a balanced and diverse gut microbiome –the community of trillions of microbes living in our digestive system, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
Since these gut microbes are involved in numerous essential functions, including the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, they affect our feelings of happiness, pleasure, and overall mood stability.
The gut microbiome’s ability to produce these neurotransmitters suggests that its composition and health can significantly impact our mental well-being.
For example, foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan-like turkey, chicken, seafood and nuts- can boost the level of serotonin in your brain.
“Eating a salad is not going to cure depression,” says Dr Jacka of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, who led the 2017 study. “But there’s a lot you can do to lift your mood and improve your mental health, and it can be as simple as increasing your intake of plants and healthy foods.”
Nine Foods That Reduce Stress and Anxiety in Older Adults
Most psychiatric professional groups have refrained from prescribing specific diets for mental health because of a need for further research in this area.
But public health experts throughout the world have already started urging people, especially older adults, to adopt healthy dietary habits that include foods that reduce stress and anxiety, among other brain-related benefits.
For instance, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have released clinical guidelines advising clinicians to prioritize addressing foods that reduce stress and anxiety and exercise before initiating medication or psychotherapy for patients.
Below are nine types of the most highly recommended foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors.
1. Fatty Fish (Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines)
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fatty fish increase serotonin levels in people, which can improve mood and reduce anxiety.
Omega-3s also have anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit brain health. This is why fatty fish are among the most popular foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors.
2. Leafy Greens (Spinach, Kale)
Leafy greens are also among the most popular foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors. Packed with magnesium, leafy greens help to regulate cortisol levels in the brain, effectively reducing stress.
These vegetables also contain high levels of folate, which supports the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
3. Berries (Blueberries, Strawberries)
High in antioxidants and vitamin C, berries combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, thus reducing stress-related damage. This is why berries are high on the list of foods that reduce stress and anxiety in older adults.
4. Nuts and Seeds (Almonds, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds)
Nuts and seeds are yet another highly popular item on the list of foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors. These foods contain magnesium, zinc, and healthy fats that support brain function.
5. Dark Chocolate
There’s a reason why you often find yourself reaching for chocolate in moments of stress and anxiety. Dark chocolates, in particular, contain the fatty acid N-acyl ethanolamines, which provides euphoric effects, helping to relieve negative moods
Rich in flavonoids, dark chocolate can also boost mood by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. It also contains antioxidants that reduce stress.
Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may positively affect brain health and reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Turmeric is widely used as a spice in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It gives curry dishes their distinctive yellow colour and flavour. It is also used as a colouring agent in cheese, butter, and other foods.
7. Probiotics (Yogurt, Kefir, Kimchi)
Gut health is linked to mental health. Probiotics in these foods promote a healthy gut microbiome, which – as we earlier pointed out – can positively impact mood and reduce stress.
This is why yogurt, kimchi, and kefir are among the recommended foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors.
8. Complex Carbohydrates (Oats, Quinoa, Whole Grains)
These foods aid in the production of serotonin, helping to stabilize mood and reduce stress. Unlike simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates break down and release energy gradually once consumed.
This digestive process helps your body maintain stable blood sugar levels, which are essential for mood stability.
9. Chamomile Tea
While not a food, chamomile tea has calming properties due to its antioxidants. It can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. In fact, chamomile is widely regarded as a mild tranquillizer and sleep-inducer.
Scientists have linked some of its sedative effects to the flavonoid, apigenin, that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.
In general, foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors contain nutrients that support brain health, regulate neurotransmitters, combat inflammation, or promote a healthy gut—all of which can contribute to mental well-being.
If you want to learn more about healthy diets or even Mediterranean cuisine and cooking, you will find many affordable short courses online.
But remember, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional or nutritionist before making significant dietary changes, especially for seniors with existing health conditions or taking medications that may interact with certain foods.
A Question of Courage and Imagination
Ultimately, we must accept that stress and anxiety are still mysteries. We may have charted its surface contours, but we know little of what goes on underneath both.
Maybe that is because stress and anxiety are jumbled up with our own personal experience of life. Do we really know anyone – friends and family, included – as well as we know ourselves? If not, how can we really know the things that others fear and worry about the most?
Some people seem to feel no anxiety and stress at all. Sometimes, we marvel at these people for their “courage” but, in reality, we suspect that they are either born lucky – or they lack imagination.
The monster under your bed may be imaginary, but the fact that you are anxious about it proves that you have that much imagination. Other people are afraid of heights because they cannot help but imagine themselves falling.
Most of us have social anxieties because we imagine ourselves less interesting than the other guests at the party. That is until our brain shuts off the release of cortisol and other chemicals that make us feel stressed and anxious. Then we feel better.
What seems to happen in people who suffer from serious anxiety disorders is what Peter Kramer, the author of the book, Listening to Prozac, calls the “stuck switch” problem. That is, in some people, the brain is unable to stop the release of stress hormones. The body thus goes on pumping them out.
Over the long term, the accumulated surplus of stress hormones will inevitably damage the brain. When that happens, “temporary injuries become permanent,” says Kramer.
Food Can Be Empowering
While larger medical psychiatry organizations have yet to advocate for a specific diet of foods that reduce stress and anxiety in seniors, many individual psychiatrists and psychologists have already incorporated them into their practice.
Dr. Ramsey’s own approach is fascinating. He merges psychiatry with nutritional science.
He starts by investigating a patient’s psychiatric history and then examines their dietary habits. His general approach to mental health considers the significant impact of foods that reduce stress and anxiety and their influence on mental health.
His emphasis on foods that reduce stress and anxiety takes into account their complete nutritional content. He typically prescribes foods that are rich in essential nutrients like fibre, unsaturated fats, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Ramsey’s focus on promoting compounds like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is significant. BDNF supports the growth of new neurons and protects existing ones, crucial for maintaining a healthy brain. By encouraging a diet abundant in these nutrients and food groups, Dr. Ramsey aims to complement traditional psychiatric methods with intelligent dietary interventions.
This approach recognizes that mental health isn’t just influenced by psychology but also by lifestyle factors like nutrition.
In all, he says this approach is a more well-rounded way to address mental well-being by considering both the mind and the body. He also teaches that choosing to eat the right kind of food can be empowering.
“We can’t control our genes, who our parents were, or if random acts of trauma or violence happen to us,” he says. “But we can control how we eat, and that gives people actionable things that they can do to take care of their brain health on a daily basis.”
What do you think?