Beverages like alcohol or coffee can make anxiety worse, but typically when consumed in larger amounts. Having an occasional drink or a daily cup of coffee shouldn’t have a negative effect.

Share on Pinterest
Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

Roughly 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder. If you live with chronic stress or anxiety, you might spend much of your daily life managing it with tools like therapy, mindfulness, exercise, and anti-anxiety medication.

But did you know that anxiety may be triggered by certain foods we put in our bodies?

This isn’t to say that these tools and approaches aren’t necessary for tackling anxiety — they’re often healthy options for any person’s lifestyle.

But if anxiety is still impacting your life, it might be worth it to consider what’s on your plate.

Read on for four foods that may trigger your anxiety and suggestions for what to eat instead.

Believe it or not, the beverage often used to quell social anxiety is actually making it worse.

“Although it may seem like it calms your nerves, alcohol can have a negative impact on hydration and sleep, both of which can trigger anxiety symptoms when suppressed,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of “Belly Fat for Dummies.”

Alcohol changes levels of serotonin and the neurotransmitters in the brain, which makes anxiety worse. And when the alcohol wears off, you may feel even more anxious.

Drinking in moderation — about 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men — is typically safe, as long as your doctor gives you the OK.

Try Instead: There’s no real substitute for alcohol. If you like the flavor but don’t need the side effects, consider nonalcoholic beer. Drinks that feel special, like mocktails or sparkling water with fancy bitters, can also be good replacements in social situations.

According to the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, and the average amount per day is slightly over 3 cups per coffee-drinker. But our favorite morning ritual might actually be doing more harm than good when it comes to anxiety.

“High levels of caffeine can not only increase anxiety and nervousness, but also decrease the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the body, causing a depressed mood,” explains Palinski-Wade.

Typically, caffeine is safe in low doses. But high doses can cause unpleasant effects, namely anxiety and nervousness. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that the average adult can generally consume up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine daily without dangerous or negative effects.

A 2015 study found that many adults and adolescents who consumed more than 400 mg of caffeine per day reported anxiety and mood disorders. In Starbucks terms, a large (“grande”) containing medium roast coffee contains about 310 mg of caffeine.

Also keep in mind that many products have caffeine, including tea, chocolate, and certain headache medications, and can contribute to anxious feelings.

Try Instead: Herbal teas, such as peppermint, lavender, or lemon balm tea, are refreshing hot drinks with soothing effects.

There’s no way to avoid sugar 100 percent of the time, as it naturally occurs in many of the foods we love to eat, like fruit.

But added sugar is a contributor to overall anxiety.

“Added sugars cause your blood sugar to go on a rollercoaster ride of spikes and crashes, and with it, your energy also goes up and down,” says Palinski-Wade. “When blood sugar crashes, your mood sours and anxiety levels can spike.”

The body releases insulin to help absorb the excess glucose and stabilize blood sugar levels, but a sugar rush makes the body work too hard to get back to normal, causing the highs and lows.

Consuming large amounts of processed sugar can trigger feelings of worry, irritability, and sadness.

Foods that fall into the added sugar category that you should consider avoiding or minimizing don’t all look like desserts. Condiments like ketchup, certain salad dressings, pasta sauces, and breakfast cereal can all contain high levels of added sugar.

Try Instead: Luckily, you don’t have to deny your sweet tooth if you give up processed sugar. Stevia, erythritol, and Yacon syrup are natural substitutes for sugar. Fill up your plate with fruits and naturally sweet vegetables, like sweet potatoes.

Refined carbohydrates have been associated with increased risk of serious health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Refined carbohydrates are foods that have been stripped of much of their fiber and micronutrients.

It appears that anxiety is being added to the list of health issues that may be associated with consumption of refined carbohydrates.

One 2019 study found that refined grains consumption was related to both anxiety and depression in women. Another study from 2018 found that mice fed a diet high in refined carbs became obese and then developed anxiety and depressive-like behaviors when exposed to stress.

Refined sugars and refined grains are the two main types of refined carbs. Refined grains have been milled to remove the fibrous parts, such as the bran and germ, which also removes many of the nutrients. Three common examples of refined carbs are:

Refined sugars come from plants such as sugar cane, sugar beets, and the agave succulent. They’ve been processed to extract their sugar. These refined sugars are different from the natural sugars that are found in fruit and dairy products. Common refined sugars include:

Refined carbs are found in many modern foods, including:

  • white bread
  • white rice
  • pastries
  • sodas
  • pasta
  • breakfast cereals
  • processed snacks and meals

Try Instead: Try cereals and breads made of whole or sprouted wheat. Even some whole high-carb grains can be very healthy. If you’re living gluten-free, try breads or pasta made of brown rice, oats, or quinoa.

Between 5 and 8 percent of children and 3 and 4 percent of adults in the United States have food allergies.

Young people with food allergies and sensitivities are at much higher risk for developing anxiety disorders. In one study of young people between 10 and 16 years old, those with food allergies were more likely to have symptoms of separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, and anorexia.

This may be especially true in families in underserved communities. In one study of children from such communities, those with food allergies had increased symptoms of both social anxiety and anxiety overall.

The lead researcher of the study pointed out that food allergies can be expensive, involving food shopping, meal preparation, and the cost of epinephrine auto-injectors, which expire annually. They suggested that these demands might cause anxiety for those with few financial resources.

Adults can be affected, too. One study showed that parents of children with food allergies reported significantly higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, compared to parents of children with no food allergy.

Anxiety can result from long-term exposure to a perceived threat. If you have food allergies, you may face the very real threat of severe reactions to food every time you eat.

Minor worry may help keep you alert: You read labels, check ingredients when eating out, and always carry your epinephrine. But continual worry over food allergies can get out of control. If it does, anxiety can be managed with the right supports, including:

  • education
  • nutritional guidance
  • counseling
  • support groups
  • medication

If you or your child needs help, don’t hesitate to contact a medical professional for testing and diagnosis. They’ll make sure you get help in developing menu plans that consider any related fears.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a good place to start for resources or to find a therapist.