Anxiety is described as excessive worry and stress that interferes with one’s everyday life. Maybe you’ve experienced it and know this firsthand or know of someone who deals with an anxiety disorder. If so, that’s not surprising. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns and affects up to a third of people in their lifetime. Much like other mental health conditions, it is common for healthcare practitioners to offer treatments, including medication or psychotherapy.
These can be valuable tools when it comes to mental health, but what’s often overlooked is the connection between nutrition and anxiety. The power of food is one not to underestimate. It has the power to heal the brain as well as the body, and we will dive into this below.
The Gut Brain Connection
There are many types of microbes that reside in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, all of which help to regulate chemicals in the gut, which communicate with the brain. This communication occurs via the vagus nerve by wrapping around the gut and carrying chemical signals to the brain. Some of these chemicals include serotonin and dopamine, which are closely related to anxiety. To ensure that this communication is occurring properly, there must be a beneficial balance of microbes in the gut.
When the balance of harmful microbiota is disproportionate to beneficial microbes, it can lead to mood changes, lack of concentration, impaired immunity, and less of a protective gut barrier— sometimes resulting in increased intestinal permeability. One interesting study that illustrates the gut brain connection was centered around schizophrenic patients. A sample of their microbiomes was transferred to mice and, fascinatingly, the mice began to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia. Interestingly enough, it only takes two hours of a stressful situation to completely change the microbial balance in the gut. That’s how powerful our brain and mood is when it comes to gut health.
There is also a correlation linking individuals with GI issues to mental health issues. It has been found that individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are more likely to experience difficulties with parts of their brain that help attend to daily tasks, feel emotions, and manage pain. A more diverse microbiome filled with beneficial microbes helps to not only support GI health but also mental health.
Conversely, anxiety is associated with GI issues because of the potential decrease in blood flow to the GI tract, which in turn affects the health of the microbes in the gut. Therefore, individuals dealing with an anxiety disorder may have a less diverse microbiome—detrimental to mental health.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Another GI issue correlated with anxiety is termed “leaky gut syndrome”—more formally called increased intestinal permeability. This occurs when the gut lining is damaged, potentially due to numerous factors, one of which may be a lack of beneficial microbes. When the gut lining is experiencing increased permeability, compounds in the GI tract may make their way into the bloodstream. This can cause issues with food sensitivities, inflammation, and brain fog.
In addition to the microbiome, in recent years, other underlying nutrition-related causes for anxiety disorders have surfaced. These four factors include oxidative stress, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, and immune dysfunction. Here’s more about each.
- Counteracting oxidative stress supports mental health:
- The brain utilizes 20 percent of the total amount of oxygen the body requires. This means that reactive oxygen species (particles that can damage DNA and proteins) form in the brain quite often, which is normal, but there must be enough antioxidants to counter this negative effect.
- Eating the rainbow of colorful whole foods provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Nutrient deficiencies:
- In the United States, the majority of people are deficient in multiple vitamins and minerals. The highest rates of deficiency are in vitamin D, then vitamin E, then magnesium. Calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin K deficiencies are also alarmingly high.
- The brain is an organ and, just like all organs, if it doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, it can not function optimally.
- Hormone imbalances:
- When addressing the root cause of hormone imbalance, it is important to understand the whole picture and consider the whole person. Often, nutrition and stress management can play a critical role in balancing hormones.
- Blood sugar highs and lows can lead to feelings of anxiety. It is important to maintain a stable blood sugar throughout the day to help manage anxiety symptoms. I often recommend a continuous glucose monitor for people who are looking to better balance hormones and blood sugar.
- It is important to consider cortisol and adrenaline levels in individuals that experience anxiety. These hormones regulate the “fight or flight” response, and chronic exposure to stress can lead to elevated levels, leading to feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and immune suppression. Consider making time each day for an activity you find relieves stress. Often meditation, mindfulness, or yoga are talked about for stress management but, for some, it may be reading, taking a walk, talking with a friend, or swimming. Everyone is different; what is important is that you have a way to release stress that you find enjoyable.
- If the individual has a menstrual cycle, it is important to look at levels of estrogen and progesterone. These hormones have an impact on neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which regulate mood.
- Thyroid hormones impact mood and metabolism; dysregulated levels can lead to feelings of stress and other health issues.
- All of these hormones can potentially be better balanced by including more whole fruits and vegetables that are good sources of fiber, healthy fats, adequate high quality protein sources, and naturally fermented foods. Avoiding alcohol and coffee consumption is also key for balancing hormones. Consider herbal teas, especially adaptogens like tulsi in place of coffee.
- Immune dysfunction:
- In some cases, having an allergy or undiagnosed food sensitivity can lead to high levels of histamines circulating in the body, which may present similar symptoms as a panic attack.
Now that a few of the underlying causes of anxiety have been discussed, let's dive into how to apply these principles to your diet.
Anxiety and Food: What Can Increase Anxiety
- Foods: Red meat from grain-fed animals, fried foods, and foods with a high glycemic index such as white bread, white rice, potatoes, and pasta may worsen symptoms of anxiety.
- Caffeine: If consuming coffee, choose organic swiss water processed decaf when possible.
- Alcohol: Avoid completely, especially if also trying to balance blood sugar and hormones.
- Artificial sweeteners:
- may be harmful to beneficial microbes in the gut
- have been directly linked to anxiety (aspartame)
Anxiety and Food: What Can Relieve Anxiety
- Dietary fiber: Food sources include beans, brown rice, berries, bran, and potatoes with the skin.
- Omega 3 fatty acids: Food sources include fish, spinach, flax seeds, and kidney beans; omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory and has been found to decrease anxiety symptoms in various clinical trials.
- Fermented foods: Food sources include kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, miso, and apple cider vinegar; these:
- contain live bacteria that can aid in healthy gut function and decrease anxiety
- may suppress the stress response through the HPA-axis (the brain system that controls the body’s response to stress)
- may naturally increase serotonin if a small amount is eaten daily
- Tryptophan: Food sources include plant and animal based proteins, and it is best absorbed when eaten with a food containing carbohydrates. Plus tryptophan:
- in supplement form has been found to significantly decrease depression, irritability, and anxiety
- is needed to produce serotonin as well as melatonin, helping to support both anxiety and sleep
- is the least abundant amino acid, so it gets crowded out and doesn’t usually reach the brain; but, eating it along with a carbohydrate will release insulin and divert other amino acids to muscle, allowing tryptophan to get to the brain for beneficial effects
- Vitamin D: This is found in foods such as fortified milk, egg yolk, salmon, sun-dried mushrooms, and cod liver oil; and:
- It has been found that adults with depression and anxiety have lower blood levels of vitamin D.
- Vitamin D is a neurosteroid, which means that it can enter the brain and is needed to decrease inflammation and provide feedback to the brain when stress occurs.
- Magnesium: This is found in foods such as leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains; and:
- In mice, a low magnesium diet was correlated with anxiety symptoms, and most studies show that increasing the magnesium intake over six to twelve weeks decreases anxiety.
- Magnesium also helps to relax muscles, balance blood sugar, and improve sleep.
- Individuals that are anxious have been found to excrete more magnesium in their urine, so it is important to make sure they are getting adequate magnesium in their diet and supplementing if necessary.
- L-theanine: Found in green/black tea and some mushrooms, it has been found to reduce anxiety and cognitive impairment.
- Vitamins B1 and B6 (poultry, fish, organ meats): Studies have demonstrated that B vitamins can reduce anxiety, possibly by reducing oxidative stress in the brain. Vitamin B6 may be particularly useful for premenstrual anxiety in women.
- Vitamins A, C, and E: These are antioxidant vitamins and have been found to be low in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder
Farmacy at The Chef’s Garden
Color and diversity are key! Focusing on fresh seasonal whole foods can considerably improve mental health and help to manage symptoms of anxiety. Hopefully, you are empowered to include some of these nutrients in your diet to nourish your brain and body.
We offer colorful seasonal vegetables harvested at the peak of ripeness delivered right to your doorstep. If you haven’t already, join our Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden Facebook Group for monthly talks, recipe sharing, and more!