Food choices - both what’s on your plate and what isn’t - have a huge impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Food is information that your cells use to determine fundamental aspects of how your body functions. The vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that food delivers determine which genes get turned on and off, which enzymes work, and how well and it even affects the inflammation levels in your cells. Food really is that powerful and for those of you who experience anxiety, you’ll want to pay attention to what information your cells are receiving from your food choices. The good news is that we don’t usually need extreme food restrictions or complicated rules to feel better. Better nutrition can help reduce anxiety and benefit our mental health– not perfect, just better!
In an ideal world, the primary focus of our food choices would be based on using food as nourishment. Food nourishes our cells by providing critical building blocks like vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants. Food nourishes our relationships when we share it with others. When we nourish ourselves and our relationships, we communicate our ability to care for ourselves to our nervous system, signaling everything is in order. Our modern lifestyle is at odds with this harmonious system and nourishment is a difficult standard to meet. It’s no surprise that 18% of American adults have anxiety given the mismatch between our environment and how our nervous system is designed. (1) Tuning up your diet and personalizing your approach to nutrition can provide the balance your body needs to find greater mental ease.
The Most Common Pitfalls in our Food Choices That Can Exacerbate an Anxious Mind Are:
- Eating inflammatory foods such as processed foods, sugar-laden and refined carbohydrate foods, and animal products from animals that are fed a diet high in inflammatory Omega 6 fats. These food choices create nutritional deficiencies that make it harder for our cells to function. They spark inflammation in our gut which sends inflammatory chemical messengers to our brain. And they disrupt the beneficial bacteria that are the foundation of our health. An inflamed gut is not able to produce the serotonin and dopamine to send to the brain that help us balance our mood.
- Creating blood sugar swings by over-eating highly processed carbohydrate foods (crackers, cereal, white bread, cookies, pastries). When you eat these foods, your blood sugar rapidly rises, which triggers a release of insulin - a messenger that ushers the sugar into the cells - which ultimately creates a drop in blood sugar that your body reacts to by releasing cortisol. Cortisol signals your body to release glucose from storage but also can trigger symptoms like anxiety.
- Choosing foods that your body does not tolerate. Over time and based on exposures from medications, stress, and environmental toxins, the integrity of our gut lining can become compromised. In these cases, the gut lining no longer acts as a selective barrier that allows only those molecules into our body that are supposed to be there like amino acids, simple sugars, and fatty acids. When this happens, other, larger molecules such as protein fragments from our foods and toxins can enter our bloodstream and interact with our immune system. We call this intestinal permeability. This creates unsettling symptoms such as dizziness, numbness and tingling, brain fog, muscle aches and pains, and more. These can all trigger anxiety in their own right but the inflammation that these food sensitivities cause in the gut negatively impacts the health of the microbiome and the ability of the microbiome to produce key chemical messengers that travel to the brain via the vagus nerve. A disrupted gut microbiome is one of the root causes of brain inflammation and mood dysregulation.
- Consuming Stimulants: Anxiety presents as heightened responsiveness of the mind to stimuli which can be made worse with the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, taurine, and maca. Adding stimulants to anxiety is like adding fuel to the fire. It exacerbates an already over-sensitive mind. If you want to learn more about whether caffeine is a healthy fit for you, connect with me to take my better nutrition caffeine evaluation..
Better Nutrition Choices to Help Alleviate Anxiety:
- Reduce added sugar: The World Health Organization suggests limiting our intake of added sugars to six teaspoons daily. On average Americans consume 42 teaspoons per day! Reducing sugar intake will improve gut health and stabilize blood sugar, two of the most common concerns related to anxiety, so this is what we call a “two-fer”- you’re welcome! If you’re ready to learn where added sugars show up in your life, take the better nutrition added sugar evaluation to see if you’re keeping your added sugar under six teaspoons per day.
- Increase fruits and veggies: Everything gets better about our health when we eat more colorful fruits and veggies, including our mood. Adults who eat five or more servings of fruits and veggies per day have better mental health outcomes (2). If you want to make it super easy, just make sure that every time you eat you are getting 1-2 servings of fruits and veggies (1 serving is ½ cup of chopped, 1 cup of leafy, or 1 medium). Try adding a variety of colors for added nutritional benefits.
- Reduce intake of stimulants: Getting off stimulants is a difficult but worthy pursuit towards reducing anxiety. When you allow your body enough sleep, adequate exercise, and stress management, you will find that you don’t actually need stimulants to get through your day. You don’t have to go cold turkey; try switching out higher caffeine options for lower. Take the better nutrition caffeine evaluation to learn more about where stimulants are showing up in your diet and how you can make better choices for managing your anxiety.
- Test, don’t guess! It’s 2021 and it’s time for personalized nutrition! Rather than trying to guess how well your digestion is working to deliver nutrients to your cells or if you have food sensitivities that may be contributing to anxiety, we can use specialized tests to determine what is best for your body. To really dig into how to optimize your nutrition for optimal mental health, consider the following with a qualified practitioner:
Test Don't Guess
- NutrEval by Genova Diagnostics: This test assesses nutrient status at the cellular level by looking at vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, fatty acid, and toxicity status. It’s a great way to get a baseline assessment of how well your diet is meeting the needs of your body.
- Fit 176 by KBMO Diagnostics: This test analyzes sensitivity to 176 different foods and additives using IgG and immune complex which leads to high specificity of actual sensitivities.
- GI Effect by Genova Diagnostics: This 3-day stool test looks at your digestive capacity, your microbiome health, and helps rule out pathogenic infections.
- The Better Nutrition Program evaluations: Discover gaps in your current total nutrition, where excesses may be creating imbalances and how to make better choices.
Using nutrition to help reduce anxiety can be so empowering! It’s exciting to learn more about what your body needs to find balance. Choosing healthier options at mealtimes, test don;t guess, and take time to invest in your health so you can show up in the world as your best self.
Lab Tests in This Article
(2) Głąbska D, Guzek D, Groele B, Gutkowska K. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020;12(1):115. Published 2020 Jan 1. doi:10.3390/nu12010115