Anxiety disorders are one of the top mental health issues in the United States, affecting about 18 percent of the population, and not surprisingly – given our always on, wired and stressed out lives – anxiety-related health issues continue to be on the increase.
Stress, lifestyle (including diet), hormone changes (perimenopause and menopause; aging) and simply one’s own biochemistry are all elements of how a given individual “deals” with life. Do they feel calm, relaxed and worry-free? Or do they suffer from constant worry, poor sleep and constant cravings?
Anxiety symptoms should always be discussed with your doctor or a therapist, in case there are underlying medical concerns. But in most people, simple lifestyle changes can help. Nutrition in particular is being considered in psychiatry as a factor in treating mental health concerns.
Anti-Anxiety Lifestyle Changes
The traditional “Western diet” (processed, refined and sugary foods) has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression compared with those eating a “Mediterranean-style diet “(few processed foods; more vegetables, healthy proteins and fats). The reason? The nutrients absorbed in a healthy, whole foods diet are those that best serve your body and brain.
Exercise, sleep, stress management and food related stress triggers (alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and food allergens such as gluten or dairy) should all be evaluated. Your doctor should look at your digestive health and possible hormone imbalances (low progesterone is often the culprit in anxiety).
Eating regularly is as important as what you eat. Skipping meals can trigger insulin changes that can affect your mood. Dehydration, too, can cause anxiety.
There are also many nutrients in natural foods affecting the brain’s natural “mood control”.
Your brain uses proteins and nutrients in the food you eat to do a wide array of physiological tasks. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and amino acids – along with key vitamins and minerals – make neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters transmit impulses throughout your body’s nervous system and play a huge role in mental functioning, and thus, in one’s mood.
The two major neurotransmitters that play the greatest role in mood and anxiety are serotonin and GABA.
If you are living a healthy, low stress life-style and eating a whole food, balanced diet with healthy proteins, it is likely that your body has the balance it needs with its natural production of serotonin and GABA. However, if you are not getting the key nutrients, sleep and other “brain benefits” from your lifestyle, or you are experiencing some short-term stressor, making changes to your diet may offer some anxiety relief.
Serotonin is your brain’s “happy” neurotransmitter. It gives you an upbeat and warm happy mood. Serotonin levels also impact sleep, as serotonin naturally converts to melatonin in the body, which is needed to induce sleep. Your body doesn’t create serotonin directly; it utilizes other amino acids such as tryptophan to convert to serotonin.
When you have a serotonin deficiency, you experience “anxiety in the head”. You may be anxious, obsessive, and irritable; have poor sleep and have cravings.
Moderate exercise, sunshine and light therapy (full-spectrum lamp) will raise serotonin levels naturally. Vitamin D can also help. Clinical trials have confirmed a positive impact to relief from symptoms related to sleep disorders, anxiety and panic disorders when serotonin levels are increased.
Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains help your body release serotonin, while simple carbs and sugary/processed foods do not (and they wreak havoc with your insulin levels which can in fact create more anxious moods).
Interestingly, most of the body’s serotonin is manufactured in the gut, supporting the importance of taking a probiotic to keep the gut healthy. A 2013 study by UCLA showed that women taking probiotics had less emotional response to given stimuli. Researchers have known for some time that the brain sends signals to the gut, explaining why stress can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms, but there are apparently signals that travel the opposite way as well. A healthy gut may make for a happier mind.
Foods Rich in Tryptophan
Food rich in tryptophan may increase your level of serotonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted to serotonin naturally in the body. Foods such as turkey, bananas, oats, nuts, milk and whole grains are rich in tryptophan. Ever wonder why you are so relaxed after eating your Thanksgiving turkey? The tryptophan converts to serotonin (making you feel content) and then to melatonin (making you feel sleepy).
Other foods that may increase the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin in your brain are foods rich in Vitamin B, such as grass-fed beef, liver, salmon, legumes, potatoes and spinach. The vitamin B inositol appears to increase serotonin production and provide a reduction in OCD symptoms, panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms. Consuming a lot of sugar depletes B vitamin in your body!
Foods Containing Magnesium
Studies have shown that magnesium deficiencies are linked to increased anxiety and irritability; magnesium facilitates the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin in the brain. Food containing magnesium include: whole grains, dark leafy vegetables (baby spinach and kale), wild caught fish, bananas and nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower and flaxseeds). Prolonged stress and consuming too much caffeine have both been shown to lower magnesium absorption levels. Another great way to get extra magnesium is to add a cup of Epsom salts to a hot bath, and you’ll absorb the magnesium through your skin.
GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) is the brain’s calming neurotransmitter and an excellent mood enhancer. It turns off excitatory chemicals when you are under a lot of stress, relaxing muscles and providing a sense of relaxation.
When you have a GABA deficiency, you experience “physical anxiety”. You may feel restless, stressed out, overwhelmed, unable to relax and may experience tight muscles as well as insomnia. Clinical studies have shown supplementation with GABA resulted in stress relief, less anxiety and increases in the production of alpha brain waves (also found during periods of relaxation).
Along with non-stressful exercise (walking, restorative yoga), and deep breathing, high protein foods are typically rich in the amino acids – glycine, taurine and theanine – that help build up levels of GABA. Green tea is a wonderful source of theanine. Seaweed contains taurine.
Other Anti-Anxiety Foods
Foods High in Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Studies support that foods high in Omega 3 Fatty Acids decrease inflammation and help keep our body’s stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, from spiking. One study by Ohio State University showed a 20% decrease in anxiety symptoms and a 14% decrease in inflammation markers with a diet high in Omega 3s. Salmon, sardines, tuna, grass-fed beef, flaxseeds, nuts and dark leafy vegetables all contain Omega 3s.
Zinc: Our bodies can’t naturally store zinc so we need to take zinc in via our diet. Low zinc levels have been shown to correlate to anxiety. Natural foods with high zinc content are oysters and other shellfish, chicken and red meat, Swiss cheese and pumpkin seeds.
Eat a Diet That Keeps Your Blood Sugar Steady: It makes a lot of sense that when your blood sugar is spiking, your mood may become irritable and stressed. So it is important to start your day off by eating healthy protein at breakfast (which will keep your blood sugar steady), eat on a regular schedule, minimize sugar and avoid food stress triggers (caffeine, alcohol and anything you might be “intolerant” of, such as gluten or dairy).
Bottom line is that eating healthy, whole foods is the key – along with other healthy lifestyle choices. The worst anti-anxiety diet is a lot of white and highly processed foods! Organic and local is best. With a whole foods diet you’ll get the right mix of nutrients to keep your brain functioning optimally.