Anxiety is one of the most common disorders in the United States and around the world. Estimates show that as many as 18% of the population of the USA suffers from some level of anxiety, from low-level general anxiety to panic attack disorders and everything in between.
Anxiety is highly treatable, but it requires mental health treatment, which is chronically under-funded and stigmatized. It's no wonder that you might start looking for methods other than expensive therapy or numbing medications to treat it. As with most alternative treatment plans, one of the first places you should look is your diet.
Can diet really affect anxiety? It works in reverse, for sure. When you're anxious, your normal schedules get thrown off, your appetites vary, and you can develop bad eating habits. What about the other way around? Does the stuff you eat – or not eat – affect anxiety?
The Field of Nutritional Psychiatry
As time goes on, and more and more study is poured into medical treatment, we've discovered more and more just how connected every part of the body is. The human body is like a fantastically complex mechanism of gears and cogs and sprockets; throw a wrench into one set of gears and the failure can cascade throughout the entire machine.
One thing we're learning more about over time is that your gut biome – the bacteria, both healthy and unhealthy, that reside in your stomach, intestines, and colon – is intimately connected with every other part of your body. For example, we're learning more and more that a healthy gut biome reduces or even prevents the development of plaques in the brain, a symptom of Alzheimer's Disease.
Turns out, saying "you are what you eat" was more prophetic than anyone ever expected!
It should come as no surprise, then, that dysfunction in our diets can be the cause of a wide variety of different mental and physical ailments. Obviously, our diet controls overt dysfunction like obesity and diabetes, but it can also be the cause of mental disorders including anxiety.
In what ways, specifically, can your diet potentially affect your anxiety?
Positive Dietary Effects
First, let's start with the positive effects of diet. Six ways that diet can help ease the symptoms of anxiety or reduce the effects of anxiety, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety disorders.
1. Vitamin B12. Studies have shown that vitamin B12 is associated with brain function in a variety of ways. Deficiency in B12 leads to worse memory, slower thought processes, decreased total brain volume, and cognition in general. While this is primarily an effect of full-on vitamin deficiency, it's possible that low-level non-clinical deficiency could be a cause or a contributing factor to anxiety disorders.
Thus, eating foods that are rich in vitamin B12, and B vitamins in general, might help reduce anxiety. Many sources of B12 come from animal products like liver, clams, and fish, you can also get it from fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.
2. Magnesium is a mineral your body needs to thrive, but many Americans don't get nearly enough of it in our daily diets. A magnesium deficiency has been linked to various forms of anxiety, including post-traumatic anxiety and premenstrual anxiety, as well as general anxiety. Thus, either taking a magnesium supplement or getting more magnesium out of your diet can potentially help with anxiety problems.
If you want to get more magnesium out of your diet, you primarily want to look to vegetables. Leafy greens are the best, including spinach and kale. You can also get a lot of it from nuts and seeds, as well as legumes like beans and chickpeas. You have a lot of options!
3. Fatty acids might sound scary; acid is bad and fat is bad, right? In reality, though, they're a kind of chemical that is very useful to the body, and getting enough of them from a variety of sources can keep you healthy. In particular, omega-3s are the healthiest fatty acid we don't eat enough of in general.
The typical omega-3 supplement is fish oil, but you can also get it direct from the source by eating fatty fish like salmon. You can also get them from a few plant-based sources like broccoli, edamame, and walnuts, though not as much as you get from fish. This is one case where a vegan diet struggles.
4. Gut-friendly foods are a great option for helping with anxiety as well. We already mentioned how the gut is tied to mood and brain health, so one of the best things you can do is feed those healthy gut bacteria while avoiding feeding the bad bacteria. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria, so cut out as much of that as you can manage. Instead, eat probiotics like kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt, and probiotics like fiber. As an added benefit, probiotics tend to fill you up and make you feel full for longer, reducing your desire to snack and helping you lose weight, which can help with other anxiety causes like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
5. Anti-inflammatory foods can help with a lot of general diseases throughout the body. Inflammation is usually a sign of poor health; it's what causes puffiness around wounds, after all. Low-grade inflammation can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and soreness in the joints. Eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties can help. What foods? Try getting more servings of berries, fatty fish, broccoli, avocados, mushrooms, and tea in your diet.
6. Water is essential for life. Dehydration alone does not cause anxiety, but your body needs water to live, and getting enough water can be difficult. It's almost guaranteed that you, the person reading this, are not getting enough water in your daily diet.
Water helps your body fight off inflammation and disease. It helps fuel your cells and helps you lose weight. It helps you utilize the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you eat every day. Without water, you're not processing your food as effectively, so you're not getting as much out of it. Drink more water!
Negative Dietary Effects
You've read about ways the things you eat can improve anxiety, but what about ways the things you eat cause it in the first place? Sometimes, simply removing foods from your diet can help.
7. Serotonin receptors are primarily in the gut. Serotonin is a chemical your body produces that regulates a lot of different systems. It transmits messages between nerves, it is a precursor to the melatonin that regulates sleep, and it controls happiness and wellbeing. It's known that 90% of the receptors for serotonin in the body are in the gut.
Eating a poor diet can inhibit the amount of serotonin your body is able to absorb, which can have a negative effect on your mood. Some processed chemicals in unhealthy foods mimic serotonin and are absorbed by the same receptors, leaving less room for real serotonin to make its way into your system. Processed flour and other carbs are the major criminals here.
9. Underlying disorders can lead to anxiety symptoms as your body tries to express its dysfunction. Medical conditions such as diabetes can lead to anxiety as a side effect. Thus, one of the best things you can do from a general health standpoint is to reduce the amount of sugars and carbs you eat on a daily basis.
Sugars and carbs, particularly the processed sugars found in many junk foods today, lead to insulin resistance throughout the body. Prolonged insulin resistance leads to dysfunction in the way insulin is produced, and that leads to diabetes. This is actually why there's evidence to suggest that fasting can treat diabetes.
So: to reduce the effects of anxiety, look for underlying causes that could be exacerbating the anxiety or even triggering it, and eat less sugar (in general) to help treat most of those disorders.
9. Caffeine may be a cause or trigger for anxiety in a number of ways. First, caffeine use in high amounts or for a long time can lead to heart problems, and heart disorders can be a major trigger for anxiety. Second, caffeine can make you feel jittery, and jitters are a symptom of nervousness as well, which can feel like – and trigger – anxiety. Some people react better to caffeine than others, but it's still a stimulant, and you should avoid it whenever you can.
It doesn't help that a lot of caffeine-containing products tend to have a lot of other unhealthy ingredients as well, primarily sugar. As long as you're careful to keep your caffeine use under certain levels – like with weight loss supplements and your daily coffee – you may be fine, but consider cutting it out for a few months to see if your anxiety symptoms fade.
10. Aspartame, one of the most common artificial sweeteners used to replace sugar, can be as bad as or worse than sugar for some effects. It's not an energy-dense carb the way sugar is, so it's not going to make you gain weight as quickly, nor will it have as large an impact on your insulin processing. However, aspartame (in particular) has been linked with a variety of mental disorders, including headaches, learning problems, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Always pay attention to the ingredients in any diet, light, or otherwise reduced versions of food products. They may just be replacing sugar with something worse for you.
11. Alcohol is a poison. Always remember that alcohol is something that was spoiled, even if it was spoiled in a controlled manner, and won't actually kill you in moderation. The buzz you get from drinking is neurotoxicity at minor levels, and it's simply pleasant for many people.
"What about wine?" you ask? Well, alcohol in moderation isn't going to destroy you. There is evidence that a single glass of wine per day can be beneficial. Drinking more than that, or higher-proof alcohol, can damage a lot of your bodily systems. Primarily, alcohol can mess up your ability to sleep well, and sleep is a huge driver in healthy cognition. If you like alcohol, that's perfectly fine; just limit yourself to 1-2 drinks per day, or you run the risk of some adverse short-term and long-term health effects.
12. Weight loss supplements can be dangerous if you have an anxiety disorder. Many weight loss supplements include caffeine, and even some of the natural remedies have naturally-occurring caffeine in them. Those that don't, might still have an effect that leads to insomnia. After all, weight loss supplements work by increasing the amount of fat your body burns, which gives you more energy. When you have a lot of energy, you can't sleep, and a lack of sleep is a huge factor in anxiety.
We're not saying you can't take fat burners or other weight loss supplements here. In fact, obesity is a factor in anxiety as well. So what do you do? Well, primarily you need to do two things. First, make sure you're not taking too many supplements. Even if you're following the directions, taking five supplements a day overlaps a lot and can exacerbate their negative effects. Second, make sure you're only taking them early in the day, and actually using the energy they give you via exercise. Don't take them later in the day, because that's when they can mess with your sleep. You want them out of your system by the time bedtime rolls around.
So there you have it; twelve ways your diet can affect anxiety, both in positive and negative ways.
How many of these do you think you've been tripping over, and how much room do you have to improve? Tell us your story below!