March 16, 2021
Nutrition and anxiety
by Mona Jauhar RDN, LD
These are anxious times. Each one of us needs some positive affirmation to make it through the day. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. While specific therapies and medications can ease out the problem, a lot many people are now understanding the role of diet in managing anxiety. Drugs treat symptoms, they don’t address the root causes of anxiety.
Food for mood
What we put in our body today becomes food for our brain tomorrow. Nutritional psychiatry says that food nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, omega 3, and vitamins B and D3 can help improve mood, relieve anxiety and depression and improve the mental capacity of people with Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, the average American diet promotes anxiety since its lacking in brain nutrition. Laden with unhealthy fats and refined sugar and flours, our daily intake of processed food spurs chemical imbalances in the body, weakening our emotional and mental resilience. Sweets, as well as other refined carbohydrates, cause pancreas to release insulin to drive sugar out of the blood and into cells. The resulting low-blood-sugar crash can feel like anxiety, dizziness or heart palpitations.
The takeaway: Steer clear of refined sugars and starches, power your brain every few hours with nutrient-dense foods, including complex carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains), satiating healthy fats (think avocados), and healthy protein such as grassfed meats, beans, or seeds.
The gut-brain axis
A healthy gut promotes a calm mind. The brain produces neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA). These convey signals throughout the body’s nervous system, including the digestive tract, which is also the birthplace of many neurotransmitters. Maintaining a healthy brain and gut is vital to keeping anxiety at bay. To further explore how mental health is influenced by the gut, researchers are experimenting with ways to boost mood by promoting a balanced gut microbiome and examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression.
The takeaway: Eat a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet that also includes enough probiotics like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha, as well as prebiotic foods like cooked and raw onions, and raw leeks, chicory, asparagus, and garlic.
Eat healthy fats
Two dietary fats — omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids — play a vital role in brain health. Because your body can’t manufacture these fats on its own, you must get them from foods. The average American diet is high on omega-6 which are pro-inflammatory as low on omega-3 which counter inflammation. Hence the imbalance, inflammation and anxiety!
The takeaway: Consume a diet high in whole-food sources of omega-3s, including coldwater fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines, as well as nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens; avoid processed and packaged foods, which are high in refined sources of omega-6.
- Eat magnesium-rich foods, like almonds, spinach, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and avocados. Magnesium is essential to more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body that control everyday metabolic functions, including inflammation.
- Caffeine ramps up anxiety in several ways. If you think caffeine is contributing to your anxiety, cut back for a week and see how you feel. If you drink black tea, switch to green, which is lower in caffeine and contains polyphenols and antioxidants.
- Get enough proteins, especially plant-based. Dietary protein contains several essential amino acids, some that contribute to a sense of calm, and some that excite the nervous system.
- Take your B vitamins. Strong evidence links anxiety to deficiencies in B12 and B9 (folate), specifically. Foods high in B12 include meats, oysters, mussels, and mackerel. Good sources of folate include edamame, spinach, asparagus, lentils, and liver.
- Consume a range of high-quality carbohydrates, including brown rice, sweet potatoes, and squash. Fiber diversity is critical to helping the microbiome manage stress.
- In addition to the above, one could also try natural anti anxiety herbs like ashwagandha, English lavender, chamomile and ginger. Herbs have been used since ancient times to treat nervous disorders, anxiety issues and extreme stress.