We live in anxious times. Nearly one in five Americans has been diagnosed with anxiety, though the actual number is likely much higher: An estimated two-thirds of sufferers don’t seek medical help. Experts have linked this epidemic to a complex tangle of internal and external factors. Genetics, brain chemistry, and life circumstances all play roles. As it turns out, so do our eating habits.
“The average American diet promotes anxiety,” says psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.
Awash in unhealthy fats and refined sugar and flours, our daily intake of processed fare creates biochemical conditions that weaken emotional resilience and spur anxiety.
“This is a dynamic system at the intersection of psychology, biology, digestion, and the nervous system,” explains Gordon.
The multifaceted nature of anxiety requires a nuanced approach to treatment. Millions get relief from medications, which are lifesaving in many cases. But, while these drugs treat symptoms, they don’t address the root causes of anxiety.
“Diet is the only way the brain gets what it needs to make the chemicals we call neurotransmitters,” says integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm. “Experimenting with whole foods and learning how to nourish your body and your brain through nutrition can support your return to a natural state of health.”
The brain produces neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) — which are the raw ingredients of mood. These convey signals throughout the body’s nervous system, including the digestive tract, which is also the birthplace of many neurotransmitters (up to 95 percent of your serotonin is produced here). Maintaining a healthy brain and gut is vital to keeping anxiety at bay.
“What we take into our body today becomes our brain of tomorrow,” Emmons maintains.
Anxiety symptoms vary and can include restlessness, muscle tightness, tension, irritability, sleep issues, and intense fear and panic. Whichever symptoms you experience, you have more control over your emotional well-being than you may realize.
The following nutritional strategies — on their own or as a complement to medication — can help you ease symptoms and build greater resilience so you can better face life’s stressors.
Stabilize Blood Sugar
A calm brain requires steady levels of blood sugar, says naturopathic physician Alan Christianson, NMD, author of The Adrenal Reset Diet. Glucose (a form of sugar) is produced from the digestion of carbohydrates and circulates through your bloodstream to power every cell in your body. It is vital to the functioning of neurotransmitters — which means it has a major effect on your mood.
Because your brain is so densely packed with nerves, it consumes half of your body’s glucose at any given time. Go too long without eating, and your brain may run low on fuel. When that happens, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone that switches on enzymes that trigger more glucose production.
“The body makes more glucose by using cortisol to pull protein out of muscle tissue,” explains Christianson. “Delaying meals puts an ongoing demand on cortisol output, which breaks down muscle tissue and leaves blood sugar less stable.”
This cortisol surge can leave you jittery and irritable — sensations that feel a lot like anxiety.
Sugary snacks fool brain cells into releasing the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. “That’s why we crave carbs and sweets when we are stressed,” explains Emmons.
But this strategy ultimately backfires. Sweets, as well as other refined carbohydrates, cause your pancreas to release the hormone insulin to drive sugar out of the blood and into cells. The resulting low-blood-sugar crash also feels like anxiety: fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations.
Experts recommend avoiding refined sugars and starches and fueling your brain every few hours with nutrient-dense foods, including complex carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains), satiating healthy fats (think avocados), and high-quality protein such as grassfed meats, beans, or seeds. (For more dietary guidance, see “Eat for Calm,” below.)
Cultivate Calming Neurotransmitters
Not only does protein steady blood sugar, but its core components — amino acids — help your body make serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters.
Dietary protein contains several essential amino acids, some that contribute to a sense of calm, and some that excite the nervous system. Phenylalanine, for example, stimulates the brain by creating norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure — which you need for the fight-or-flight response. (Research suggests various forms of phenylalanine may effectively treat symptoms of depression.)
The amino acid tryptophan, meanwhile, can ultimately have a soothing effect. But because it’s smaller than its amino-acid counterparts, tryptophan tends to have a hard time crossing from the blood into the brain where it can help calm you.
“The trick is keeping blood sugar stable so the transport of nutrients continues long enough to give tryptophan, at the back of the pack, a chance,” explains Emmons.
Eat smaller meals that revolve around plant-based proteins, such as beans and other legumes, which slow digestion.
Scientists disagree on the effectiveness of eating high-tryptophan foods to combat anxiety, but if you want to experiment, consider incorporating more poultry, salmon, and eggs into your diet.
Tame Gut Inflammation
One of the most significant drivers of anxiety may be systemic inflammation. “Inflammation is the cornerstone of every bad thing you don’t want to get, including chronic anxiety,” says neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain — for Life.
Extensive research suggests a healthy gut promotes a calm mind. The two communicate via the vagus nerve, the longest of 12 cranial nerves in the body that stretches from the brain to the abdomen. Trillions of bacteria in the gut direct the function of cells along the vagus nerve, communicating via neurotransmitters.
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. One avenue of pursuit is probiotics.
In a recent study published in Psychology Research, scientists reported that participants who ate more probiotic-rich fermented foods had fewer social-anxiety symptoms.
The authors speculated that the probiotics in these foods may have lowered participants’ anxiety by calming inflammation in the gut and tightening junctures between cells in the intestinal lining. Healthy junctures prevent microscopic food particles from leaking out and activating the immune system and inflammatory response. (For more on this, visit “How to Heal a Leaky Gut“.)
Studies like this buttress Perlmutter’s belief that anxiety is an inflammatory disorder with a genesis in the gut. “We are just beginning to realize the relationship between the gut and the brain and the functional relationship between the microbiome and mood,” he says. (For more information on how the gut and brain are connected, see “Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain“.)
“To keep gut flora healthy, all signs point to the importance of eating a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet,” says Lisa Nelson, MD, director of medical education at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.
Also try eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha, as well as prebiotic foods like cooked and raw onions, and raw leeks, chicory, asparagus, and garlic, which appear to influence mental health. (For information on the emerging notion of “psychobiotics,” see “Psychobiotics: Using Gut Bacteria to Treat Mental Illness“.)
Focus on Healthy Fats
Fat makes up nearly 60 percent of your brain and helps modulate anxiety by enabling neurotransmitters to move quickly and efficiently from neuron to neuron. 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.
Generally speaking, omega-6s play a pro-inflammatory role (triggering swelling and blood clotting in response to injury, for example), while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. When consumed in the right balance (experts recommend between 4:1 and 2:1), omega-6s and omega-3s regulate your body’s inflammatory response.
Unfortunately, our standard Western diet delivers up to 45 times more omega-6s than omega-3s; processed and refined foods tend to have high concentrations of omega-6s. This can create a state of systemic inflammation that is a key driver of anxiety. (For more on these essential fatty acids, see “The Omega Balance“.)
An immune system that is always switched on strains every cell in your body. Inside your brain, inflammation stimulates the amygdala, the fear and anxiety center. It dials up anxiety by impeding neurotransmitter movement within the cell walls.
Anti-inflammatory omega-3s work to keep brain cells permeable and neurotransmitter movement nimble and speedy.
“One of the best things you can do for anxiety is to eat more omega-3 fats,” says Emmons. Manage inflammation with 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.
Caffeine and Anxiety
If you’re prone to racing thoughts, heart palpitations, or sweaty palms, you may already have discovered that caffeine exacerbates anxiety.
“I don’t consider caffeine to be a toxin for most people, but it can be harmful when your brain is overactive,” says Henry Emmons, MD.
Caffeine ramps up anxiety in several ways. First, it interferes with your body’s normal cortisol arc. Cortisol is the body’s natural stimulant — a healthy curve will peak in the morning when you wake up and taper off through the day. Caffeine can keep your cortisol ramped up.
Second, it makes you hyperalert by parking in a receptor spot reserved for adenosine, a calming neurotransmitter. Third, it tricks your body into releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
“Most people do fine with small amounts of caffeine on a semiregular basis,” says Alan Christianson, NMD. He encourages people who experience adrenal stress, however, to eliminate caffeine, at least temporarily, because in addition to amplifying the body’s fight-or-flight response, it compromises sleep quality.
“People don’t realize that caffeine’s first few byproducts work just like caffeine in the body and may take a day or two to clear,” he says. “So if you use caffeine daily, you can be stimulated 24/7, even if you don’t drink it after 10 a.m.”
If you think caffeine is contributing to your anxiety, cut back for a week and see how you feel. Try halving your normal daily coffee consumption, or mix in decaf. If you drink black tea, switch to green, which is lower in caffeine and contains polyphenols, antioxidants that may help protect your brain’s neurons.
Eat for Calm
Food has a profound biochemical impact on mood and resilience, says Lisa Nelson, MD, director of medical education at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “Eating whole foods that keep blood-sugar levels steady and deliver a balance of macro- and micronutrients is incredibly stabilizing.” The following are dietary recommendations for managing anxiety:
- Get plenty of plant-based proteins, with an emphasis on beans (red, black, pinto, kidney). Beans are a great source of both fiber and antioxidants — two excellent inflammation fighters.
- 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. (For more on this, see “Magnesium: Your Body’s Spark Plug“.)
- Take your B vitamins. Strong evidence links anxiety to deficiencies in B12 and B9 (folate), specifically. Foods high in B12 include organ meats (liver and kidney), as well as oysters, mussels, and mackerel. Good sources of folate include edamame, spinach, asparagus, lentils, and liver. (If you have a MTHFR genetic variation, you’ll want to supplement with methylfolate, says Aviva Romm, MD, author of The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. For more on this, see “Follow the Folate“.)
- Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates, which can set you up for a vicious cycle of anxiety-promoting sugar spikes and crashes. To pacify a sugar craving, try dark chocolate. “You’ll get a little serotonin release but not enough to trigger a full-blown sugar high and resulting crash. Plus, the antioxidants fight inflammation,” says Nelson.
- Consume a range of high-quality carbohydrates, including brown rice, sweet potatoes, and squash. Fiber diversity is critical to helping intestinal flora manage cortisol and its cousin, cortisone, says Alan Christianson, NMD.
5 Herbs and Natural Medicines for Anxiety
“Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with modern-day life,” says Aviva Romm, MD, author of The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. In addition to making dietary changes in support of a calm mind, Romm recommends herbs to address symptoms of anxiety. Her favorites include:
- English Lavender: One of the most popular and well-studied antianxiety herbs, lavender’s essential oil can be added to a bath, sprinkled on a pillow, or diluted and rubbed on the temples to promote relaxation through aromatherapy. Lavender can also be taken internally; Romm recommends taking an 80 mg capsule before bed.
- Motherwort: This herbal supplement has long been used safely for combating anxiety. It has less scientific research behind it than lavender, but Romm has found it to be fast-acting. “Motherwort is my personal favorite go-to for anxious moments or when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed,” she says. Motherwort can be taken as a tea, though its bitterness makes it better suited for tincture. Use according to package directions.
- Reishi Mushrooms: Chinese medical practitioners use reishi mushrooms (also known as ling zhi) for a wide variety of imbalances, including anxiety. These mushrooms are particularly good for anxiety-related insomnia and moodiness, says Romm. Because the herb works well for sleep issues, try taking it before bed. Reishi are most often taken via tincture or capsule. Follow the directions on the label.
- Ashwagandha: An adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha helps the body by supporting the adrenal glands. Whereas many adaptogens are stimulating, ashwagandha calms the nervous system. Best used for anxiety, fatigue, cloudy thinking, and stress-induced insomnia, ashwaganda is one of Romm’s go-to herbs for patients with anxiety. Typically found as a tincture or capsule, use as directed and avoid if you are sensitive to plants in the nightshade family.
- Safety note: For run-of-the-mill anxiety, most otherwise-healthy people don’t need to check with their healthcare providers to try these herbs, says Romm. Experiment with one or more and see what works best. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if anxiety is persistent or overwhelming, it’s always a good idea to check in with your provider.
This originally appeared as “Comfort Food” in the November 2017 print issue of Experience Life.