Can Diet Influence Anxiety?
With the increased stress in today’s modern world, I am often asked if nutrition can play a role in reducing feelings of anxiety and its related symptoms. While the short answer is “YES”, nutrition can definitely play a role in managing anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms, it is one piece of a much larger picture.
The causes of anxiety and other mental health conditions are multi-factorial and complex in nature. A few of the many pre-disposing factors for anxiety include external triggers (think stress or drug use), poor nutrient intake, imbalance of gut bacteria, hormonal imbalances and genetic predisposition (1)
How common is anxiety?
According to the center for disease control (CDC), the prevalence rates of anxiety disorders are increasing in developed countries, ranging from 13.6% to 28.8% (1). This is not surprising considering the increased amount of stress reported in our modern day lives, coupled with high intakes of nutrient-poor processed foods (1).
Currently, the two main forms of medical treatment for anxiety include:
1) Anti-anxiety medications
2) Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (1).
There are some individuals who don’t improve with these forms of therapy or are not comfortable with the side effects of the medications and can benefit from considering nutritional therapies for managing anxiety. This is especially the case if poor nutritional intake or imbalances in gut bacteria are part of the root of their symptoms.
What nutritional therapies have been shown to help anxiety?
Three main strategies that anyone can implement right away to reduce anxiety include:
1. Reducing or avoiding caffeine
2. Reducing or avoiding intake of processed sugar and artificial sugar
3. Increasing high-quality protein throughout the day (Eg. Eggs, Salmon, Chicken, Lentils)
This can be easier said than done, and it often helps to have a plan of what you are going to eat in order to reduce the intake of processed foods with added sugar and ensure adequate protein at each meal. This is where meal planning and food prep can come in handy, especially if you have a full schedule!
What else could contribute to anxiety?
Once the above nutritional strategies have been implemented, if symptoms of anxiety persist than further testing can be done to check for imbalances. Some tests to consider include blood tests for nutrient deficiencies, stool testing for imbalances in gut bacteria, and food sensitivities/intolerances.
1. Getting assessed for nutrient deficiencies
Several vitamins and minerals help your body produce the right neurotransmitters (brain signaling chemicals) to keep your brain and mood balanced. If you are low or deficient in some of these vitamins, it can be challenging to keep your mind calm.
Three of the most common nutritional deficiencies related to anxiety are:
1) Vitamin D,
2) B vitamins and
3) Magnesium (2,3).
Vitamin D and most B vitamins can be checked through a standard blood test.
2. Check for food intolerances and sensitivities
There is emerging evidence for the role of food intolerances in various disorders such as anxiety, depression, migraine headache’s, ADHD, and mood disorders (1).
The gold standard for determining food sensitivities and intolerances is what is called an Elimination Diet. This involves removing the top allergens out of your diet, and then re-introducing them one at a time to see if your body reacts. This takes some organization, but can easily be done with the support of a qualified nutritionist.
3. Checking for and correcting imbalances in gut bacteria
Recent advancements in technology have allowed microbiologist to isolate DNA from bacteria in stool samples to determine the type and quality of bacteria that are in your gut! An imbalance of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut can lead to poor mental health status. The use of probiotics, probiotics, and herbs can be used to re-balance the gut bacteria if it is imbalanced. If you have been dealing with anxiety or depression for a long period of time with no relief, your gut may be the next place to look (5).
Can natural therapies help reduce stress and anxiety?
If you do not experience persistent anxiety, but are interested in ways to reduce feelings of short term stress and anxiety, complementary therapies might be a fit for you.
Using complementary therapies carry less risk than medications in many cases, and can be just as effective for acute anxiety. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on other medications, it is always important to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any new therapies.
Here is a list of the natural therapies have been shown to be helpful for anxiety (1):
1. L- Theanine
2. Passion-flower extract
The dosage for each of the above therapies depends on the individual, so it is always best to consult with a health care practitioner experienced in natural therapies for customized recommendations.
Implementing a few (or all) of the above strategies can make a large impact supporting your overall mental health and decreasing feelings of anxiety. I would encourage you to choose one strategy you haven’t tried, and start using it today!
If you have any questions regarding nutrition to support mental health, feel free to contact me at: 204-952-7982 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Mahan, L., & Raymond, Janice L. (2017). Krause’s food & the nutrition care process (Fourteenth edition). Elsevier Publishing, St. Louis, Missouri.
3. Armstrong D.J. et al. (2007). Vitamin D deficiency is associated with anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia. Clinical Rheumatology. 26:551
4. Gaby, A.R. (2011). Nutritional Medicine. Fritz Perlberg Publishing, Concord, NH.
5. Grenham, S., Clarke, G., Cryan, J., & Dinan, T. (2011). Brain-gut-microbe communication in health and disease. Frontiers in Physiology, 2, 94.