A lifelong friend of mine suffered from debilitating anxiety for years. It was hard to watch her have panic attacks, knowing that people did not understand her behavior. Although anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illness in the United States, only about one-third of affected individuals receive some form of treatment.
From a young age, I read books every chance I got. Taking a particular interest in the human brain, it was only natural that I would go on to study psychology and neuroscience at a university. Focusing on both mental health and nutrition, I quickly realized how one’s diet influenced brain health and overall well-being — my attention shifted and this connection has been the focal point of my research ever since.
Anxiety and food — what’s the connection?
Anxiety disorders are complex and although various factors play a role, chemical imbalances within the brain cannot be ignored. It’s been found within a number of studies that a diet high in sugar and processed foods actually damages the brain, worsening symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
While focusing on mood, the neurotransmitter serotonin influences symptoms of poor mood and restlessness, as well as dopamine and GABA. Of course, serotonin imbalances are prominent in the brain, however, 95 percent of your body’s serotonin is produced within your gut. Meaning, poor nutrition not only affects digestion, but also mental health.
Related: Do This For A Healthy Mind And Gut
Unlike nutrient-rich whole foods, which offer a range of vitamins, minerals, fiber and probiotics, the following foods may actually contribute to feelings of anxiety.
It’s no secret that the standard Western diet is packed with sugar — in fact, it’s estimated that Americans eat an average of 22 teaspoons per day. Too much glucose in the blood is actually toxic and is a driving force behind a range of health conditions, including diabetes, fatty liver disease, cancer and yep — poor mental health.
Within one study, published in Life Sciences, a diet high in sugar was shown to increase symptoms of anxiety. Others have shown that a high-sugar diet directly influences dopamine, decreasing the activity of D2 receptors. With the being said, the large majority of research has focused on sugar withdrawal and its effect on anxiety-like behavior.
When rats were withdrawing from a liquid high-sugar diet, for instance, increased anxiety levels followed when placed in a maze. Within the amygdala of their brains, CRH also increased — a hormone and neurotransmitter that is related to stress responses. This has led to not only further anxiety research, but has provided key clues regarding food addiction as well.
2. Hydrogenated oils and fried foods
Fried, fatty foods and trans fats have been linked to a range of health issues, including rising cases of heart disease and colon cancer. Not only are foods fried in hydrogenated oil, but these trans fats are also found in baked goods, margarine and many other processed foods. Researchers suggest that a diet high in hydrogenated oils may lead to neuromotor and neuropsychiatric diseases.
Within one study, published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, it was found that rats who were fed trans fats for a prolonged period of time exhibited increased feelings of fear and anxiety. In comparison to rats fed a standard diet, those who consumed hydrogenated vegetable fat displayed a reduction in exploratory and locomotor activities.
3. Caffeinated drinks
Although you may first consider coffee, which actually offers a range of key health benefits, caffeine is a stimulant and when consumed in high enough doses, you may increase stress-related symptoms of anxiety. In terms of their overall effect on your health, beverages such as soda and energy drinks are highly damaging.
Not only do they expose you to high levels of sugar, but when consuming too much caffeine, you can increase cortisol levels while influencing neurotransmitter balance. Within one study, published in Depression and Anxiety, energy drink consumption was significantly correlated with increased anxiety in young male adults.
4. Deli meats
A clear connection has been made between deli meats, hot dogs and worsening health. The majority of research has focused on cancer, since processed meat is considered to be a potent multiorgan carcinogen. Packed with sodium, preservatives and nitrates, these questionable meats have been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety — they may also trigger headaches in some individuals.
5. Fat-free options
Companies have marketed their products as “fat-free” so that consumers believe that they’re making healthier choices. Just like carbs, fat has falsely gotten a bad rep. Remember, it’s the type of fat that you need to be concerned about. Although society has become obsessed with a low-fat diet, rates of obesity, diabetes and mental health issues continue to soar.
Considering approximately 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat, you need to consume healthy sources within your diet, including the omega-3 fatty acids known as EPA and DHA. A lack of beneficial fats has been shown to cause mood impairment, while an increase in unhealthy fats leads to inflammation of the brain. The next time you pick up a fat-free option, look at the ingredients and in particular, focus on its sugar content.
6. Artificial sweeteners
Although sugar has been linked to a variety of diseases time and time again, foods that contain artificial sweeteners are just as damaging — if not worse. Containing phenylalanine, a known neurotoxin, artificial sweeteners have been shown to deplete serotonin levels, triggering symptoms of anxiety, mood swings, paranoia and panic attacks.
Diet soda is a classic example, as consumers often think it’s a healthier choice because these options contain zero sugar, fat or calories. Studies have shown that an increased consumption of diet soda, which contains aspartame, leads to issues with emotional ability, particularly mood swings and anxiety.
There’s nothing wrong with a glass of red wine with dinner every once in awhile, in fact, it’s been shown to support positive heart health due to its resveratrol content. With that being said, regular drinkers often experience lower levels of serotonin, leading to symptoms of anxiety.
In order to alleviate their symptoms, they often drink more, leading to a rather vicious cycle. Although alcohol influences key neurotransmitters, the withdrawal of alcohol can be more problematic. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for hours after drinking, increasing one’s risk of dependence.
At the end of the day, the worst possible thing you can do about your symptoms of anxiety would be to do nothing at all. By eliminating the foods above, you will instantly boost your health, both physical and mental. In addition to a more nutritious diet, focus on beneficial herbs, try yoga, meditation or Reiki, keep a journal, exercise and get enough sleep. You no longer have to live with anxiety. Take action — starting with your grocery list.
— Krista Hillis