Do you ever feel like you have butterflies in your stomach when you feel anxious? Those gut feelings may be trying to tell you something about the relationship between nutrition and anxiety. Your digestive system and brain are constantly communicating, so the foods you eat may affect your mental health. This post will review how food and anxiety are related and which foods help with anxiety.
In anxiety, areas of the brain involved in the flight or fight response are very active. When you experience stress and anxiety, your brain sends signals to alert other areas of the body. This response can affect your mood and lead to physical symptoms, like a racing heart and upset stomach.
Your gut also sends signals to your brain. The bacteria in your large intestine make chemicals called gut peptides and neurotransmitters like serotonin. Gut peptide signals can affect your response to stress, as well as your digestion, hunger levels, and food intake.
When your gut bacteria are flourishing, they make a healthy amount of serotonin and have a positive effect on areas of the brain involved in stress. Negative changes in gut bacteria have been linked to changes in the brain and higher levels of stress and anxiety.
In fact, people with anxiety tend to have less diverse and rich populations of beneficial gut bacteria. It is estimated that 60% of people with anxiety also have irritable bowel syndrome. Meanwhile, 40% of people with irritable bowel diseases have anxiety.
Although your food choices can have a big impact on your gut bacteria and mental health, nutrition is just one of many factors that affect symptoms. Diet changes are not a replacement for standard care for anxiety, but they can complement it.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is digested slowly and provides food for your beneficial gut bacteria. Eating enough fiber helps stabilize blood sugar, energy, and fullness levels, which can promote feelings of calm.
Fiber sources include:
Probiotic foods, such as fermented foods, contain live bacteria that can colonize your gut. Beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium play an important role in producing “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin. Some research suggests fermented foods can help with social anxiety and promote happiness.
Probiotic sources include:
Anxiety often occurs alongside depression. And both conditions can increase inflammation in the body. Since omega-3 fatty acids have known anti-inflammatory properties, researchers think they may help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Two to three servings of omega-3 rich fatty fish per week has been linked to decreased anxiety.
Omega-3 sources include:
Eating enough protein can help you feel fuller throughout the day. This can promote calm and decrease anxiety related to hunger. A building block of protein molecules called tryptophan helps with serotonin production. This in turn can help calm the anxious brain. Eating carbohydrates with tryptophan-rich protein sources optimizes how the brain uses tryptophan.
Protein sources with tryptophan include:
Magnesium is one of the best minerals for anxiety because it helps regulate activity in areas of your body involved in the stress response. Not getting enough magnesium has been linked to more severe anxiety.
Magnesium sources include:
Zinc sources include:
Green tea contains the amino acid theanine. Theanine has a calming effect and promotes serotonin and dopamine production, which may help with mood disorders like anxiety. Taking 200 mg of theanine, equivalent to about 8 cups of green tea, has been linked to lower anxiety levels.
Western diets tend to be high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. These have been linked to less healthy gut bacteria and anxiety. Refined carbohydrates like candy and processed snack foods can also cause a spike and crash in blood sugar and do not keep you full for very long. This rollercoaster feeling can amplify symptoms of anxiety and more thoughts about food.
Caffeine overstimulates areas of the brain that help you respond to threats, which can worsen anxiety. In one study on caffeine and anxiety, 100 mg of caffeine was not associated with increased anxiety, but 400 mg and over was. For reference, a 16-oz drip coffee from a coffee chain has about 310 mg of caffeine.
People with social anxiety disorder often use alcohol as “liquid courage” to cope with social situations. But this population is four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Hangover anxiety and increased depression risk are also problems associated with drinking alcohol.
Looking for tips to help curb or stop your drinking? See this post from the blog.
Are you interested in learning more about what nutrition means for your mental health? Cerebral offers nutrition management services in select states. Try taking our nutrition assessment today.