Is Your Diet Making You Anxious?
How to easily eat your way to calm
A client came to my practice last week in tears. She was fed up with anxiety ruling her life. It was causing her to miss work, to avoid social time with friends, and making her panicked most of the time. In her own words she wanted to “feel like her old self again”. Unfortunately this is an all too familiar pattern I’m seeing more and more. So many people these days are experiencing anxiety. And not just a little stress here and there anxiety, I’m talking full blown panic attack-work is killing me- nothing will ever be okay again- anxiety.
"Your Diet Directly Impacts Your Mood"
I’m no stranger to this type of anxiety, always fearing when the next panic attack would strike. It was through nutrition and mindfulness that I worked on my anxiety, which is why I became a Holistic Nutritionist, to pass this along to others.
I don’t think people realize what a big role diet has on mood, until they start to switch things up and see improvement. Then I usually hear “WOW I feel good…like really good”! Let’s dive in to the important compounds your body needs to reduce anxiety, and which dietary habits you should ditch.
Nutrients You Need to Calm Your Anxiety
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it) or GABA is your relaxing neurotransmitter. It has an inhibitory effect in the brain and reduces the activity of neurons it acts on, essentially hitting the brake pedal. It’s the opposite of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. GABA and glutamate account for 90% of neural transmission in the brain. The ratio is important for determining if you are excited or calm, and in anxiety the scales have tipped so that glutamate is overactive.
A class of anti-anxiety meds called benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax work on this ratio by enhancing the effects of GABA. However, these medications have been linked with dependence and a host of side effects.
There are ways to increase GABA levels via your diet. GABA is produced in fermented foods by Lactobacillus bacteria. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, non-dairy yogurt, or coconut kefir are good choices. In studies where animals are given Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a specific species of bacteria, the GABA system in the brain modifies which leads to decreases in anxiety.
The body can also make GABA with a pathway that starts with glutamine (see the graphic below). Plant-based food sources of glutamine include nuts, beans, and cabbage. It’s important to note that other nutrients such as Vitamin B6 and magnesium are key parts of this pathway.
In Canada, 34% of adults over the age of 19 are not meeting recommended intakes for magnesium. American data suggests up to 75% are not meeting minimum magnesium requirements. Daily requirements range from 310-420mg depending on age and sex.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 reactions in the body and has a role in energy production, muscle contraction, and stress response. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is your body’s main system to raise cortisol, your stress hormone. Evidence suggests those with anxiety have higher levels of cortisol when they wake up in the morning.
Supplementation with magnesium has been shown to modulate the response of this axis, essentially reducing the stress your body feels. Additionally, magnesium makes GABA more available in the brain, helping you chill out.
The amount of dietary magnesium is dwindling as people consume more processed food and many minerals are lost in the processing stage. Whole foods are your best bet for this mineral as it’s available from leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes. Pumpkin seeds are a superstar here with ¼ cup offering 317mg, which could meet your daily needs depending on age/sex.
Dark chocolate is another great source with 64mg in 1oz., and not to mention a ton of antioxidants! One tidbit you should know is that calcium and magnesium compete for absorption in the small intestine; over consuming calcium foods such as dairy may interfere with your body’s ability to uptake magnesium.
Vitamin B6, and any of the B complex Vitamins, help you release energy from food. Vitamin B6 is involved in the pathway to produce GABA in the body, and also has a role in serotonin production, a reduction in this neurotransmitter can lead to panic attacks. Interestingly, those with panic attacks have lower levels of B6 (and iron) in their blood than those who don’t have panic attacks.
Vitamin B6 comes from meat, but also plant-based sources like oatmeal, brown rice, soybeans, and peanuts, although it is less bioavailable from plants so you may need it in higher amounts.
Zinc is another important mineral closely tied to mood. Those with anxiety have lower serum levels of zinc in their blood, and supplementing with zinc (along with antioxidants) leads to improvements in anxiety symptoms.
Like magnesium, zinc has a range of functions in the body. It helps with growth, development, immunity, and brain health. Zinc helps produce GABA by activating Vitamin B6, a key nutrient for converting glutamate to GABA.
Daily requirements for men and women are 11mg and 8mg, respectively. Three tablespoons of hemp hearts has around 30% of your needs, and 18 cashews has around 15. Legumes and pumpkin seeds are also good choices.
Nutrients to Ditch
You’re over-caffeinated and sugared-out. Does this sound familiar? You can’t sleep because you’re worrying about the next day, so you load up on coffee and a muffin in the morning to get you going. You hit the midday slump and reach for another coffee, and a sugary treat for a pick me up. Then night time rolls around and you’re anxious as hell and can’t sleep. The next morning you need a coffee to come to life again. The cycle keeps going and going…
Caffeine and sugar both activate the HPA axis which leads your adrenals to produce cortisol, and BOOM! your body thinks it’s stress o’clock. Try switching to matcha green tea in the morning which has less caffeine and lots of antioxidants from consuming ground tea leaves. In the afternoon I suggest an herbal tea for a soothing treat.
To curb sugar cravings try a nutritionally dense snack like Snack Crunch or Snack Bombs, or even some fruit which has natural sugars, but also fibre to slow down the absorption. Berries like blueberries or raspberries are a great option. Also consuming protein and fat slows down digestion as they take longer to absorb, leading to a more sustained energy source. Avocados and nuts are a great choice too.
Anxiety is a complex beast and there isn’t one nutrient that will solve the problem. But focusing on real, whole foods is a good place to start. Along with what you eat, how you eat matters as well. Try to set aside at least 20 minutes (even 10 minutes can make a difference) for each meal in a quiet environment, and chew your food thoroughly to give your body the best shot at harvesting those much needed nutrients.
If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me directly.