Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Anxiety can significantly impact your quality of life. It can be complicated; there is no one cause, no single symptom, and no definite way to treat, reduce, or deal with it.
Mental health disorders, in general, are complex. And so are the foods we eat, and the ways our bodies interact with those foods. We’re still new to this game of figuring out exactly how the brain works, and exactly how nutrients may improve brain health.
Still, there are some promising possibilities. Therefore, do not underestimate the power of your diet to influence your mental health.
This article will discuss the top three root causes that can contribute to anxiety, as well as steps you can take to support these issues.
1) Gut Health
Gut health is a fundamental component of mental health.
There is a huge and growing body of evidence connecting the health of the gut to the health of the brain. Factors such as inflammation, parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), fungal overgrowth, or dysbiosis (microbiota imbalances & intestinal permeability) in the gut (1). This can produce an inflammatory response that in turn affects the brain and can cause inflammation and other problems within the brain.
Additionally, an estimated 90% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut - which is a key neurotransmitter (3). We tend to think of the brain when we think of neurotransmitter production, but in fact, there are much more of certain neurotransmitters produced in the gut than there are in the brain. Therefore, it’s no surprise that there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain, and the dysfunction and imbalances in the gut that can lead to a variety of cognitive, mood, and behavioural disorders, so not just anxiety (2).
What can I do?
If you are suffering from anxiety, an important step to take might be to work with a healthcare practitioner in order to check for SIBO, parasites, fungal overgrowth, gut dysbiosis, and inflammation if you’re suffering from anxiety.
In the meanwhile, there are simple measures you can do to improve your overall gut health.
1. Eliminate gluten
Gluten may impair mental health by increasing intestinal permeability, causing an escape of pro-inflammatory metabolites into the systemic circulation. Once in circulation, these metabolites travel to the brain, triggering an inflammatory response and neuropsychiatric problems.
2. Eliminate/reduce added sugars
Sugar triggers insulin surges that drop sugar low and leave you feeling jittery, edgy, tired, foggy, and anxious. It also promotes insulin resistance in the body and brain, which means that sugar can't be used for fuel and instead it remains outside the cells and might cause some damage.
3. Eliminate processed and refined foods
The food industry has continually increased the number of food additives without testing its impact on the gut microbiome. Reducing processed foods from our diets would help reduce the likelihood of diseases related to inflammation.
4. Include prebiotic and probiotic foods
We can protect our gut microbiome balance by including both prebiotic and probiotic foods in our diets (4, 5).
Prebiotic foods such as artichoke, onions, garlic, and bananas. These fibres fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and help restore intestinal permeability (5).
Foods rich in probiotics help restore a healthy gut microbiota and intestinal barrier. Examples such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir provide probiotics in abundance (4).
The more stress we feel, the more cortisol our adrenals will produce. The adrenals also produce adrenaline, which plays a role in our “fight or flight” response or in other words, hits the panic button in our brain.
Our perception/ or our body’s interpretation of stress is what kicks off the fight, flight, or freeze signals, or what is known as the sympathetic nervous system.
Back in the day, when there were real stressors (such as lions and tigers looking for humans to eat) we needed the ability to get out of harm's way and protect ourselves from the environment around us. The trouble is, in this modern society our body gets this signal almost on a daily basis!
We have chronic stressors like financial stress, relationship stress, and work stress. Just the stress of daily life is constantly activating these systems. So what happens when these systems are activated all the time (which they weren’t really designed to be!) is that it leads to changes in the output of stress hormones (DHEA and cortisol and pregnenolone) which in turn affects the production of many other hormones and neurotransmitters in the body.
What can I do?
Learn to say ‘no’ as saying yes when you should say no, can make you feel resentful and overwhelmed.
Avoid spending time with people that stress you out, if that’s possible.
Manage the stress that you can’t avoid by performing prayer, meditation, yoga, tai-chi, deep relaxation practices or mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Regulating your light exposure, so not using phones and other devices that emit blue light at night too close to bedtime and making sure you get some bright light exposure during the day.
Remove any food that causes inflammation/issues in your body i.e. processed or refined carbohydrates
Test if caffeine causes your anxiety by eliminating it for 30 days.
Set a sleeping schedule as sleep is crucial to regulating cortisol levels.
3. Nutrient Deficiencies
There are many nutrients that play an important role in mental health and anxiety, such as omega-3 fatty acids, B12, magnesium, iron, B6 and vitamin D, just to name a few.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds, provide building blocks for healthy brain development and function. Omega-3 fatty acids may also support mental health by maintaining the fluidity of brain cell membranes and can reduce inflammation in the brain (6,9).
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. B12 deficiency may contribute to mood disorders in vegetarians, vegans and in people that are not absorbing vitamin B12 optimally (10).
Magnesium is known as the ‘calming mineral, and it can do wonders for reducing anxiety and boosting mood (7,8).
Iron deficiency is known to impair the development of the human brain (14). Iron deficiency is also associated with elevated risk anxiety in children and adolescents (15).
There are two types of iron:
Heme iron is the most bioavailable form of dietary iron (which means highly absorbed from the diet and used for normal body functions). Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and seafood.
Non-heme iron is less bioavailable. It is found in plant foods such as spinach and whole grains.
Vitamin B6 is a crucial vitamin involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine (11). Vitamin B6 deficiency thus reduces neurotransmitter synthesis and is linked to depression and anxiety. Also, vitamin B6 works synergistically with magnesium to reduce stress in healthy adults (12). It also relieves premenstrual syndrome (PMS) related anxiety (13).
Good food sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, eggs, and avocado.
Vitamin D (sun exposure; fortified foods)
Vitamin D is required for brain development and function. Vitamin D Deficiency is sometimes associated with depression and other mood disorders, though a recent research review showed mixed results.
Note: It is not that simple to solely just supplementing with the above. Nutrients work together in context. In addition, we do not know if low levels of nutrients are a cause or consequence of poor brain health. Therefore, if you want to focus on particular nutrients and/or test for possible deficiencies, it is vital to do so with a trusted health professional like a registered dietician, nutritionist or doctor.
Despite your best efforts, if you find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, irritable and hopeless, unable to sleep or face routine chores. Please seek professional help if you need it.
Anxiety can be overwhelming. So do not try to do everything at once – there is no rush. Consider small and manageable lifestyle-oriented steps each time. Think of it as building your own personal toolbox of helpful actions – which can be incredibly empowering!
Eventually, things can get a whole lot better. An important note to mention that is, it can take a little bit longer to do that and requires a little bit more work, but these positive steps truly add up over time.
1) Beibei Yang, Jinbao Wei, Peijun Ju, Jinghong Chen. Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. General Psychiatry, 2019.
2) Nick J. Spencer, Timothy J. Hibberd, Lee Travis, Lukasz Wiklendt, Marcello Costa, Hongzhen Hu, Simon J. Brookes, David A. Wattchow, Phil G. Dinning, Damien J. Keating, Julian Sorensen. (2018).Identification of a Rhythmic Firing Pattern in the Enteric Nervous System That Generates Rhythmic Electrical Activity in Smooth Muscle. Journal of Neuroscience 13 June 2018, 38 (24) 5507-5522.
3) Thomas C. Fung, Helen E. Vuong, Cristopher D. G. Luna et al. (2019). Intestinal serotonin and fluoxetine exposure modulate bacterial colonization in the gut. Nature Microbiology.
4) Bermúdez-Humarán, L.G.; Salinas, E.; Ortiz, G.G.; Ramirez-Jirano, L.J.; Morales, J.A.; Bitzer-Quintero, O.K. From Probiotics to Psychobiotics: Live Beneficial Bacteria Which Act on the Brain-Gut Axis. Nutrients 2019, 11, 890.
5) Burokas A1, Arboleya S2, Moloney RD1, Peterson VL3, Murphy K4, Clarke G1, Stanton C2, Dinan TG1, Cryan JF5. Targeting the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Prebiotics Have Anxiolytic and Antidepressant-like Effects and Reverse the Impact of Chronic Stress in Mice. Biol Psychiatry. 2017 Oct 1;82(7):472-487.
6) Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, et al.. Omega‑3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial.. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.. 2011.
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12) Pouteau E, Kabir-Ahmadi M, Noah L, Mazur A, Dye L, Hellhammer J, et al. (2018) Superiority of magnesium and vitamin B6 over magnesium alone on severe stress in healthy adults with low magnesemia: A randomized, single-blind clinical trial. PLoS ONE 13(12)
13) De Souza MC1, Walker AF, Robinson PA, Bolland K. (2000). A synergistic effect of a daily supplement for 1 month of 200 mg magnesium plus 50 mg vitamin B6 for the relief of anxiety-related premenstrual symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, crossover study. J Womens Health Gend Based Med. Mar;9(2):131-9.
14) Markova, V., Holm, C., Pinborg, A. B., Thomsen, L. L., & Moos, T. (2019). Impairment of the Developing Human Brain in Iron Deficiency: Correlations to Findings in Experimental Animals and Prospects for Early Intervention Therapy. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 12(3), 120.
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