| LINDSEY WILSON
A Guide to Calming Your Anxiety Through Nourishing Food
Did you know your gut is often referred to as your second brain? Those butterflies in your stomach when you get excited, or the queasiness brought on by nerves - that is your brain talking to your gut, and your gut talking back.
That’s right. Your gut feelings have some weight behind them.
That’s because through the gut-brain axis, your stomach sends signals to your brain, and vise versa1. It happens almost constantly through the communications sent via the vagus nerve, the largest of many nerves connecting your stomach and brain2.
Your Gut and Your Emotions
The vagus nerve is a physical connection between your brain and your gut. But both organs are biochemically connected to. A significant portion of your serotonin (the happy hormone) is produced in your gut3. Equally important to your mental health is your gut’s production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This is the neurotransmitter that helps control your feelings of fear and anxiety4. But this is only if the bacteria your gut is growing has a positive influence over your microbiome. This means that a happy gut means a happy you.
What does this mean in relation to food? Well, you are what you eat - or really, you feel what you eat. For example, when you’re stressed, you might notice that your stomach won’t digest your food well. On the flip side, different mental states affect processes in your digestive system. Studies show that different foods encourage different mental reactions. One study showed when healthy individuals consumed a specific prebiotic for three weeks reduced the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body5.
Which Foods Help, and Which Foods Harm
So how do we get our guts to produce our feel good chemicals? How do we reduce the production of undesirable chemicals? We take a look at what’s on our daily menu.
Foods to Avoid
First, let’s explore the foods that can lead to more anxiety and unnecessary stress. Suffice it to say, foods that are highly processed will contain one or more of the following, so it’s best for your mind and body to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
For more control over your anxiety levels, you might consider staying away from:
Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated oils that are high in LDL cholesterol and can lower HDL cholesterol. In general, trans fats are linked to depression and anxiety6.
Refined carbohydrates, which can cause adrenaline spikes.
Refined sugars, which weaken your body’s ability to respond to stress7.
High doses of caffeine8 - try switching to matcha instead!
Alcohol, which changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety.
Gluten, as studies show that celiac disease patients went off of gluten for thirty days and experienced lower levels of anxiety along with improved symptoms9.
Foods To Help Lessen Your Anxiety
Fiber - When you consume fiber, it sits in your lower intestine and ferments. This is a good thing! This process produces short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that feed the good gut flora in your digestive system. When your good bacteria is on the up and up, your digestion process operates smoothly. This leads to a healthy gut which means you’re producing plenty of serotonin to keep your brain happy. Try eating more:
- Brussels sprouts
- & Oats
Omega 3s - One study conducted in 2018 demonstrated lower anxiety levels in people who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids. Also discovered, was that higher levels of omega-6 compared to omega-3 increased levels of anxiety10. Omega-6s are found in foods such as processed vegetable oil. On the other hand, omega-3s are found in:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
Probiotics - Probiotics are microorganisms (yes! Living cultures) that provide many different health benefits. One benefit you can gain from them is that they support your brain health when they produce chemical by-products that some scientists believe protect the nervous system. They do so by helping to disrupt your brain’s stress response through neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA11. What can you eat to up your probiotic intake?
- Plain yogurt
- Non-dairy yogurt
- Apple cider vinegar
- Kombucha - with as little added sugars as possible
- Plain kefir
Vitamin D - The sunshine vitamin! This is one of the VIPs that get to cross through the blood-brain barrier. This powerful vitamin helps reduce inflammation and protects brain cells from destructive toxins. Studies show12 that adults with depression and anxiety tested for lower levels of vitamin D in their blood, whereas vitamin D supplements brought about improvement to their symptoms. Get out into the sunlight! And also try adding these foods:
- Cod liver oil
- Egg yolks
- Fortified nut milks, oatmilks, & rice milks
Magnesium - Like vitamin D, low magnesium levels are associated with high anxiety levels. Also like vitamin D, magnesium helps regulate the neurotransmitters related to stress and anxiety13. Because of this, magnesium is known to suppress stress responses in the brain. Unfortunately, the Western diet is notoriously low in magnesium, which is why we recommend eating the following:
- Leafy greens
- Brazil nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Black beans
- Dark chocolate
Turmeric - The curcumin found in turmeric is a bioactive compound that boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. That makes this an excellent addition to your salads, sautees, soups, and lattes. The tasty way to decrease both depression and anxiety14.
Ease Your Mind
...through mindful choices in your diet. The more work you put into building a healthy home for your spirit, the more peace you’ll get to experience. The more time you’ll get to spend not only living in the now, but enjoying the now.
- The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems (nih.gov)
- Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis (nih.gov)
- The Neuro-endocrinological Role of Microbial Glutamate and GABA Signaling (nih.gov)
- Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers (nih.gov)
- Prolonged consumption of trans fat favors the development of orofacial dyskinesia and anxiety-like symptoms in older rats - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Self-medication with sucrose (nih.gov)
- Caffeine, mental health, and psychiatric disorders - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Psychoneurotic symptoms and alexithymia in coeliac disease - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis | Anxiety Disorders | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network
- Gut brain axis: diet microbiota interactions and implications for modulation of anxiety and depression - ScienceDirect
- Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial - Jorde - 2008 - Journal of Internal Medicine - Wiley Online Library
- The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders (nih.gov)
- Efficacy of Curcumin in the Modulation of Anxiety Provoked by Sulfite, a Food Preservative, in Rats (nih.gov)