Consumption of unhealthy fats and refined sugars and flours create biochemical conditions that weaken our systems and drive anxiety. James Gordon, MD explains “This is a dynamic system at the intersection of psychology, biology, digestion and the nervous system.”
Anxiety drugs, as we know, treat symptoms and do not address the root cause of anxiety. It is through food that the brain gets the needed chemicals to make neurotransmitters – like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and GABA which drive mood states and changes. These neurotransmitters send signals throughout the nervous system and digestive tract ( where 95% of serotonin is produced). Essentially, maintaining a healthy brain and gut is vital to controlling anxiety.
The following nutritional strategies can help alleviate symptoms while building greater resilience in battling the stressors we face each day.
1. Blood Sugar Stabilization.
A calm brain and nervous system requires steady blood sugar levels. Glucose which is derived from carbohydrates circulates through the bloodstream and powers every cell in the body. It is essential to neurotransmitter function. Your brain consumes 1/2 of your body’s glucose at any given time. If you go too long without eating, the body releases cortisol which activate specific enzymes that trigger more glucose production. According to Alan Christianson, MD: “The body makes more glucose by using cortisol to pull protein out of muscle tissue. Delaying meals puts an ongoing demand on cortisol output, which breaks down muscle tissue and leaves blood sugar less stable.”
This surge on cortisol can render you irritable and jittery. Snacks loaded with sugar trick the brain cells into releasing serotonin – which is why we crave sweets and carbs when we are stressed. Ultimately, this causes problems as pancreas releases insulin to drive the sugar out of the blood and into the cells. This resulting low-blood sugar drop or crash also feels like anxiety: fatigue, heart palpitations and dizziness.
Better Strategy – avoid refined sugars and starches and consume nutrient dense foods every few hours – complex carbs ( vegetables, brown rice, sweet potatoes, squash, berries, apples and legumes), , healthy fats ( cold water fish, avocados, coconut, almonds and cashews) and high quality protein ( grass fed meats, organic cage free eggs, red, black and pinto beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds). To pacify sugar cravings try 85% dark chocolate.
Supplement with magnesium and B complex – deficiencies have been linked to anxiety.
2. Support Calming Neurotransmitters:
Protein steadies blood sugar and their amino acids help make serotonin and dopamine. Some amino acids calm the body like tryptophan while others excite the nervous system like phenlylalanine.
Better Strategy – eat smaller meals that revolve around plant-based proteins such as beans and legumes.
3. Focus On Healthy Fats:
Fats actually make up 60% of your brain and assist in regulating anxiety by enabling neurotransmitters to move quickly and efficiently between neutrons. Omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids play a key role in brain health. The right balance should be between 4:1 and 2:1 which will help regulate your body’s inflammatory response.
Processed and refined foods tend to be high in omega-6 and really drive inflammation. An immune system that’s over activated strains every cell in your body. Inside the brain, inflammation stimulates the amygdala ( the fear center) and increases anxiety by impeding neurotransmitter movement within the cell walls. Omega-3’s are anti inflammatory and keep the brain cells permeable and neurotransmitter activity and movement efficient and speedy.
Better Strategy – eat more omega-3’s ( cold water fish, flax and chia seeds, nuts, seeds and dark leafy greens). Eat less omega-6’s (processed foods and vegetable oils).
4. A Healthy Microbiome:
A healthy and well balanced gut with a diverse micobial ecosystem plays a significant role in modulating the critical neurotransmitters that affect our moods. Specifically, serotonin. Since most of serotonin is produced in the gut, it’s clear how a healthy and balanced gut flora is vital. A healthy gut is key to reducing inflammation which is a driver of most serotonin-triggered anxiety. Inflammation can also trigger cortisol imbalances which is what drives our stress levels up. Here again we see the intersection of psychology, neurology and gut function.
Research has shown that anxiety is an inflammatory disorder with a genesis in the gut.
Best Strategy – to keep and maintain a healthy gut flora by eating nutrient dense foods as well as probiotic ( sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha) and prebiotic foods ( cooked and raw onions, raw leeks, asparagus, chicory and garlic)