The Mind-Gut Connection: How Your Diet can Impact your Anxiety Levels
2 September 2022
Summer makes us feel alive! We spend more time outside, get more sunshine, exercise more and eat fresh, local foods. As the leaves start to change, the nights cool, and the days get shorter we know that fall is around the corner. September means back to school, back to routine and back to work which so many of us dread. It even brings on anxiety for many of us, especially post pandemic.
Anxiety may occur as a result of either mental or physical imbalances. When psychological triggers are the root cause of your anxiety, it may be best to work with a professional to talk through and learn strategies to manage your emotions. However, what is often overlooked when it comes to treating anxiety are any underlying physical triggers that may result from diet, nutrient deficiencies and gut imbalances.
The Mind-Gut Connection is a critical pathway in the body when understanding physical anxiety. Your body has a communication system between your brain and gut which means your brain can impact your digestive tract and vice versa. It is connected through one of your largest nerves, the vagus nerve, and neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers. If there is inflammation in the digestive system, it can also result in inflammation in your brain which can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, brain fog and low energy.
Underlying Nutrition Triggers to Anxiety
People who are prone to anxiety and panic attacks generally have elevated blood lactic acid levels (lactate is a final product in the breakdown of blood sugar when there is lack of oxygen). So I’m sure you can guess that keeping these lactic acid levels low is a key in reducing anxiety and panic attacks.
There are 6 nutritional factors that can contribute to elevated levels of lactic acid. Here are some recommendations you can try at home and monitor your anxiety levels.
- Alcohol- alcohol can increase lactate, inflammation and can lead to an imbalance in blood sugar. It’s best to reduce and ideally avoid alcohol.
- Caffeine- for highly stressed individuals, caffeine can trigger anxiety within minutes of consumption. Even if you don’t feel it affects you, it might be. Try removing it for a week or 2 and see if you notice a difference.
- Sugar- refined sugar is stripped of vitamins and minerals so your body needs to use its own reserves, especially B vitamins and calcium, to digest the sugar, resulting in further nutrient depletion and inflammation. Try switching out sugar in your recipes and meals with healthier alternatives like honey, maple syrup or molasses.
- B Vitamin Deficiency- needed for energy & brain chemical production, blood sugar control and modulating stress. If these are deficient, you will have a harder time handling stress and your anxiety may worsen
- Calcium or Magnesium Deficiency -these are minerals that help to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety, fear, nervousness, restlessness and irritability. If these are deficient, you will have a harder time handling stress and anxiety may worsen
- Food Sensitivities- problem foods can lead to inflammation, histamine increase and nutrient deficiencies which can result in anxiety, depression, mood swings & fatigue. Try removing the major allergens for 2 weeks and see if you notice a difference in your anxiety levels: gluten, dairy, eggs, nightshades, soy & corn.
Another key trigger for many people is blood sugar imbalances. When you eat something sweet or a meal that is high in processed carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes and then drops, which can also trigger anxiety.
So what can you eat at home to improve you anxiety? Here are some recommendations:
Tips for Eating to Minimize Anxiety
- Eat balanced meals: eating protein, fat and fiber at every meal and snack to reduce blood sugar drops. This means if you’re snacking on a muffin, eat some nuts and avocado with it to reduce it’s impact on your blood sugar
- Eat protein for breakfast: so many people skip breakfast or don’t have enough time in the mornings to eat breakfast but if you’re prone to anxiety, especially in the mornings, this is critical. Hard boiled eggs, nuts & hummus are a great easy grab and go breakfast if you’re in a rush.
- Incorporate anti-inflammatory foods at every meal: inflammation in the gut can travel to the brain and contribute to mental health disorders. Avoiding inflammatory foods (like seed oils, processed foods, refined carbohydrates and candy) and eating anti-inflammatory foods (berries, nuts & seeds, green leafy vegetables) can help to minimize inflammation. For a full list of anti-inflammatory foods click here.
- Get your Omega 3’s- These are essential fats that you must obtain through diet and help to reduce inflammation and support brain function. Foods high in omega 3 include fatty fish like wild sardines, anchovies and salmon, walnuts, grass fed meat and chia seeds.
- Eat foods high in magnesium & calcium: Foods high in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, dark chocolate, spinach, tuna, brown rice. Foods high in calcium include yogurt, sesame seeds, chia seeds, sardines, almonds, flax seeds, green leafy vegetables
- Eat foods high in B vitamins: Foods high in B vitamins include sunflower seeds, pine nuts, almonds, grass fed beef, wild fish, pistachio nuts, shiitake mushrooms, lentils,
- Incorporate fermented foods daily: Fermented foods increase beneficial gut bacteria diversity which are needed to produce brain chemicals to balance your mood, reduce anxiety, reduce inflammation and improve your sleep and stress response. Fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, fermented coconut milk, tempeh and miso.
If you'd like to explore more of these recommendations in detail I'd be happy to work with you one on one to get to the bottom of your anxiety. Check out my anxiety program here.
By Krista Znebel, Holistic Nutritionist, R.H.N.