6 Controversial foods that may cause anxiety including gluten, dairy, and alcoholAug 12, 2021
In my research for my latest book Anxiety-Free with Food, I came across some conflicting arguments on a few foods, which I’m going to call controversial, or suspicious, foods. It’s a head-scratcher. There are researchers and doctors who say they reduce anxiety, while others suggest they increase anxiety. In my book, I talk about these, before getting into the definitely horrible foods.
Suspect #1: Aged, Fermented, Cured, Smoked, and Cultured Foods: Cheese, Kefir, Kimchi, Pickles, Salami, Sauerkraut, Red Wine, Soy Sauce, and Yogurt
Some experts say that aged, fermented, and cultured foods cause anxiety; however, foods of this type have also been proven healthy for the gut—thus possibly helping to reduce anxiety and depression. Here’s what we know.
It is said that, in the process of fermentation, bacteria break down food protein into biogenic amines, one of which is histamine. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved with processes of digestion, hormones, and the cardiovascular and nervous systems. It is part of the body’s natural defense against invaders. Sometimes too much is released, which triggers inflammation and anxiety.
Even though Suspect #1 type foods bolster biogenic amines, a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety.1 Another study linked probiotics with improving symptoms of major depressive disorder, saying they do this by decreasing inflammation in the body and/or by increasing the availability of the calming brain chemical serotonin.2
Bottom line: I believe these foods are safe when consumed in moderation and if your digestive system is currently in balance. Their safety depends on each person’s gut health. Personally, I believe that probiotic foods have been a big factor in my gut health and mental health. You can also take probiotic supplements, but it’s nice to have whole-food options such as these.
Suspect #2: Alcohol: Liquor, Beer, and Wine
It is believed that drinking any kind of alcohol in excess can cause anxiety, whereas drinking alcohol in moderation, most particularly wine, may reduce stress and ease anxiety.
A study of the Mediterranean diet showed that moderate consumption of wine reduced the incidence of depression.3 One review suggested that “alcohol in moderate amounts is effective in reducing stress [by] both physiologic and self-report measures.” The researchers also described low and moderate doses of alcohol as increasing “pleasant and carefree feelings” while decreasing “tension, depression, and self-consciousness.” I was fascinated to read that heavy drinkers and also abstainers may have higher rates of clinical depression than do regular moderate drinkers.4
Another recent study, however, had very concerning results. The researchers focused on adults over the age of 50 with a “Mediterranean drinking pattern” of moderate alcohol intake and a preference for wine. They suggested there were inconsistencies in the literature and concluded: “Our results do not support the presence of a protective effect derived from moderate alcohol consumption in general, and wine in particular, on the risk of developing depression or psychological distress among older adults.”5
Psychotherapist Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., says that one alcoholic drink per day (two for men) may help keep toxins out of the brain, reducing a man’s risk of dementia by as much as 23 percent! The benefits hold for all types of alcohol, but studies show wine, particularly red wine, works best. On his website, Dr. Dow writes, “The red grape skin is rich in a potent antioxidant called resveratrol, and among red wines, pinot noir has very high levels. If you prefer a lighter drink, try champagne. Research suggests the phenolic acid it contains may prove a powerful weapon to help you think better. A glass of red wine with dinner may lessen blood-sugar spikes by preventing intestinal glucose absorption and reducing your liver’s production of glucose.”6
People always ask me what the healthiest alcohol is to drink, and the easiest way to know is to ask, “How is it processed?” Remember, minimally processed ingredients that are close to their natural state are usually the healthiest. A wine that comes from the grape is great and proven to have health benefits, tequila comes from the agave cactus, and you can get a good vodka from potatoes.
Bottom line: Finding your unique balance is important: what is not too much, and perhaps not too little, alcohol for your body? Where is the ideal middle ground? Too much alcohol too much of the time can’t be good.
Suspect #3: Caffeine: Coffee, Nonherbal Tea, Cacao, and Chocolate
Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Natural sources of caffeine include coffee, tea, and chocolate. Cacao, which has small amounts of caffeine in it, has been proven to be powerful in reducing anxiety and depression. Data obtained from human clinical trials indicated that coffee exhibits protective effects against brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).7
Some say caffeine is an enemy and causes anxiety; however, there also have been studies showing that coffee is neuroprotective and has health benefits in regard to anxiety. When determining whether caffeine is right for you, keep in mind the study published in Psychiatry Research, which shows that people with anxiety disorder tend to have increased caffeine sensitivity.8
Caffeine isn’t good for all body types. A study reported that for healthy adults, caffeine consumption is relatively safe, but that for some it could contribute to impairments in cardiovascular function, sleep, and substance use.9 Some people’s bodies just don’t tolerate it well. Also, if you have been under constant stress for a while and have adrenal fatigue, it’s not a good idea to consume caffeine. Too much caffeine can deplete neurotransmitters and burn out these glands, which are associated with the fight-or-flight response.
Another study I’ve read suggests that secondary students are adversely affected by high doses of caffeine, so I believe coffee should be restricted to adults.10 Pregnant women and younger children may also be vulnerable to caffeine.
Bottom line: I personally enjoy a bit of caffeine every day, usually from cacao. I will also enjoy caffeine in green tea and black tea. I belive that caffeine is not the enemy. It’s only troublesome if we have too much of it.
If you do choose to enjoy coffee, keep it to no more than once a day. If you feel like you have had too much caffeine, consider abstaining for a month to give your body a break and then reassess how you feel when you ingest it. Personally, I believe that coffee is one of nature’s best gifts, which can assist us in living a healthy, energized, and joyful life when used in balance.
Suspect #4: Dairy: Milk, Cream, Butter, Cheese, Kefir, and Yogurt
In my research, I found some experts who say dairy—including fermented kinds of dairy (kefir and yogurt)—causes anxiety. Other experts say that some dairy helps to relieve stress, a factor we want to keep low as it can sometimes trigger anxiety. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Here’s what we know.
Dairy contains important nutrients. It is a source of calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and a host of micronutrients that are said to promote skeletal, muscular, and neurologic development.11 Dairy has also been linked to relaxation. One study shows that consuming dairy reduces anger and is associated with positive mental health.12
But dairy also has inflammatory properties. For some people, casein—a protein found in dairy products—is the problem. It triggers inflammation in the brain.13 It also has been known to wreak havoc on the digestive system, causing bloating, diarrhea, constipation, IBS, and leaky gut. Dr. Dow says that dairy is inflammatory and can contribute to brain fog.14 Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan believes that dairy sabotages the brain.15
Other research shows that people who have anxiety say they’ve noticed an increase in anxiety symptoms within mere minutes of consuming dairy products. This may be because it attenuates both oxidative and inflammatory stress.16 In one study, episodic movement disorders (that is, shaking the head from side to side) were reported after the consumption of skim milk. This adverse reaction was attributed to the high content of L-tyrosine in dairy products.17
Bottom line: I believe the benefits of dairy, particularly raw and raw fermented products, outweigh the downsides for some people. Personally, I do not take dairy well. My body doesn’t feel good when I eat it: I feel a mood change to be more “down.” I eat dairy once every two months or so, usually in the form of organic cheese on a pizza. This is a good balance for me. By contrast, I know people who feel so comforted and delighted when consuming dairy. You must find that balance for you.
If you suspect dairy is causing gut issues or anxiety for you, I recommend doing a 30-day elimination then reassessing how you feel afterward.
Suspect #5: Gluten: Wheat, Barley, and Rye
Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, barley, and rye. It acts as a binder, holding food together and adding a “stretchy” quality to it. The most wholesome and healthy way to consume gluten is in a nice piece of organic bread.
Problems arise if one has digestive issues like IBS, celiac disease, leaky gut, or dysbiosis. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten because it triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. Holly Strawbridge, former executive director of the Harvard Health Letter, explains: “This can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, cause a host of symptoms, and lead to other problems like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, and seizures.”18 But even people with milder allergies can find the glue-like starch triggering. A meta-analysis that included 3 randomized trials and 10 studies concluded that eliminating gluten was an effective treatment strategy for mood disorders in gluten-sensitive individuals.19
Gluten is a suspect in most health issues, as it affects the gut, which also affects the brain. Does it cause anxiety? It’s possible. If you have a healthy gut microbiome, consuming gluten may be fine for you as long as it comes from high-quality organic and non-GMO sources. Dr. Mike Dow, however, recommends eliminating gluten, as it causes brain fog.
Bottom line: I recommend experimenting with cutting gluten from your diet for 30 days, paying attention the entire time to how you feel. Some people I counsel on nutrition report that they feel sharper, less anxious, and have way more energy when they cut gluten from their diets. If you have an imbalance of microflora or yeast in your digestive tract, you shouldn’t eat gluten; give your gut at least a 12-month break from it.
Find your own balance, too. I don’t recommend eating gluten every day, even if you do have a healthy gut; and I certainly don’t recommend eating processed foods like cakes and cookies that contain gluten either. Perhaps look at gluten foods more as treats. I will enjoy some gluten once every two weeks or so, usually by having a slice or two of organic bread. This is the right balance for me. During the period when I was initially healing my anxiety, I didn’t eat anything with gluten in it for six months. Now that my health is restored and my gut is functioning optimally, I can take gluten a little more often.
In conclusion, as always, you must find your own balance with gluten. Discovering what works for your body may be a process of trial and error.
Suspect #6: Nightshade vegetables
There is speculation among some researchers that plants in the nightshade family cause anxiety.20 Nightshade foods contain trace amounts of solanine, a poisonous compound that some people believe aggravates arthritis pain and inflammation. Nightshade foods are also said to be problematic for people with autoimmune diseases due to their lectin, saponin, and capsaicin content. People who have an intolerance to nightshade plants aren’t able to digest them fully. They usually experience gas, bloating, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and anxiety. However, there is also plenty of evidence for the neuroprotective effects of certain members of the nightshade family, especially tomatoes!
Bottom line: While I do believe that nightshades aren’t a good fit for every person, for many of us they are healthy and nutritionally beneficial. If you suspect they may affect you, cut nightshades from your diet for a month and track your mood and health.
Remember to respect your bio-individuality by tuning into what your body is trying to tell you. Just as I’ve asked you to assess how you feel when introducing any new food, assess how you feel when you remove a substance from your life. Check-in with yourself to see if your needs change and you can no longer tolerate something you once could or vice versa. If anything isn’t right for your metabolism or current physical condition, you are better off cutting them out of your diet completely. Eat something delicious that makes you feel fantastic instead!
This is an excerpt from my book Anxiety-Free with Food available at bookstores now!
1. M.R. Hilimire, J.E. DeVylder, and C.A. Forestell. “Fermented Foods, Neuroticism, and Social Anxiety: An Interaction Model,” Psychiatry Research, vol. 28, no. 2 (August 15, 2015), pp. 203–8, doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.
2. C.J.K. Wallace and R. Miley. “The Effects of Probiotics on Depressive Symptoms in Humans: A Systematic Review,” Annals of General Psychiatry, vol. 16 (2017), p. 14, doi: 10.1186/s12991-017-0138-2.
3. A. Gea, et al., “Alcohol Intake, Wine Consumption and the Development of Depression: The PREDIMED Study,” BMC Medicine, vol. 11 (August 20, 2013), p. 192, doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-192.
4. C. Baum-Baicker, “The Psychological Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Consumption: A Review of the Literature,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol. 15, no. 4 (August 1985), pp. 305–22, doi: 10.1016/0376-8716(85)90008-0.
5. G.-Esquinas, et al., “Moderate Alcohol Drinking Is Not Associated with Risk of Depression in Older Adults,” Scientific Reports, vol. 8 (2018): 11512, doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-29985-4.
6. M. Dow, “How to Beat Midlife Brain Fog,” DrMikeDow.com (accessed May 1, 2020), https://drmikedow.com/how-to-
7. J. Kim and K.W. Lee, “Coffee and Its Active Compounds are Neuroprotective,” chap. 46 in Coffee in Health and Disease Prevention, V.R. Preedy, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2015), doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-409517-5.
8. M.A. Lee, O.G. Cameron, and J.F. Greden, “Anxiety and Caffeine Consumption in People with Anxiety Disorders,” Psychiatry Research, vol. 15, no. 3 (July 1985), pp. 211–7, doi: 10.1016/0165-1781(85)90078-2.
9. J.L. Temple, et al., “The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8 (May 26, 2017), p. 80, doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00080.
10. G. Richards and A. Smith, “Caffeine Consumption and Self-assessed Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Secondary School Children,” Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol. 29, no. 12 (December 2015), pp. 1236–47, doi: 10.1177/0269881115612404.
11. F. Visioli and A. Strata, “Milk, Dairy Products, and Their Functional Effects in Humans: A Narrative Review of Recent Evidence,” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 5, no. 2 (March 2014), pp. 131–143, doi: 10.3945/an.113.005025.
12. N. Kalantari, et al. “The Association between Dairy Intake, Simple Sugars and Body Mass Index with Expression and Extent of Anger in Female Students,” Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 11, no. 1 (January 2016), pp. 43–50, PMID: 27252768.
13. K. Wills, “Your Cheese Addiction Could Be Making You an Emotional Wreck,” New York Post (August 27, 2018), https://nypost.com/2018/08/27/
14. Dow, “How to Beat Midlife Brain Fog.”
15. K. Brogan, “Two Foods That May Sabotage Your Brain,” KellyBroganMD.com (accessed May 6, 2020), https://kellybroganmd.com/two-
16. R.A. Stancliffe, T. Thorpe, and M.B. Zemel, “Dairy Attenuates Oxidative and Inflammatory Stress in Metabolic Syndrome,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 94, no. 2 (August 2011), doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.013342.
17. J.W. Gerrard, J.S. Richardson, and J. Donat, “Neuropharmacological Evaluation of Movement Disorders That Are Adverse Reactions to Specific Foods,” International Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 76 (1994), pp. 61–9, doi: 10.3109/00207459408985992.
18. H. Strawbridge, “Going Gluten-free Just Because? Here’s What You Need to Know,” Harvard Health Blog (February 20, 2013), https://www.health.harvard.
19. E. Busby, et al., “Mood Disorders and Gluten: It’s Not All in Your Mind! A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis,” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 11 (November 2018), p. 1708, doi: 10.3390/nu10111708.
20. S.E. Milner, et al., “Bioactivities of Glycoalkaloids and Their Aglycones from Solanum Species,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 8, no. 59, (2011), pp. 3454–84 doi: 10.1021/jf200439q.