There are many causes of anxiety, according to experts. For the sake of this blog’s focus on nutritional strategies and recipes to overcome it, I will break them down to physical deficiencies, with the understanding that, of course, there are mental and emotional causes for anxiety too. Nutritional strategies should be used as complements to receiving health care from providers such as physicians and counselors.
Sources of anxiety include:
- Anxiogenic foods: Foods that produce anxiety are known as anxiogenic foods. These trigger anxiety straight away because of how they upset the nervous system. Poor diet is linked to anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that people with mood disorders often have diets that are low in fruits and vegetables and high in fat and sugar. 1
- Nutritional deficiency: The body needs proper levels of certain vitamins and minerals to function in harmony; they are fundamental for our neurotransmitters. If you are anxious, you may also be deficient in magnesium, folate, zinc, amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, B-complex vitamins, iron, iodine, and selenium. A deficiency of a vital nutrient can be caused by a person not eating enough of the right foods or having a digestive system that is unable to function properly. Disordered eating (e.g., overeating, anorexia, bulimia) can also cause malnutrition. I know that when all I ate were fast foods and processed foods, my body was lacking in many essential nutrients. There are significant correlations between anxiety/depression and food addiction.2 A nutritional deficiency can also cause low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been considered to be involved in the cause of many disease states, and of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter necessary for relaxation, reduction of stress, and sleep. Low levels of GABA may make us feel edgy and irritable.
- Glycemic imbalance: Foods that are high on the glycemic index (GI) raise your blood sugar rapidly. Common culprits are white bread, soda, and sugary foods. A “high GI” diet may worsen your mood.3 If you eat too much refined sugar for too many years, this can cause an imbalance.
- Obesity: Obesity is an underlying risk factor for many chronic health conditions and has been associated with increased oxidative stress. Good news- the recipes and foods in this blog will help you achieve and maintain a healthy body composition. (Remember, however, that everyone has a different ideal weight at which their body is thriving.) These foods also are a significant source of antioxidant polyphenols and vitamin C, which offers protection against obesity-related health conditions.4
- Lack of sleep/insomnia: Sleep is like food. It nourishes our bodies and restores them. A lack of sleep is both a contributing factor and a symptom of, anxiety.
- Adrenal “burnout” or fatigue: When the adrenal glands use too much of their resources and are subsequently unable to provide adequate quantities of hormones, primarily cortisol, to respond to our routine needs for them, we experience adrenal fatigue. This condition may be due to chronic stress (which uses up reserves of adrenal hormones) or infections that interfere with the production of adrenal hormones. The adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney. If you have adrenal burnout, the recipes in this blog will help you recover from it.
- Sedentary lifestyle: Being sedentary and prolonged sitting time puts us at higher risk for anxiety, according to a meta-analysis of nine studies. One theory is that a sedentary lifestyle causes central nervous system arousal, sleep disturbances, or poor metabolic health, leading to anxiety. 5
- Drug and alcohol abuse: Substance abuse can intensify feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness, and also puts oxidative stress on the body.
- Nicotine use: Nicotine is naturally occurring in plants of the nightshade family, which includes tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). While it has some therapeutic benefits, it’s highly addictive and can cause withdrawal when you stop using it. One study found that people with anxiety often self-medicate with nicotine because it eases some symptoms in the short term, but long-term usage “leads to increased baseline severity of anxiety disorder symptoms.”6 Common ingredients in cigarettes are another problem: acetone, acetic acid, ammonia, arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, lead, naphthalene, tar, and toluene. The American Lung Association states that there are approximately 600 ingredients in cigarettes, and “when burned, they create more than 7,000 chemicals.”7 These neurotoxins put immediate stress on the nervous system, cause instant oxidative stress, and weaken the immune system.
- Constant pressure/exposure to emotional stress: Aside from the biological causes of anxiety, such as nutritional deficiencies, anxiety can also be the result of psychological stress from constant abuse, unresolved childhood trauma, not being loved by your parents, financial hardship, relationship conflicts, sudden loss, and circumstances that are hard to accept. Prolonged periods of stress, such as you might experience on the job or while getting a divorce, can deplete your level of neurotransmitters and cortisol. Having an elevated level of the corticotropin-releasing hormone is the main cause of our depressive and anxious symptoms.8 High, prolonged cortisol releases cause anxiety and fatigue and will interfere with the body’s ability to heal. Our bodies need to be able to release cortisol to survive because cortisol helps control blood pressure, metabolize glucose (for energy), and reduce inflammation. The key to restoring cortisol levels naturally is to shift your body from its stress response to its relaxation response and to nourish it with the right foods and possibly supplements—which you can read more about in the book. If you believe you have adrenal burnout or cortisol insufficiency, there is a saliva test you can take at home, late at night, when cortisol levels are generally lower. Your health-care provider can recommend a source for this test or provide you with a kit.
- Oxidative stress (free radical damage): Studies reveal that oxidative stress is associated with numerous psychiatric troubles, including pathologically high anxiety.9 The production of unstable molecules known as free radicals can be detrimental to our cells, inducing damage to our DNA and RNA. Free radicals contain oxygen that is missing an electron and wants to steal one from other molecules, such as the lipids in cellular membranes. It is a key factor in the aging process. Where does this fit with anxiety? Well, because of its higher oxygen requirement, poor antioxidant defenses, and lipid-rich constitution, the brain is considered particularly susceptible to oxidative stress.10 Oxidative stress alters overall brain activity, making us more likely to feel anxious, and is a major cause of inflammation. Long-term oxidative stress comes from foods high in bad fats and refined sugar, especially processed foods; exposure to radiation; excessive alcohol consumption; cigarettes or other tobacco products; some medications; pollution; and exposure to pesticides or industrial chemicals.
- Inflammation: Researchers have established links between anxiety and inflammation as well as the reverse. Associations have also been made between the reduction of anxiety and anti-inflammatory dietary patterns, such as the high intake of fruits and vegetables.11
- Cognitive decline: Elderly people may feel anxious when their cognitive function is reduced.12 Dementia is also associated with alterations of brain chemistry. It’s too complex a subject to explore in-depth here, but our best chance of maintaining good cognitive function is to take care of our brains when we’re young.
- Poor gut health: The gut and brain are interconnected. Some neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are “manufactured” in the intestines, and water-soluble vitamins are synthesized by our symbiotic gut bacteria (aka probiotics). If the gut is not functioning optimally, the body and brain are not properly nourished. An unhappy gut equals an unhappy nervous system and a brain that is not energized.
- Long periods of intermittent fasting: I was shocked to discover this cause of anxiety because so many people have gotten into fasting these days and so many experts recommend it. Research has found that intermittent fasting does offer some health benefits; however, depriving yourself of food for an extended period of time can raise your levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone.13 Our bodies need fuel to stay healthy, so prolonged periods of fasting may not be right for many of us, especially those of us who experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Other diseases and suffering: Living with chronic panic, constant headaches and migraines, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), cancer, and so on can cause stress and anxiety. But one’s mood can also worsen the outcome of many of these conditions as well.14
- Antidepressants and antianxiety medication: This information may be shocking to you. It was for me. Personally, I believe medication can be helpful for some people in some situations. However, many drugs have been shown to worsen anxiety and depression, as a side effect. Practice Guideline for the Patients with MDD (major depressive disorder), released by the American Psychiatric Association, says that medication has limitations. “Common side effects of antidepressant medicines include nausea, increased appetite and weight gain, sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and decreased orgasm, fatigue and drowsiness, and insomnia, to name only a few. Moreover, some data also indicate that antidepressants may promote suicide.”15 As such, people are now thinking of using alternative methods for anxiety prevention and treatment. I will also add that other pharmaceutical medications may also cause anxiety.
Eating to protect your brain is a critical strategy in addressing anxiety and other emotional and mental conditions. You may even feel relief immediately. Science has shown us that if our brain chemistry is right, it will work with equilibrium—meaning, without anxiety. Address the nutritional deficiencies in the body, fix the brain chemistry, and a human body won’t suffer from constant anxiety.
Read more about this in my new book Anxiety-Free with Food.
1. K.M. Davison and B.J. Kaplan, “Food Intake and Blood Cholesterol Levels of Community-Based Adults with Mood Disorders,” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 12, no 1 (February 2012), p. 10, doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-12-10.
2. Q. Huang, et al., “Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression,” Antioxidants, vol. 8, no. 9 (September 2019), p. 376, doi: 10.3390/antiox8090376.
3. M. Aucoin and S. Bhardwaj, “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification,” Case Reports in Psychiatry (2016), p. 7165425, doi: 10.1155/2016/7165425.
4. A. Basu, et al., “Effects of Dietary Strawberry Supplementation on Antioxidant Biomarkers in Obese Adults with Above Optimal Serum Lipids,” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism (2016), p. 3910630, doi: 10.1155/2016/3910630.
5. Teychenne M, Costigan SA, Parker K. The association between sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2015;15:513. Published 2015 Jun 19, doi:10.1186/s12889-015-1843-x. Also see: M.F. Masana, S. Tyrovolas, N. Kollia, et al. “Dietary Patterns and Their Association with Anxiety Symptoms among Older Adults: The ATTICA Study,” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 6 (June 2019), p. 1250, doi: 10.3390/nu11061250.
6. Nicotine Modulation of Fear Memories and Anxiety: Implications for Learning and Anxiety Disorders
7. “What’s in a Cigarette?” American Lung Association. (accessed May 18, 2020), https://www.lung.org/quit-
8. A. Ströhle and F. Holsboer, “Stress Responsive Neurohormones in Depression and Anxiety,” Pharmacopsychiatry, vol. 36, supp. 3 (November 2003), pp. s207–14, doi: 10.1055/s-2003-45132.
9. J. Bouayed, H. Rammal, and R. Soulimani, “Oxidative Stress and Anxiety: Relationship and Cellular Pathways,” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, vol. 2, no. 2 (April–June 2009), pp. 63–7, doi: 10.4161/oxim.2.2.7944.
10. F. Ng, et al., “Oxidative Stress in Psychiatric Disorders: Evidence Base and Therapeutic Implications,” International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 11, no. 6 (September 2008), pp. 851–76, doi: 10.1017/S1461145707008401.
11. C.M. Phillips, et al., “Dietary Inflammatory Index and Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of the Relationship with Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety and Well-Being in Adults,” Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 37, no. 5 (October 2018), pp. 1485-91, doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2017.08.029; F. Saghafian, et al, “Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables in Relation with Psychological Disorders in Iranian Adults,” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 57, no. 6 (September 2018), pp. 2295-2306, doi: 10.1007/s00394-018-1652-y.
12. E. Biringer, et al., “The Association Between Depression, Anxiety, and Cognitive Function in the Elderly General Population: The Hordaland Health Study,” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, vol. 20, no. 10 (October 2005), pp. 989–97, doi: 10.1002/gps.1390.
13. A. Bendix, “8 Signs Your Intermittent Fasting Diet Has Become Unsafe or Unhealthy,” Business Insider (accessed April 22, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.
14. R. Balon, “Mood, Anxiety, and Physical Illness: Body and Mind, or Mind and Body?” Depression and Anxiety, vol. 23, no. 6 (2006), pp. 377–87, doi: 10.1002/da.20217.
15. D. Gunnell and D. Ashby, “Antidepressants and Suicide: What Is the Balance of Benefit and Harm,” BMJ, vol. 329, no. 7456 (July 3, 2004), pp. 34–8, doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7456.34.