6 nutritional influences on anxiety
The connection between the food that we eat and the development of heart disease, obesity and diabetes is obvious to most people. The connection between the food we eat, lifestyle choices and the development or worsening of anxiety is less well-known.
Studies are yet to elicit and pin-down specific links and causation but, clinically, the results of personalised nutrition programmes on anxiety are positive.
Here are six key nutritional influences on anxiety:
Blood sugar balance
If you are struggling with blood sugar highs and lows, then your tendency to anxiety will increase dramatically. It is not unusual for panic attacks to occur when blood sugar levels drop. Crucially, imbalanced blood sugar is taxing to your body’s stress response, making it harder for you to be resilient in stressful times.
Many things can impact your blood sugar levels, including food intolerances, sugary or refined foods and a lack of key minerals. Increasing protein and healthy fats can support blood sugar levels, as can identifying food intolerances and addressing nutrient deficiencies.
The ratio between zinc and copper is an important one for anxiety. Anything that depletes zinc has the ability to contribute to anxiety by tipping your zinc/copper ratio in favour of copper.
The contraceptive pill, stress, low stomach acid or stomach acid blockers, pregnancy, or a low-zinc diet can all affect this ratio. A similar mineral pattern has been observed in postnatal depression. Signs of zinc deficiency include poor wound healing, reduced taste or smell, low appetite and poor immunity.
Reactions to foods that are regular features in your diet can also contribute to anxiety through its impact on blood sugar balance and adrenal function. When you eat a food that you are intolerant to, your body reacts by releasing adrenaline. This can lead to a temporary feeling of well-being. The problem is that a slump will follow, and this is when anxiety can hit.
Over time, this reaction is taxing for the body, exhausting our resources. Our bodies try to adapt, but sooner or later it is harder for them to maintain proper function. Signs of food intolerances are not just confined to digestive issues, although bloating, stomach ache and wind are possible signs. Other signs include excess mucus production, and skin conditions like eczema and headaches.
With poor digestion, we cannot absorb all the nutrients we need but we also cannot break down protein to amino acids which help build our neurotransmitters. This leaves us susceptible to anxiety, low mood and sometimes poor motivation and addictive behaviours. This is one of the reasons why IBS and anxiety often co-exist.
Having adequate stomach acid secretions and good digestion is vital to maintaining mental well-being through protein breakdown. If you feel sleepy after eating or struggle with bloating and/or reflux, then you might benefit from working with a nutritionist on digestion.
You could try also GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain, which has been shown to be effective against anxiety.
As we understand more about the gut-brain axis, it is becoming clear that gut bacteria have significant influence over our mental health. Some strains of Bifidobacteria were found to be more effective than medications in treating anxiety and depressive behaviour in animal studies. The gut bacteria interact with the brain and exert a powerful influence on mental well-being. Some nutrition programmes focus heavily on supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria to achieve mental well-being.
Magnesium has long been viewed as an anti-anxiety mineral. Animal studies highlight how magnesium deficiency can manifest as anxiety, and have also shown that additional magnesium wasting occurs when the stress is high, creating an increased need for the mineral.
This catch-22 situation can lead to more extreme deficiencies and more heightened levels of anxiety. Disrupted sleep is common in people with anxiety, and this can have a wider impact on stress hormone release and general resilience. Magnesium supplementation can help support deep sleep and relaxation.
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