5 min|Rhiannon Lockhart

Food for Thought: How Diet Can Alleviate Anxiety and Boost Wellness

Nutrition, Mind Health, Gut Health, Cognitive Health

Diet and lifestyle can play a role in managing symptoms of anxiety and stress

According to the Government of Canada, 1 in 10 Canadians are affected by anxiety disorders, and recent data suggests that number has increased to 1 in 7 through the pandemic. (1)(2) However, many studies look at how we can utilize diet and lifestyle changes to reduce these symptoms.

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember to discuss your symptoms with your practitioner. There may be additional testing or supplementation that is needed for you, specifically. Anxiety comes in many forms and it is important that you work with someone to identify how it affects you.

Several anxiety disorders have been defined:

  • General anxiety disorder

  • Panic disorder

  • Agoraphobia

  • Social anxiety disorder

  • Specific phobia

With anxiety becoming such a common issue, nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field that primarily utilizes diet to prevent and treat mental health issues. (3) There is no specific diet that is guaranteed to cure your anxiety. Yet, it is clear that there are certain dietary patterns and food groups that have shown success, while others that will hinder it. Simply put: standard western diets have a negative impact on anxiety, while a whole foods based diet have a positive association.

Manage your carbohydrate intake

Blood sugar highs and lows can have a negative impact on our feelings of stress and anxiety. (3) If you’ve ever been “hangry” you know how this can contribute to feelings of stress, irritability and uneasiness. Studies show that utilizing more non-refined grains and carbohydrates along with vegetables reduces anxiety scores. (4)

Include a variety of amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Some are essential amino acids, meaning we can only get them through the food we eat , while nonessential amino acids are produced by the body. Those that contain all 9 essential amino acids are considered a “complete protein”. Amino acids are often the building blocks for neurotransmitter synthesis. (3)

One study even looked at supplementation with the popular Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) that are often associated with “gym buffs” or athletes. In study participants, there was an inverse relationship between BCAA intake and anxiety/depression scores. (5) This means those using BCAAs had lower anxiety and depression scores than those who did not consume them.

Other studies found that supplementing with arginine and leucine impacted stress and anxiety scores. Males in the supplemental group also showed lower salivary cortisol levels. (6)

When looking to include foods with a range of amino acids, include foods like animal protein, tofu, protein powders, hemp seeds, tempeh and quinoa as they contain all 9 essential amino acids. If you eat a more plant-based diet, be sure to include a variety of protein sources throughout your day. Most plant-based protein options, aside from those listed above, are not considered a complete protein like beans, legumes and most non-refined grains. However when we combine them in a meal or eat them throughout the day, we provide our body all of the amino acids needed.

Use the right fats

Dietary fat can be both good and bad for our mental health, depending on which you consume. Generally speaking, we want to aim for fats that reduce inflammation including olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught, fatty fish, and grass-finished meat. (7) Reduce your consumption of fats that contain highly inflammatory and processed oils. These are commonly found when eating out, in ultra-processed food (i.e. the stuff with ingredients you can’t read), and in fried foods.

Focus on certain nutrients

There are a few key vitamins and minerals that are commonly used to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Some of these include:

  • Zinc: oysters, lamb, pumpkin seed, hemp seeds, grass-fed beef, lentils, cocoa powder, cashews

  • Magnesium: wheat bran, amaranth, cooked spinach, mackerel, sunflower seeds, black beans, flax seeds

  • B-vitamins: animal products, green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes

Reduce caffeine intake

Caffeine can be a large trigger for many people experiencing stress and anxiety, especially when consumed in excess. (8) If you feel like you need caffeine to get through your days, opt for lightly caffeinated tea, which also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps with relaxation.

Consider the state of your gut microbiome

Your gut and brain talk to each other, specifically through the gut-brain-axis. This bi-directional communication links the emotional and cognitive centres of the brain to intestinal function.(9) Many have looked at the diversity of our gut microbiome and found correlations between anxiety scores and dysbiosis levels.

Supplementing with probiotics or probiotic-rich foods (i.e. fermented foods like kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut and kimchi) have shown improvements for those with social anxiety and other stress-related psychiatric illnesses. (10) (11) Animal trials have shown improvements with the addition of specific bacteria strains (Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and a combination of the two), along with prebiotics and synbiotics (pre- and probiotics combined). (3)

Foods with beneficial prebiotic fibre include apples, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, dandelion greens, bananas and oats. Avoid foods that can cause inflammation or increase the bad bacteria in our gut, such processed carbohydrates, dairy (for some people), and alcohol.

  1. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f31a311d93d0f2e28aaf04a/t/63f77e0f69db2134f34a4f3a/1677164048777/Full-+MHRC+Mental+Health+During+COVID+Poll+15+Report.pdf

  2. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/your-health/diseases/mental-health-anxiety-disorders.html

  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8706568/

  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-019-01943-4

  5. https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12937-021-00670-z

  6. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/biomedres/28/2/28_2_85/_article/-char/ja/

  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16828270/

  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278691502000960

  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/

  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25998000/

  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29134359/

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