Anxiety: Is Poor Diet the Cause or Effect?

An image of an anxious woman holding her head in her hand in a dark room.According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States. Approximately 40 million American adults, more than 18% of the population, suffer from one or more anxiety disorders in any given year.

Are you one of them? Are your feelings of anxiety so frequent that you think they are normal? Do you suffer crippling panic attacks, sudden, spine-tingling fear that nobody who doesn’t suffer from an anxiety disorder can possibly understand?

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is what we experience when we are stressed, tense, or fearful, especially when those feelings are related to upcoming events or potential future occurrences. Humans naturally experience anxiety when they perceive a threat to their safety. It is something we can feel, think about, and physically experience.

It is normal to feel anxiety when faced with uncertainty, a challenge, or a new experience. But anxiety is not a normal state of being. It is not supposed to be with you constantly, overshadowing your every move and interfering with your happiness and contentment. If it does, you have an anxiety disorder, a condition that affects an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults.

If anxiety has been torturing you, there is hope. And, no…it doesn’t have to come out of a pill bottle.

The antidepressant and benzodiazepine medications, such as Zoloft, often prescribed for anxiety, work to a certain extent. These drugs alter levels of certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), instilling calmness and even sedation in certain cases. But they treat only the symptoms, not the underlying cause. They don’t address the cause of imbalances of certain brain chemicals or why certain neurotransmitters are not working properly. By not addressing those issues, these drugs cannot cure anxiety or anxiety disorders.

It is not an accident that these drugs don’t cure anxiety disorders, of course. How would Big Pharma make all that money off your pain and suffering if all you need to do is take one pill to be cured? Their profits depend on your coming back for more. So, as long as there are profits to be made, they are not interested in discovering the reason certain brain chemicals are lower than they should be.

Poor-quality diet: the real cause of anxiety?

There are researchers, however, who have discovered the probable cause for anxiety. Would it surprise you to learn that anxiety episodes and anxiety disorders can be triggered by a poor-quality diet and that anxiety is also often the cause of a poor-quality diet?

This may sound strange, especially since most healthcare providers and psychiatrists are so eager to push pills as a solution to the problem. But studies show food and nutrition have powerful effects on mood and can trigger or relieve anxiety. Before we delve into easy diet and nutrition fixes for an all-too-common problem, let’s have an in-depth discussion about anxiety.

General symptoms of anxiety

If anxiety occurs frequently for no apparent reason and interferes with your day-to-day life, you likely have an anxiety disorder.

Though there are several types of anxiety disorders, they all share some general symptoms. Here are some of the most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of unreality
  • Dry mouth
  • Sudden fear or uneasiness
  • Panic
  • Nausea
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet
  • Cold or sweaty hands or feet
  • Facial pallor
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Inability to relax

Anxiety disorders: 5 different types

There are 5 different types of anxiety disorders, each with unique characteristics.

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry around everyday situations for no apparent reason. Individuals with signs of generalized anxiety disorder tend to expect disaster at all times and are unable to stop worrying about their health, finances, families, jobs, and schools.

The anxieties associated with GAD usually stem from everyday life, such as health and family. A person with GAD may focus obsessively on irrational anxieties surrounding these areas. For instance, they may worry their children will get hurt on the playground at school, even though there has never been an issue with playground safety.

This worry not only keeps those who suffer from GAD from enjoying their lives, but it also causes physical symptoms, such as digestive problems or insomnia.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that nearly 7 million American adults suffer from GAD every year.

2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by repeated, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions.) On the face of it, OCD might seem out-of-place on the list of anxiety disorders. After all, those who suffer from GAD and other anxiety disorders routinely try to avoid their anxiety triggers.

Those who suffer from OCD, however, routinely engage in repetitive thoughts and/or behaviors concerning their phobias. But because those with OCD usually experience intense anxiety if they cannot perform these repetitive thoughts and/or behaviors, it is considered an anxiety disorder. Common repetitive behaviors of OCD include hand-washing, checking the time, and counting steps.

OCD affects more than 2 million adults in the United States, or 1% of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

3. Panic Disorder (PD)

Panic disorder is probably the scariest type of anxiety disorder. It is characterized by sudden attacks of intense fear or panic that can happen anywhere, at any time. Sometimes the panic attack springs from a trigger you recognize; other times, the trigger is unknown, which makes you feel even more vulnerable and helpless. The trigger, however, is almost never a life-threatening event.

But that doesn’t stop your body from manifesting all the physical symptoms of a real life-or-death threat. For instance, those who have a panic attack often experience trouble breathing, heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, and chest pain.

These attacks are so scary they can cause you to avoid the places you last experienced an attack. If panic attacks interfere with your life, it is considered to be a panic disorder.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 6 million U.S. adults suffer from panic disorder.

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when an individual experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. As a result of this event, individuals may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about it.

The person who sufferers PTSD doesn’t just feel anxiety. Rather, when something triggers a memory, they re-experience it, complete with all the original painful emotions. These “flashbacks” to the traumatic event can severely interfere with daily life, work, and family relationships. In addition, they often have trouble sleeping and relaxing.

PTSD can be triggered by military combat, weather disaster, physical abuse, rape, or other traumatic events.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults, with rape being the most common cause.

5. Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder)

Though everyone has some anxiety while attending a social engagement, those with a social phobia have a persistent, extreme level of anxiety concerning these events. They feel extremely self-conscious and awkward around others. They fear they are being observed and judged, which leads to unpleasant physical symptoms, such as sweating and nausea.

Any social situation is highly stressful for someone with a social phobia, and this can obviously make interpersonal relationships very difficult. It can prevent them from dating, getting married, or networking with professional associates.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, “An estimated 12.1% of U.S. adults experience social anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.”

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How anxiety affects the body

To understand how food affects anxiety and vice versa, it is necessary to understand how anxiety affects the body. Though there are many things that happen inside your body when faced with a threat, here is a description only of what happens with cortisol and glucose levels. (These two both have an effect on and are affected by the foods we eat.) Here is a brief description of the “flight-or-fight” response of the body, first in the “caveman days” and then in modern times.

Stressful event – Caveman days

A tiger threatens you. 

Body’s Response

  • Cortisol is released – This stress hormone enhances alertness, decreasing the need for sleep.
  • Blood glucose levels rise – Provides energy for muscles that will be needed to fight or flee.
  • Insulin is released – Cortisol triggers the release of insulin to get glucose into cells for energy to fight or flee.
  • Fight or Flight — This activity uses up newly excess glucose. Death or victory quickly follows.
  • Cortisol levels return to normal. These levels stay low until the next life-or-death threat.

Stressful event – Modern times

You are unable to pay the rent on time.

  • Cortisol is released – This stress hormone enhances alertness, decreasing the need for sleep.
  • Blood glucose levels rise – Provides energy for muscles that will be needed to fight or flee.
  • Insulin is released. – Needed to get the glucose into the cells for energy to fight or flee.
  • No real threat to fight or flee – Newly elevated glucose levels cannot be used up, and the stressor is not resolved. Glucose levels remain high.
  • Insulin levels remain elevated.
  • Chronic anxiety starts to take root.
  • Blood glucose levels remain chronically elevated.
  • Chronically elevated glucose triggers the release of more insulin.
  • Cortisol, glucose, and insulin levels remain constantly elevated,  causing cravings for sugars and starchy carbs.
  • You consume sugars and starchy carbs.
  • Sugars and starchy carbs cause elevated blood glucose levels, making you crave more sugars and starchy carbs. It also makes you feel anxious.
  • You eat more sugars and starchy carbs.
  • The cycle of elevated glucose, insulin, cortisol, and anxiety repeats itself.

The above scenario is not a theory. It is the way the metabolism works. And studies show that sugars, starchy carbs, and processed foods rapidly raise blood glucose levels, triggering anxiety. But there’s another reason these types of foods cause anxiety.

Leaky brain syndrome and neurological inflammation

Groundbreaking new research is showing that a steady diet of processed foods, sugars, and starchy carbs damages the An image of a man covering his face with his hands with sunset.blood-brain barrier. This is called “leaky brain syndrome,” and it allows bacteria, toxins, pathogens, and other foreign invaders to “leak” into the brain’s fragile environment.

These pathogens then activate microglia cells, causing neurological inflammation. Though inflammation is the body’s natural response to toxins and other foreign invaders, inflammation is not supposed to happen in the brain because the brain is protected by the blood-brain barrier. If this barrier is breached and the inflammatory response activated, it slows down the firing of neurons, causing your brain to malfunction.

Studies show neurological inflammation can cause depression, sad feelings, mood swings, and anxiety. Indeed, a 2017 study published in Neurology Journal showed that participants who had higher levels of neurological inflammation had higher levels of depression and anxiety.

5 foods that heighten anxiety

Here are the five foods most likely to cause anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, avoid these foods as much as possible.

1. Caffeinated drinks: Caffeine is a stimulant that increases heart rate. This does not necessarily create anxiety, but if you have issues with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, drinking too much caffeine can trigger an attack.

2. Candy and other sweets: Excess sugar consumption causes a spike in blood glucose levels and an equally abrupt drop about 20 minutes later. Such sugar rushes and withdrawals often cause shaking and feelings of nervousness that can trigger an anxiety attack.

3. Alcohol: Studies show alcohol can lower the levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a mood chemical in the brain that, when levels are too low, cause a feeling of anxiety and depression. It can also cause a drop in blood sugar levels, which can cause nervousness, shakiness, and dizziness. These feelings can trigger an anxiety attack.

4. Heavily processed foods: Studies have found diets high in processed and fatty foods increase the risk for anxiety and depression. If you want to ease your anxiety, it’s best to avoid heavily processed foods and eat more whole foods.

5. Starchy processed carbs. The body turns all carbs into glucose, but starchy, processed carbs have no fiber to slow their absorption into the bloodstream. The result is a rapid rise in blood glucose levels, which can cause feelings of anxiety.

5 foods that relieve anxiety

Many foods have been shown to relieve anxiety. Here are five of the best ones.

1. Avocado: Loaded with vitamin B6 and other health-enhancing nutrients, avocado is a tasty anxiety reliever. (Vitamin B6 deficiency has been linked with anxiety attacks.)

2. Blueberries: This delicious fruit is packed with antioxidants and vitamin C, protecting the cells from oxidative stress and soothing anxiety.

3. Almonds: These healthy nuts contain zinc, a crucial nutrient for stabilizing mood. They also contain high amounts of healthy fats and iron, both of which can reduce anxiety.

4. Salmon: Fatty fish, such as salmon, contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to improve mood. Indeed, researchers have found that taking 2.5 grams of omega-3s (roughly 12-15 ounces of salmon) can reduce anxiety by more than 20%.

5. Nonfat Greek yogurt: Research shows nonfat Greek yogurt lowers blood pressure, which automatically reduces anxiety. It also has large amounts of vitamins B6 and B12, calcium, and magnesium, nutrients that calm the nerves.

The best nutrition for anxiety? SANE foods!

Focusing on whole foods, the SANE eating plan provides all the nutrition you need to reduce your anxiety. The 4 main SANE food groups are non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense protein, whole-food fats, and low-fructose fruits.

The addition of these foods — plus the reduction of heavily processed foods and sugars — will soothe your anxiety like nothing else. Wouldn’t you rather be SANE than filled with anxiety?

Next step: End anxiety with SANE

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