Last fall, a client was telling me about trouble managing his anxiety. He said he was full of nervous energy and social situations made him overly tense. When nighttime came, his mind kept racing and he had trouble falling asleep.
We worked through common anti-anxiety practices—breathing exercises to calm his nervous system, journaling to gain perspective, and titrated exposure to uncomfortable situations. Despite these interventions, the anxious tightness in his chest continued, at least for a while.
Anxiety May Show Up In The Mind, But It Begins In The Belly
A few weeks later during one of our coaching conversations, he told me he was starting to feel better. He noticed he less wound-up, more energized, and generally less anxious during the day.
I asked him what he had done differently?
He said, “Nothing really, except clean up my diet.”
The light bulb went off!
While working on his anxiety symptoms, we also spent time cleaning up his eating. We eliminated foods like wheat and dairy that were causing him digestive issues. We also increased his variety of fresh vegetables and ensured he was getting enough fiber and vitamins in what he ate.
My hope was that cleaning up his eating would help him develop a sense of control and ownership in his life. But why eating healthy is important for anxiety never initially crossed my mind.
Is it possible that changing your diet can tip your neurophysiology into a less anxious state?
Certainly. Although it’s complicated to unravel how dietary changes may improve your mood, here’s why eating healthy is important, if not necessary, to temper your feelings of worry.
The Gut-Microbiome-Brain Axis
On one level, it seems obvious that what you eat can impact your mood. If you’ve ever felt lethargic after a large meal, or crummy when you eat something that disagrees with your system, you know that food can rapidly impact your mood.
Yet these acute effects from food don’t explain chronic and long-lasting conditions like depression and anxiety. To understand how the food you put in your mouth impacts more severe mental health issues, you need to understand the intricate relationship between your gut and your brain.
These two centers of your body are linked via the vagus nerve, the main information superhighway that communicates messages about what’s going on with your digestion, breathing, heart rate, etc. This direct channel between belly and brain can play a role in a variety of mental health issues, anxiety included.
At the same time, your gut impacts your brain through a variety of chemical messengers produced by your microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live in your gut.
As food gets passed into your intestines, these microbes ferment the foods you eat turning them into vitamins, enzymes, short-chain fatty acids, and other compounds. Depending on the composition of your microbiome, your gut can either work for you by producing chemicals that protect your brain or against you by creating toxic byproducts that can harm your cells.
This complex relationship between the food you eat, your gut, and your brain points to a simple fact – the colony of microorganisms living in your gut contributes to how your brain functions and can influence your mental health.
You’ve probably known why eating healthy was important for your body. But now it’s time to consider why eating healthy is important for your mind.
How Your Microbiome May Affect Your Brain And Mood
If you are suffering from anxiety or low mood, it is important to consider why eating healthy is important for managing your symptoms. Here are four areas to pay attention to based upon the latest science linking food and mood:
1. Protect The Lining of Your Gut
A healthy gut has a highly selective barrier regulating what gets passed between your intestines and your bloodstream. If you experience regular digestive issues or have known food sensitivities, it’s possible that the lining of your gut has been compromised.
“Leaky gut syndrome” allows undigested food and harmful chemicals to pass into your bloodstream. This can lead to increased cellular stress or even a full-blown immune response to deal with unwanted compounds circulating in your body. There are many ways in which increased gut permeability can produce inflammation, which is why eating healthy is important to limit levels of proinflammatory molecules that can harm your brain and organs.
One way to protect your gut lining is to reduce a compound called zonulin. Zonulin breakdowns the barrier between cells in your intestinal wall allowing stuff to get through that shouldn’t. While there is no straightforward relationship between zonulin and diet, consuming a lot of gluten, and specifically its protein gliadin, seems to elevate zonulin and subsequently increase gut permeability.
This doesn’t mean you should go gluten-free, but it’s clear that certain proteins like those found in wheat can exacerbate symptoms of leaky gut. Monitoring your food intake and logging any digestive symptoms is a good way to figure out what foods you might be particularly sensitive to. From there you can try an elimination diet, removing that food completely for a few weeks and see how your body responds.
2. Add-In Fiber & Boost Short-Chain Fatty Acids
Your microbiome produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) from fermenting the fiber in veggies that you eat. These molecules (e.g. propionate and butyrate) have a key role in microbiota–gut–brain crosstalk. Specifically, SCFA’s can modulate hormones and gene expression that directly impact your brain and the permeability of your gut, having wide-ranging effects on your mood.
The most reliable way to increase the production of SCFA in your gut is to eat foods high in fermentable fibers, also known as prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and activity of microbes that confer health benefits. Inulin and trans-galacto-oligosaccharides are defined as prebiotics and found in foods like Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, onions, and savoy cabbage.
High levels of circulating SCFAs produced by gut microbiota influence the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The blood-brain barrier, similar to the intestinal wall, helps keep unwanted molecules from crossing over into your brain. When this breaks-down, undesirable compounds can enter brain tissue causing inflammation that may impact your mood.
3. Eat Chemical-Free Food & Reduce Inflammation
Since chronic inflammatory disorders can impact your brain and mood, eating to reduce inflammation can help with anxiety and mood in general. A good starting point is to reduce trans fats (a known cause of inflammation) and increase omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish like salmon and mackerel.
Eating from the rainbow by consuming a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables can provide phytochemicals that help protect cellular systems from oxidative damage and also may lower the risk of chronic diseases. Foods like curcumin found in turmeric and polyphenols found in berries and green tea are powerful compounds to lower systemic inflammation.
Perhaps, more importantly, is choosing foods that are free from pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical additives. All of these alter your microbiome, potentially reducing the biodiversity of organisms that live in your gut and compromising your ability to digest, assimilate, and absorb nutrients from your food. If possible, choose organically grown items and wash them thoroughly. This can reduce how much of these industrial additives make it into your system.
4. Support Neurotransmitter Production
The majority of serotonin, a main neurotransmitter involved in mood, is made and stored in your gut. Your microbiome helps produce serotonin from tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods. Research has found that consuming a standard Western diet (i.e. high fat, high sodium, high refined carbs) alters your microbiome shifting the tryptophan pathways in your gut. In turn, this affects serotonin synthesis and can produce depressive and anxiety-like symptoms.
GABA, another important neurotransmitter implicated in anxiety, can be produced by bacterial strains in your gut. Specifically, bacteria from the strains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can effectively increase GABA in your gut. While it’s unclear if increasing GABA in your gut can directly affect your brain, it can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve and potentially have a calming effect on your body.
Probiotics As Potential Treatments
The science behind probiotics and mood is nascent but promising. For instance, one randomized controlled study found that a probiotic containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bifidum had beneficial effects for patients with major depression. Another study found that a probiotic supplement reduced anxiety in rats and lowered psychological stress in human subjects.
While it’s difficult to know how specific bacterial strains will interact with your unique microbiome, the idea that specific types of bacteria could confer resilience against depression and anxiety is hopeful.
Keep in mind that there are seemingly endless combinations of probiotics and prebiotics. More research is needed to determine which combinations are most beneficial.
It’s possible that taking a probiotic supplement may actually disrupt your bacterial balance or have no effect at all. Therefore, before adding a probiotic supplement to your diet, it’s better to seek food sources of beneficial bacterial like kimchee, sauerkraut, or kefir.
Why Eating Healthy Is Important For Anxiety
The link between food and mood is an evolving of research that merges our understanding of the microbiome with personalized medicine that can identify your unique biochemistry and create targeted recommendations to support your health.
There is no doubt that your gut impacts everything from neurotransmitters, to hormones, to what you can actually extract from your food, both nutritionally and energetically. This means that eating to take care of your microbiome has far-reaching effects on your brain.
However, at this point, the exact mechanisms that link food and mood are not fully understood, The science is still emerging so it’s important not to make overblown conclusions from limited studies. Saying food “contributes to” or “plays a role in anxiety” makes a lot of assumptions without clear causation.
What we do know is that a standard American diet consisting of high amounts of fat, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and artificial additives tends to be bad for your gut, subsequently, bad for your mental health.
On the flip side, eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables with lots of fiber, omega-3 fats, and unprocessed ingredients seems to improve the diversity of your microbiome and may have a beneficial or protective effect for your brain.
Beyond these broad recommendations, it is difficult to definitively say, “Eat this or that and it will improve your anxiety.” The reality is that you are unique, both individually and biochemically, and this means what might work for you may have zero or even detrimental effects for someone else.
Dietary Changes That You Can Implement Today
If you’re still unsure why eating healthy is important for anxiety, consider doing a small experiment. Identify the top three foods you eat most often. Then follow these recommendations to make changes or swaps to these items more gut-friendly. Track the changes in your digestion, energy, and mood for a few weeks and see what you discover:
- Reduce or eliminate foods containing antibiotics, pesticides, and preservatives that negatively impact the diversity of your microbiome.
- Learn how your medications or antibiotics used in food production impact your gut microbiome.
- Focus on SOULful ingredients: Sustainably farmed. Organic. Unprocessed. And local.
- Try including prebiotic fibers and probiotics that promote a robust and diverse microbiome.
- Limit foods that may trigger an auto-immune response and lead to inflammation of the gut lining. Know what you’re sensitive to.
- Eliminate nutrient deficiencies by getting adequate protein, vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, and minerals.
- Ensure you’re actually absorbing your food properly by monitoring your stools for undigested food and looking at blood work for nutrient deficiencies.
- Drink filtered water as Chlorine, Flouride and other chemicals found in tap water may negatively impact the diversity of the microbiome.
- Supplement strategically to heal the lining of your gut, reduce inflammation, and normalize neurotransmitters.
- Get your microbiome and blood tested with at-home tools like Ixcella and Brio to assess where your gut and physiology might be imbalanced. Measuring your blood biomarkers is a powerful way to take health back into your own hands and make lifestyle choices that will actually impact your health.
Mental Health and Physical Health Are Intertwined
While a healthy dietary pattern may help with your anxiety, it’s unlikely to resolve the issue on its own. It’s important to address the other underlying reasons you are worried and unwell.
A holistic lifestyle coach can help you figure out how your food is impacting your mind and body. Working with a therapist or coach can also help you unravel and manage the social and emotional factors causing you anxiety.
Working through the physical, social, and emotional components of anxiety is a journey that takes time. If you start by paying attention to what you eat, your path towards health and happiness will be much easier than if you neglect your diet altogether.
Eating what makes me (and my microbiome) happy!
~ Jeff Siegel
I’m Jeff Siegel, a wellness coach and mindfulness teacher, helping people upgrade their habits and improve their health. For free bi-monthly wisdom on how to eat, move, and be healthier, sign-up for my newsletter. If you’d like to explore working together, you can schedule a private 30-min consultation call with me.