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How 6 Common Nutrients Influence Anxiety

By Joan Swart

What we eat and drink have an unbelievable effect on our health and moods. It is not only that we require a certain amount of calories to burn as fuel so that our body and brain can function and respond to life’s demands, the combination and breakdown of macro- and micronutrients are equally critical.

Biological predisposition and situational stresses play primary roles in the activation and maintenance of general anxiety, but diet and nutrients can aggravate the situation in a variety of ways

Macronutrients are the energy-providing caloric components of our diet: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that are required for healthy growth and physical and psychological well-being. Frequent, severe anxiety and panic attacks are caused by a combination of a variety of reasons, in particular, genetic predisposition and situational factors such as job, relationship, and financial stress, and experiences of past trauma.

Free floating anxiety refers to the type of anxiety that is not pinned to any particular issue or object, that is, generalized anxiety. Because it is more nonspecific than phobias, social anxiety, and trauma-related stress, and the object or situational context lacks, it appears that nutrition plays an even larger role in sustaining the symptoms. The feelings of general nervousness, unease, and worry linger, notwithstanding the circumstances, but can be moderated by ensuring that the right types of nutrients are consumed, and others avoided that are contributing to symptoms of anxiety, most notably caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.

Caffeine can be a potent trigger of anxiety, in part because it can contribute to sleeping problems, which is often an underlying factor in stress and general anxiety issues

#1 – Caffeine

Caffeine is one of the most potent triggers of anxiety and linked to sleep disorders, another major contributor. Having that cup of coffee in bed, at the breakfast table, when you arrive at work—you get the picture—may make you praise its benefits, but, in reality, caffeine stimulates your fight-or-flight response. So, one too many cups can make you feel moody, nervous, and sleepless. Caffeine can also inhibit levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a natural mood stabilizer and, when serotonin levels are suppressed, you can become depressed and feel irritable. To clinch the deal, caffeine is a diuretic, and even mild dehydration is linked to feeling blue. Most experts agree that up to 300 to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee or two 5-Hour Energy Shot drinks. The safe levels are much lower for children, those with heart conditions, type 2 diabetics, and pregnant or nursing women.

#2 – Sugar

Hypoglycemia is another major contributor of anxiety. Sugar, a simple carbohydrate, is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, which causes an initial surge of energy. As the body increases insulin production to remove the sugar from your bloodstream, blood sugar levels drop rapidly, and the high disappears, leaving you to feel tired and low. A better option is to eat foods with complex carbs that are longer-acting and releases sugar slowly into the bloodstream. Go for whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread or brown rice, rather than processed choices, such as sugar, candy, or even white bread and white rice.

#3 – Alcohol

Despite the fact that alcohol is classified as a depressant, it changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. So, while it may help give you confidence and relaxation in the short-term when the sedation effect wears off, you are usually in a worse state than before. The feelings of fear and depression returns, fatigue sets in because alcohol disturbs sleep patterns, and levels of neurotransmitters in the brain are altered. Drinking suppresses the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and increases the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, both of which enhance feelings of depression, masked momentarily by the release of dopamine. The problem is, that, when the dopamine diminishes, the negative feelings remain. Also, if alcohol is a coping mechanism to deal with social anxiety, trauma experiences, worry, or something else, it is a temporary escape, which leaves one more stressed afterwards.

#4 – Water

Even slight dehydration has a surprising effect on the mood and thoughts of people. Studies conducted at the University of Connecticut showed fatigue, low concentration, and mood disturbances among young men and women caused by dehydration at levels as low as just more than one percent. These symptoms may not create anxiety directly, but worsens the experience of anxiety that may already be present. Replacing sugary and caffeinated drinks with water is a good idea as all of these liquids contribute to dehydration because the body uses water to process and remove the substances. The Institute of Medicine recommends a total daily water intake of 3.7 liters for the average adult male and 2.7 liters for the average adult female. Keep in mind that water need varies tremendously by individual and his or her lifestyle and environment. Therefore, to make sure you stay adequately hydrated, drink liquids with meals and when you feel thirsty.

#5 – Carbohydrates

Right now, low carb diets, also alternatively called LCHF, ketogenic, Banting, or Atkins diets, are all the rage. In these food plans, carbohydrate intake is severely restricted and discouraged, meaning that the diet is made up almost entirely of protein and fats. There is still a lack of scientific data to establish the outcome of these diets on weight loss and health, especially over the longer term, but some studies have shown positive results over short durations. Also, there are contradictory comments online, with some people claiming that their anxiety was “cured” while others claim an increase. However, complex carbohydrates are linked to increased amounts of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect. It also provides an effective fuel, preventing you from feeling fatigued and unmotivated. So, the best option is likely to eliminate simple sugars and consume a balance between complex carbs (50%), protein (20%), and fat (30%), adding up to a moderate amount of daily calories tailored to your personal needs and goals.

#6 – Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and trace minerals are known to have an important influence on mood swings and symptoms of anxiety and depression. A deficiency of the B vitamins can cause nervousness, headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Take a vitamin B supplement or eat foods that are rich in B vitamins, including beef, pork, chicken, leafy greens, legumes, oranges and other citrus fruits, rice, nuts, and eggs to ward off anxiety. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, lake trout, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, can also be uplifting and enhance your mood. Among the trace minerals, calcium is a natural tranquilizer while magnesium is known for relief of muscle spasms and nervousness. Zinc enhances GABA activity in the brain, and a deficiency can lead to anxiety-like symptoms. Eat zinc-rich foods such as oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, Brazil nuts and legumes, or take a zinc supplement.


About Joan Swart, PsyD, Forensic Psychologist and lecturer

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Joan Swart is a forensic psychologist, lecturer, and business developer at Open Forest LLC. She authored two books titled “Treating Adolescents with Family-Based Mindfulness” (Springer, 2015) and “Homicide: A Forensic Psychology Casebook” (CRC, 2016). She is a contributor to Hubpages and HuffPost.

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Latest update: May 1, 2017