So, you feel anxious, you overthink, and your heart racing from waking up until you go to bed. Your therapist keeps telling you to breathe, but you’ve tried breathwork and everything else, and nothing seems to work. What if there were specific changes in your lifestyle that you could make to reduce these anxious feelings? What if…making small changes in your diet could help? The truth is, even though a complex interplay of factors influences anxiety, newer research sheds light on how nutrition can play a direct role and presents a link between inflammation and anxiety.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s response to trouble. Specifically, it’s your immune system’s response to injuries, infections, irritations, inflammatory bowel diseases, among other issues. When acute, meaning rapid and immediate, the role of inflammation is extremely helpful (sometimes even life-saving). Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is persistent, long-term, and can contribute to detrimental effects on the body and can be a catalyst for certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
Inflammation can be sneaky in the body, often growing under the radar and causing various issues without immediate symptoms. When left unchecked, this elevation of inflammatory markers can lead to more severe health complications, such as autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, chronic anxiety and stress, and chronic pain, just to name a few.
Before things get too serious, though, there are less apparent symptoms of inflammation that we can look out for. These subtler signs can be considered early warnings and help you act before the situation escalates. A few of these symptoms can include chronic fatigue, digestive issues like bloating, gas and diarrhea, and skin problems, just to name a few. However, simply noting these observations is not a substitute for advice from a healthcare professional.
If you are experiencing persistent symptoms or have concerns about your health, consult a medical professional or healthcare provider who can tailor exams, diagnoses, anti inflammatory medications, and other treatments to your individual health needs. Your healthcare team is your best resource for comprehensive and personalized information regarding your well-being.
How Does Nutrition Impact Inflammation?
The root cause of inflammation lies in the gut microbiome, the community of countless microorganisms inhabiting your digestive tract. When these microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, are well-balanced and cohabiting happily, bodily functions such as digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune response function smoothly. If, however, there is a dysbiosis present (meaning there are more harmful than beneficial microorganisms or there is a presence of certain detrimental bacteria), elevated inflammation may be triggered, leading to all kinds of problems in the body, with anxiety, among other mental health issues, potentially being one of them.
What we eat has a direct impact on the bacteria in our gut. Pro-inflammatory foods like processed vegetable oils, conventional gluten, and dairy products are naturally more inflammatory. They will, therefore, contribute to a gut dysbiosis. On the other hand, anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and high-quality protein, among others, can help restore balance in the gut.
Nutrition, Inflammation and Mental Health
Inflammatory markers and the body’s inflammatory response are crucial in regards to mental health. The bacteria and viruses in our gut microbiome do more than just digest food. They carry out other vital functions like the synthesis of various neurotransmitters, such as Serotonin, which is responsible for regulating mood, appetite, and sleep, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which plays a crucial role in calming the nervous system by inhibiting neural excitability. For instance, the gut is responsible for 95% of Serotonin production in the body.
When our gut is inflamed, it is unable to execute these functions effectively, which means that some neurotransmitters might not be adequately synthesized. This becomes especially significant when considering that the improper synthesis of neurotransmitters leads to different mental health issues. Low doses of GABA, for example, have been linked to anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and panic disorder.
Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis
As mentioned previously, your gut is the community of microorganisms that line your digestive tract (from your esophagus to your rectum). It is often called our second brain, and for good reason. There are over 100 million neurons throughout your gastrointestinal tract, which is more than the neuron count in both your spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. The nerve tissue in your gut connects directly to your brain For example, have you noticed the butterflies in your belly when you are about to go in for a job interview or meeting a new special someone? Or getting a tummy ache or nausea when you are upset?
The gut-brain axis is essentially a two-way communication system through which the brain and the gut connect. This axis involves complex signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system. Simply put, signals from the brain bring sensitivity to different emotions to the gut. Conversely, the gut signals the brain through various neurotransmitters.
If you have read this far, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed with information–maybe you are even thinking: “Ok…but how do I help myself feel better?!” Keep reading for some hands-on tips that anyone can apply!
How Nutrition Can Decrease Anxiety
The answer lies in adopting anti-inflammatory diets. Dr. Ellen Vora, a holistic psychiatrist and author of The Anatomy of Anxiety, discusses the importance of incorporating foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to decrease inflammation. These foods range from plant-based goodness like colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, to animal-derived nourishment like pasture-raised egg yolks, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed beef and organs. By combating inflammation, these dietary adjustments will help fight anxiety at a physiological level.
In addition, Dr. Vora discusses the importance of reducing caffeine and sugar intake. Caffeine, she explains, is an anxiogenic drug, meaning it causes anxiety because the effects of it on the body mimic those of stress (both of which lead to a heightened nervous system). Many love a warm cup of coffee in the morning, but bringing more mindfulness into your caffeine rituals can cause significant shifts in anxiety levels. Consider opting for decaf, matcha, or even herbal tea for a warm cup of your favorite beverage without the spike and crash.
Similarly, high sugar consumption affects anxiety in a couple of different ways. First, it leads to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which cause energy crashes and irritability, contributing to a rise in anxiety. Excessive levels of sugar intake contribute to gut imbalances, which, as mentioned before, can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, playing a significant part in chronic anxiety. Having a savory breakfast, adding a veggie starter, and going for a short walk after meals are only a few ways to better manage your blood sugar.
The Role of Micronutrients
You have probably heard about macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, protein, and fats. However, lesser known are micronutrients. Micronutrients also play a critical role in managing inflammation and anxiety.
Vitamins such as B vitamins and vitamin D, and minerals like magnesium and zinc are essential for brain health and can, therefore, influence mood. For example, B vitamins are vital in the synthesis and proper functioning of neurotransmitters. Similarly, magnesium is crucial in reducing stress and anxiety and aids sleep, among other things that can influence our mood. Deficiencies in these nutrients can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and other mental health issues.
Incorporating various nutrient-dense foods into your diet can help ensure adequate intake of these essential micronutrients. Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, some grains, and proteins are excellent sources of B vitamins and magnesium, while fatty fish and egg yolks can provide vitamin D. In addition, it can be beneficial (on a case-by-case basis) to use supplements to increase the amount of micronutrients you are consuming daily.
Although nutrition is not the only thing that contributes to inflammation and gut imbalances (chronic stress, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor-quality sleep, among others, also can contribute), the relationship between nutrition, inflammation, and anxiety highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to mental health. Recognizing the role of inflammatory markers on mental health allows for more informed strategies to reduce anxiety. Now, go enjoy some delicious, nourishing, anti-inflammatory foods!