The Top Nutrients This Anxiety Expert Wants You To Eat Every Day
Feeling stressed, wired, and tired all at the same time? You're not alone. Over 40 million adults are affected by anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. We are in a chronic state of stress, running on empty and constantly in burnout mode. As a functional medicine dietitian, I take a food-as-medicine approach, working to support my clients with proper nourishment that can naturally calm anxious tendencies. This means both the removal of pro-inflammatory ingredients that interfere with signaling of the body and drive dysfunction while focusing on an abundance of foods that provide therapeutic benefit.
The foods we eat can influence our body's function as well as our mood, energy, and metabolism. In my book The Anti-Anxiety Diet and the newly released The Anti-Anxiety Diet Cookbook, I share how to use food to alleviate the symptoms and root causes of anxiety. By addressing the microbiome, leaky gut, hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, and nutrient status, I work to optimize mood stability and stress resilience. Here are some of the top nutrients I recommend for stress and anxiety.
But first, let's take a look at exactly how diet and anxiety are connected in the first place.
How diet affects anxiety.
When we feel stressed or anxious, our body goes into fight or flight mode, a reactive response that suppresses regulatory functions of the thyroid, hormones, adrenals, and metabolism. This was great for our ancestors who had to worry about survival but is not so great when the perceived threat is actually just an overflowing inbox or a looming deadline. Physiologically, our bodies haven't adapted to modern-day stressors, and survival reactions aren't always necessary. The impact of this constant stress, including the mental anticipatory what-ifs, rumination over what occurred, and excessive taxing on emotional processing, can drive imbalances in the body.
To add insult to injury, when we "treat" chronic anxiety by dipping into the office candy bowl, it actually makes things worse. Overindulging in sugary, processed, or hyper-palatable foodlike substances causes blood sugar spikes and crashes that interfere with our energy and mood, and potentially drives microbiome dysbiosis1, fatigue, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances.
Our dietary choices, all the way down to the ingredient level, influence our brain chemistry and the fight or flight sympathetic signals of the HPA axis. Luckily, just as food can amplify the stress response, it can also calm it. Foods that are rich in mood-stabilizing minerals, brain-boosting B vitamins, amino acid building blocks, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory substances, or that contain adaptogenic properties can all work with our system to combat chronic anxiety.
Working strategically with nutrients that balance neurotransmitter production, release tension and stress hormone impact, and support the gut can reduce anxiety in two ways. Therapeutic nutrients can support a sense of inner calm and less excitatory reactions physiologically to anxiety while also promoting satiety and reducing cravings, thus preventing the consumption of foods that perpetuate imbalance. Aim to consume these nutrients on a daily basis to claim your sense of mellow, and you may even find synergistic impact on overall health:
Magnesium is the ultimate chill pill. It works directly at the HPA-axis to suppress cortisol and adrenal output, two of the body's "stress hormones." It works by reducing the release of the adrenal stimulating hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) from the pituitary. Plus, it has the unique ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, serving as gatekeeper to stress responders and blocking the entrance of stress hormones into the brain. Magnesium deficiency is associated with increased anxiety2, so it's important to keep levels in check.
Foods to eat for magnesium:
- Leafy greens
- Nuts and seeds
Choline and B vitamins
Choline, a fat-soluble B vitamin found in egg yolks, is crucial for the production of acetylcholine3, a neurotransmitter that regulates the stress response. However, low egg yolk consumption driven by cholesterol fears in the 1980s and '90s has led to many Americans being clinically deficient4 in choline. Low serum choline levels have been associated with high anxiety and panic5 in research.
Other, water-soluble, B vitamins such as B-12, biotin, B-6, and folate have all been tied to mood disorders6 as well. B vitamins play an integral role in neurotransmitter production as well as supporting proper nerve signaling. B-5, also known as pantothenate, is critical to maintaining healthy production of stress hormones7 and metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, and fat for energy regulation.
Foods to eat for choline and B vitamins:
- Egg yolks
- Offal (liver, kidneys): Look for pasture-raised and free of hormones and antibiotics
- Shellfish (oysters, mussels, clams)
L-theanine serves as a modulator for the brain's neurotransmitters, aiding in balancing out both excesses and deficiencies. It can actually increase alpha brain waves, the type elevated during deep meditation, artistic and creative expression, relaxation, and REM cycles of sleep. Plus, it increases clarity and concentration during waking hours. In research L-theanine supplementation has been shown to reduce secretory IgA associated with stress response and leaky gut, meaning: less anxiety8.
Foods to eat for L-theanine:
- Herbal Tea
Probiotics are nature's Prozac! Beneficial flora, specifically strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, play a role in producing our feel-good inhibitory neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA. But when the gut is in a state of bacterial imbalance due to SIBO, candida, or dysbiosis, it produces excitatory neurotransmitters, like epinephrine (adrenaline), perpetuating anxiety and chronic stress response9. Although these neurotransmitters in the gut don't cross the blood-brain barrier, they do communicate with the central nervous system via the enteric nervous system.
Foods to eat for probiotics:
- Cultured veggies
Fueling your body with these nutrient-dense foods rich in magnesium, B vitamins, L-theanine, and probiotics will provide an abundance of compounds to support stress resilience and mood stability. Ensure you select two or three choices daily from the choices listed above to fill your prescription and start experiencing the effects.
Ali Miller R.D., L.D., CDE is a Registered Dietitian with a naturopathic background and a contagious passion for using nutrients and food as the foundation of treatment protocols and programs. She received her bachelor's in nutrition and dietetics from Bastyr University. She is the author of the cookbook Naturally Nourished: Food-as-Medicine for Optimal Health, The Anti-Anxiety Diet, and The Anti-Anxiety Cookbook.
Her Food-As-Medicine philosophy is supported by up-to-date scientific research for a functional integrative approach to healing the body. Ali is a certified diabetes educator (CDE) and renowned expert in the ketogenic diet with over a decade of clinical results using a unique whole foods approach tailored to support thyroid, adrenal and hormonal balance.
Ali’s message has influenced millions through the medical community and media with television, print, and her award winning podcast, Naturally Nourished. Ali’s expertise can be accessed through her website: www.alimillerRD.com offering her blog, podcast, virtual learning, and access to her practice and supplement line Naturally Nourished.