There are forbidden foods for anxiety and foods that help alleviate it. What we eat daily not only has an impact on a physical level but also on our mood. In fact, Ludwig Feuerbach was not wrong when in the distant 1850 said that “We are what we eat.”
Food provides us with a series of nutrients that our body breaks down and uses to perform different vital functions. The brain also needs these nutrients to produce neurotransmitters, the substances that facilitate communication between neurons, so that it can benefit or be harmed by our diet.
It is true that research on the impact of diet on mental disorders is still in its infancy, but there is a growing body of data pointing to the fact that certain foods can increase the risk of developing problems such as depression and anxiety, while other foods can help us prevent its appearance or alleviate its symptoms.
Of course, diet is not the only “solution” for preventing anxiety. Anxiety, like all mental disorders, is a complex problem that must be approached from different fronts. However, making sure to avoid foods that make anxiety worse, especially if we have anxiety traits or are going through a difficult period in our lives, can help us keep the stress and tension that we face every day under control.
Foods that make anxiety worse
1. Snacks and industrial pastries rich in sugars
Generally, we should all avoid snacks and industrial pastries, but people with anxiety would have to eliminate them almost completely from their diet. The problem is that these foods are usually rich in sugars. And sugar acts in our brain like a drug, generating the desire to consume more and more.
A meta-analysis of more than 300 studies conducted at the University of Queensland, concluded that sugar consumption activates the mesocorticolimbic system in a similar way to drugs. As a result, it causes changes at the neural level that alter the way we process emotions and modify behavior, reducing our ability to control impulses and aggravating anxiety.
In situations of stress and anxiety, turning to sweet foods to regulate emotions will only plunge us into a vicious cycle that will make us feel worse and less in control, which makes anxiety worse. Therefore, we should avoid foods rich in sugars and simple carbohydrates.
2. Coffee and some types of tea
Coffee contains caffeine, a substance that acts as an exciting in the central nervous system. When there is already underlying anxiety, consuming too much coffee can have an irritating effect, increasing our nervousness. In fact, it can even facilitate panic attacks.
The problem is that caffeine increases alertness by blocking adenosine in the brain, which is what makes us feel tired, while triggering the release of adrenaline to increase energy. If the amount of coffee we consume is high, it could even induce a caffeine craving. In fact, a study from the University of Cambridge found that excessive caffeine intake not only worsens anxiety and sleep disorders, but “The symptoms it generates overlap with those of many psychiatric disorders.”
Some types of tea, such as black and green tea, also contain a lot of theine, which has an action similar to caffeine at the brain level, making it another of the foods that aggravate anxiety and whose consumption should be limited to one cup a day, in those who suffer from this disorder. Obviously, all foods containing these stimulating ingredients, such as energy drinks, should also be avoided.
All foods high in saturated and trans fats, such as cold cuts, sausages, industrial pastries, and many processed products, can cause anxiety. Researchers at Yale University found that a diet rich in saturated and trans fats causes anxiety and anhedonic behaviors in just 16 weeks.
This study found that bad fats cause changes in synaptic plasticity that can generate maladaptive responses and difficulties in coping with stress, which end up triggering or aggravating anxiety. On the other hand, it has also been proven that a diet rich in healthy fats does not generate anxiety, but rather has a protective effect on the brain, preventing the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Alcohol is often thought to be good for calming down and relieving anxiety. It is not really like that. Alcohol is one of the “forbidden” foods for anxiety. It is true that immediately alcohol causes some stress relief and helps us to disconnect from problems, because it is a depressant of the nervous system, but in the long term it will make anxiety worse.
The “Tension Reduction Theory” suggests that people with anxiety turn to alcohol to self-medicate, as a way to reduce that inner tension. Therefore, the more anxiety we experience, the more we will drink in an attempt to relieve it. It is no accident that people with an anxiety disorder are three times more likely to become alcoholic at some point in their life.
The main problem is that the excessive, or regular, consumption of alcohol as a means to treat anxiety can lead to addiction. Agitation, anxiety, and panic attacks are some of the most common abstinence symptoms. As a result, it’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle that makes your anxiety worse and worse. In addition, alcohol reduces serotonin levels in the brain, which aggravates anxiety.
5. Cured, aged and fermented foods
It is not necessary to eliminate all fermented, cured and aged foods from the diet, but people with anxiety should reduce their consumption. The problem is that during these processes are produced bacteria that break down food proteins into biogenic amines, one of which is histamine.
Histamine is a neurotransmitter that, when balanced, stimulates productivity and concentration, but when its levels rise too high it can trigger anxiety, irritability and insomnia, as found in a study conducted at Sendai Medical University.
One possible explanation is that histamine triggers the release of adrenaline, which is primarily responsible for activating the body’s fight or flight response. Adrenaline can trigger a wide range of panic symptoms, such as racing heartbeat, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, nausea, and anxiety. Therefore, we must limit the consumption of foods rich in histamines in the weekly diet. Among these “forbidden” foods for anxiety are wine and champagne, fermented or smoked meats or fish, aged cheeses, canned or pickled foods, and yogurt.
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Winston, A. P. et. Al. (2018) Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine. Advances in Psychiatric Treatments; 11(6): 432 – 439.
Dutheil, S. et. Al. (2016) High-Fat Diet Induced Anxiety and Anhedonia: Impact on Brain Homeostasis and Inflammation. Neuropsychopharmacology; 41(7): 1874–1887.
Ito, C. (2000) The role of brain histamine in acute and chronic stresses. Biomed Pharmacother; 54(5): 263-267.
Young, R. et. Al. (1990) The Tension Reduction Hypothesis revisited: an alcohol expectancy perspective. British Journal of Addiction; 85: 31-40.