Are You Feeding Your Anxiety?

coffee-sugarBreathing deeply, relaxing your muscles, and staying in the present moment are some of the most common and effective ways to manage anxiety. But did you know that changing your eating habits can also help you feel more calm and balanced?

There are certain foods and substances which tend to trigger stress and anxiety in the body, and in fact, there are several foods that can even trigger panic attacks.

Ingredients of Anxiety

Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol all increase lactic acid levels in the bloodstream. Recent studies show that a high accumulation of lactic acid in the body can increase anxiety and cause panic attacks. Caffeine also blocks adenosine, a neurotransmitter that is believed to play a role in suppressing arousal and promoting sleep. Without adenosine, the pituitary gland produces adrenaline and the increase in adrenaline can either cause or increase symptoms of anxiety. In addition to increasing lactic acid levels in the blood, sugar intake causes a release of insulin which decreases blood glucose, which can result in mood swings and agitation. Alcohol use also causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to increased anxiety and agitation.

Seasonings used in cooking can also cause symptoms of stress on the body. Salt depletes potassium in the body. Potassium is important to the proper functioning of the nervous system. Salt also raises blood pressure, which strains the heart and arteries. Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, can irritate the nervous system causing headaches, tingling, numbness, and chest pains.

Artificial food additives, preservatives, and processed foods can also trigger reactions in people who are sensitive to them. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is neurotoxic and should be avoided. Processed foods, those made with refined ingredients such as white flour, white sugar, and white rice, can cause a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and emotional instability. Refined and processed foods are usually stripped of much of their magnesium as well, and magnesium deficiency may be a factor in symptoms of panic.

People who manage panic disorders should avoid skipping meals. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can cause the body to release adrenaline in order to prevent fainting, which can trigger a panic attack in susceptible individuals. It helps to eat small meals every three to four hours throughout the day rather than only two or three large meals. It is also important to stay well hydrated.

Food allergies can also be a factor in anxiety and panic disorders for some people. It may help to try eliminating different foods (e.g., wheat or dairy) for two weeks at a time to determine whether a food allergy or sensitivity is aggravating anxiety symptoms.

Certain eating habits can induce symptoms of anxiety. Eating too fast, not chewing enough (15-20 times per mouthful), eating too much, and drinking too much fluid with a meal can all interfere with digestion and the assimilation of food into the body.

A deficiency in several key nutrients can cause symptoms of anxiety:

  • B complex vitamins are important for healthy nervous system functioning and in helping the body to relax and recharge. Symptoms of B complex deficiency include fatigue, irritability, nervousness, and insomnia.
  • Magnesium is needed for muscle relaxation, healthy heart muscle, and healthy blood vessels. A deficiency of magnesium can cause agitation, anxiety, confusion, cold hands and feet, insomnia, and restlessness.
  • Calcium is used by the body for maintenance of electrolyte balance, muscle contractions, and nerve transmission. Calcium deficiency can cause agitation, depression, heart palpitations, insomnia, and irritability.

Although vitamin supplements can help keep B complex, magnesium, and calcium at healthy levels, it is especially helpful to get these nutrients through eating fresh fruits and vegetables, adequate protein, and simple carbohydrates.

Managing anxiety involves changing behavior on several levels. In addition to learning to breathe properly, relax, and use cognitive skills to stop anxious thinking, it is important to keep your body physically healthy. Watching what you put into your body can go a long way in keeping it  healthy and calmly functioning.

* GoodTherapy.org is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or psychotherapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental symptom or medical condition.

© Copyright 2010 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC, therapist in Mckinney, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • John Lee LMHC

    January 21st, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    You are exactly on target! People come to me all the time for anxiety. I ask them how much coffee or colas do you drink? How much chocolate or candy? In treating anxiety one must look at the whole picture which includes diet, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. I like as you walk..the first 4 steps inhale…the next 4 steps hold your breath..the next 8 steps
    exhale. Breathing and diet are bery important components to anxiety reduction.

  • Pauline

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:44 AM

    As an armchair nutritionist I am so glad to see all of this in print! These are things I have been telling my friends and family for years! You have to be so mindful of the things that you feed your body. Not only can they play the devil with your overall physical health but they also determine your mindset and how stable your are mentally and spiritually. For years people have thought I was nuts spouting all of this out but I know from my own experiences just how true this really is. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information with all of us, and I am definitely going to make sure that everyone I have been talking to has the chance to read it too.

  • Toure W.

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    wow…i never imagined that diet patterns can influence anxiety levels in an individual. i thought it was the other way around…if a person is anxious,he or she tends to dat fast and a much larger quantity.

  • emma

    January 22nd, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    most of us use the above-mentioned food items with little thought of anything other than the calories. I did not know that certain foods could actually promote stress and panic attacks. I will now spread the word to my friends and try to be careful about my diet in the future.

  • yolanda

    January 23rd, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    even more reason for schools to do better with what they feed our kids everyday! just think of how much school performance could improve if they would ever get around to giving our kids healthy nutritious lunches all of the time.

  • Becki Hein

    Becki Hein

    February 12th, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    Thanks for your comments! You all make really good points. Anxiety really is influenced by more than just our racing thoughts! When you consider diet and exercise as well, you help calm yourself so much better.

  • natalie

    May 15th, 2013 at 8:24 AM

    I have just read this and it makes perfect sense. I have been suffering with anxiety for a number of years and have recently stopped drinking drinks that contain aspartame. I have noticed a difference in 3 days!it is concerning to me how many drinks contain it, I have worked out I have drank drinks containing aspartame everyday for years!
    Thank you for the information it is very helpful.

  • Holly

    August 15th, 2013 at 7:24 AM

    Thanks for writing about this subject and including the scientific details that explain the effects. I will be sharing this with my clients who struggle with anxiety.

  • Heather

    January 7th, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    My first reaction to this…Was Gee what can you eat?

  • cathy

    June 13th, 2014 at 1:55 AM

    Yes, so much is true, Thank you. It is still not easy, even in the moment. You have to accept life as it comes. Try to be Happy and live life as it comes, accepting crap and staying out of self. Pray.

  • Christine

    July 16th, 2014 at 9:12 AM

    This is a great article and written in an easy to read fashion.
    I will share this article with my clients enthusiastically !!!
    I have personally found numerous links to anxiety and foods and have adjusted my diet accordingly .
    Well done !

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