Our nutrition has the single greatest impact on our physical and emotional health. While we believe in being proactive on our journey to good health and well-being, we also acknowledge the benefits of eliminating certain foods from our diets. Often, removing something harmful can have even greater advantages than introducing something nutritive. This post will focus on the top foods to avoid when you struggle with anxiety. There has been a wealth of research conducted on the physiological effects of certain foods and substances on the anxious brain, which has fortunately yielded much valuable information for individuals who face anxiety and anxiety disorders. Warning; self-disclosure moment: eliminating these substances from my own diet, some entirely, and others in part, has had a tremendous positive impact on my anxiety symptoms, especially the physical ones such as shortness of breath, nausea, and heart palpitations. I hope they are as helpful to you.
The Top 4 Foods to Avoid When You Have Anxiety
1) Coffee/ Caffeine: If you love your Starbucks, your espresso, or your drip, as I did, I am terribly sorry about this one, but you likely already knew that coffee is a no no for anxious people. It is a stimulant (drug) that works by blocking some of the brain’s receptors that are responsible for down-regulating arousal, thus allowing an activation of the body’s fight or flight response to ensue, and a state of hyper-arousal to occur. When consumed in excess, regardless of one’s experience with anxiety, caffeine can cause rapid heart rate, sweating, muscle tremors, agitation, irritability, and more. In fact, its effects are so strong that the diagnostic manual for psychological disorders has actually recently added coffee-related conditions such as caffeine intoxication, caffeine-related anxiety, and caffeine-related sleep disorders to its repertoire. For individual’s whose bodies and brains are already primed for such hyper-arousal, even small amounts of caffeine could heighten their unpleasant sensations, thus exacerbating symptoms and largely mimicking the events of severe anxiety and panic attacks. We highly recommend switching to decaf or herbal tea. Though challenging at first, this worked wonders for me. I draw the line at dark chocolate though.
2) Alcohol: Yes, a glass of wine can help unwind, but there is an important distinction to be made between tension from a rough week, and true anxiety. In the case of “stress” moderate amounts of alcohol can be enjoyable and help us relax, but with anxiety, it can wreak havoc. Alcohol has a powerful effect on the nervous system, and is also more difficult for the body to process. With a nervous system that is already in a state of hyper-arousal from anxiety, the bodily systems required to properly absorb and eliminate alcohol can be compromised. As such, lesser amounts are required to produce the negative effects of alcohol consumption such as sweating, nausea, and a rapid heart rate/ palpitations, again mirroring physical anxiety and panic symptoms. Alcohol also has a way of enhancing mood, but this also applied to negative mood states; the effects are not always positive. Limiting or eliminating alcohol consumption can prevent the worsening of both physical and emotional anxiety symptoms.
3) Refined Sugar: avoiding refined sugar comes with health benefits in every possible category. Limiting our intake has long been a recommended dietary adjustment for weight management, prevention of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and also mood regulation. This effect is magnified in the case of anxiety. Sugar causes spikes and drops in blood sugar levels which we all know affects both our energy level and mood. Refined sugar also increases the body’s adrenaline and stress hormone cortisol levels, which often leads to over-stimulation and has also been linked with catalyzing panic attacks. Because the body is already in a state of hyper-arousal, the trick with anxiety, is to avoid foods and substances that will have an unnatural stimulating effect on the body. To illustrate, the energy boost you get from an orange; good. The momentary spike you get from a Kit-Kat bar; not so good.
4) Processed Foods: this one encompasses several substances to avoid; mainly – excessive salt and sodium, trans fats, preservatives, and artificial food additives, which often run the show in processed foods. Yes, some processed foods are better than others; blue menu frozen dinners vs. a big mac, for example, but we should try to limit our consumption of processed foods as much as possible. Of course, these foods also get a lot of grief for their adverse effects on physical health. They are high in artificial preserving agents that are entirely devoid of nutrients and serve the sole purpose of enhancing the flavour of the food and allowing it to keep longer. There are many reasons processed foods and the harmful substances found in many of them are damaging to our emotional health, but what is most significant is that their chemical compositions actually interfere with our brain’s neurotransmitters. What’s more, eating excessive amounts of such foods, even if you believe you are making healthy choices (light salad dressings, or “heart smart” ready-made dinners) can actually cause you to develop a dependence on such foods because of their additive agents, leading to increased or sustained negative emotional symptoms such as anxiety and low energy if you do not continue eating them regularly. Some products also contain added hormones whose effect on mood is not surprising. I’ll leave you with this great quote I read in a natural health blog: “If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, maybe put it back on the shelf.”
Having anxiety doesn’t mean you are limited in your life, and can never experience true serenity or every enjoy these foods. Try reducing some of them for a while, see if you notice your body returning to a more homeostatic state, and when it has, don’t be afraid to treat yourself once in a while. We believe in moderation and balance, and recognize that what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. Experiment with eliminating certain substances from your diet and get to know your unique body. A deeper connection to yourself can occur when you explore this, which also provides benefits to emotional health. For myself, there is no amount of caffeine I can consume without experiencing heart palpitations soon after, and feeling panicky a few hours later. It is unfortunate, yes, but it’s my body, and I both accept and respect it. If I really can’t resist that deliciously fragrant cappuccino, I’ll make a conscious decision to have it, and enjoy it, knowing the effect it is liable to have on my nervous system – but, 9 times out of 10, I settle for decaf and thank myself for it later. Whether it’s “mental” or a placebo thing, I know coffee makes me feel terrible, I’ve come to learn that about my body, and am grateful for that. There are few things more gratifying than making realizations about the self, and subsequent adjustments to improve our well-being and quality of life. Regardless of our individual differences however, the more natural, healthy foods we nourish our bodies with, the better we will feel not only physically, but emotionally as well. Visit our page regularly for more tips on natural health and wellness for your body and mind.