Last month I wrote about the connection between nutrition and depression. This month let’s consider the connection to anxiety. According the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. 40 million adults—18% of the population—who struggle with anxiety. Depression and anxiety often go hand and hand, but the treatment, and nutritional deficiencies can vary.
One of the major factors contributing to anxiety is an imbalance in gut flora, or, too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. The gut-brain connection is very important, since about 95% of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. There are many studies being done on this topic.
- There’s evidence that healthy gut bacteria actually produces and regulates the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain (such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA), which can affect mood, pain, and cognition.
- Stephen Collins, a gastroenterology researcher at McMaster University, has done a lot of research in the field and discovered that unhealthygut bacteria play a key role in causing abnormal behavior, including anxiety and depression. On the other hand, certain strains of good bacteria can reduce stress hormones and anxious behavior. In one study, Collins took the gut bacteria of anxious mice and transplanted it into calm mice. After the transplant, the calm mice started acting nervously. Collins has also seen the same results with humans.
- Studies by Dr. John Cryan, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert at the University College Cork, shows that gut bacteria can alter brain chemistry. He found that after eliminating the good bacteria in mice, they act in ways that mimic human anxiety, depression, and autism. And in one of his studies, two strains of bacteria were more effective than anantidepressant at treating anxiety and depression.
- Another study showed that probiotics can help you naturally produce more GABA, a relaxing amino acid, and neurotransmitter. Amazingly, this same study showed that probiotics not only help your body produce more GABA, but they enhance the sensitivity of the GABA receptors in your brain, making you more susceptible to calming effects of your natural GABA production.
- There is a study that suggests that young adults experience less social anxiety if they eat fermented food, and another study shows that yogurt eaters experience positive changes in brain function that cause them to react more calmly to visual stimuli.
- Phil Burnet, a neurobiologist at Oxford University, published a paper in 2015 showing that people who ingested probiotics have lower levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone
- Other research by Burnet shows that prebiotics support overall brain health in humans and foster the growth of probiotics in mice, which leads to increased levels of several neurotransmitters that reduced anxiety-like behavior. Prebiotic-rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus, and squash.
What to eat to lessen anxiety
Probiotic Rich Foods: kefir (if not sensitive to dairy), sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, yogurt (if not sensitive to dairy). Taking a quality probiotic supplement with multiple strains is also beneficial.
Prebiotic Rich Foods (what probiotics eat): chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, onion, banana
Complex Carbohydrates: barley, beans, quinoa, sweet potato. Complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.
Antibiotic- Free Meats: antibiotics and cause major disruption in the gut flora. Choosing meats without antibiotics can lessen the bacteria disruption in your gut.
Zinc Rich Foods: oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks. Enzymes containing zinc are necessary for the synthesis of serotonin.
Tryptophan Rich Foods: oat , poultry, spirulina, pistachio, chia seeds and sesame seeds. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin.
Magnesium Rich Foods: leafy greens such as spinach, avocado, figs, dark chocolate, legumes, nuts, and seeds. You can also bathe in Epsom salts. A study in France of 264 patients with generalized anxiety disorder found that a statistically significant number of men and women reported improvements on a magnesium regimen.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: fish, flax seed, and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent anxiety by increasing the functionality of serotonin.