Stress, Anxiety and Diet – Does food matter?
This article discusses how diet affects your brain chemistry and the foods that promote optimal brain function, helping you to reduce stress and anxiety.
Food, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry
The human brain is a complex and dynamic organ, constantly influenced by various internal and external factors, including the foods we eat. Your diet provides the necessary nutrients for proper brain function, which also affects your brain chemistry, impacting your mood, anxiety levels, behaviour and overall mental health.
To understand how food affects brain chemistry, it is important to understand the role of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons in the brain and the rest of the body.
They are critical in regulating mood, behaviour and other cognitive functions. The brain produces several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine.
The production of neurotransmitters is influenced by the foods we eat. For example, amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, and certain amino acids can directly affect their production. Tyrosine and phenylalanine, for example, are precursors to dopamine and norepinephrine, while tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Therefore, consuming foods rich in these amino acids can help promote the production of these neurotransmitters.
Another critical factor that affects neurotransmitter production is the availability of certain nutrients. Micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for proper functioning enzymes involved in neurotransmitter synthesis. For example, vitamin B6 is necessary for synthesising serotonin, while vitamin C is needed for producing dopamine. Therefore, consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods can help support optimal neurotransmitter production.
How do micronutrients affect stress and anxiety?
Micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, play a critical role in brain chemistry and can impact various aspects of brain function. Here are some of the nutrients and their effects:
- Folate: Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is essential for producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. A folate deficiency can lead to a decrease in the production of these neurotransmitters.
- Iron: This important mineral is essential for producing haemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to the brain and other organs. An iron deficiency can lead to decreased oxygen supply to the brain, resulting in fatigue, poor concentration and decreased cognitive function.
- Magnesium: Magnesium regulates the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, which transmits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. A deficiency in magnesium can lead to increased NMDA receptor activity, which can contribute to anxiety and other mood disorders.
- Omega Oils & Healthy Fats: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for proper functioning neurotransmitters. EPA and DHA are involved in the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, and a deficiency in these fatty acids can decrease the production of these neurotransmitters.
- L-Tryptophan: Tryptophan-rich foods can help regulate mood by increasing the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it promotes feelings of happiness, relaxation and calmness. Foods rich in tryptophan include poultry, especially turkey, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 is essential for synthesising several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, while dopamine and norepinephrine are involved in motivation, attention and focus. Therefore, a deficiency in vitamin B6 can decrease the production of these neurotransmitters, which can contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is important for producing myelin, a fatty substance that insulates neurons and promotes efficient communication between them. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can lead to a decrease in myelin production, resulting in cognitive decline and neurological symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and mood changes.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D regulates several neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. A deficiency in vitamin D can lead to a decrease in the production of these neurotransmitters.
- Zinc: Zinc produces several neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. A zinc deficiency can decrease the production of these neurotransmitters, which can contribute to mood disorders.
Overall, a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods is vital for optimal brain function and mental health. Consuming foods rich in the micronutrients discussed above can help support optimal brain chemistry and reduce the risk of anxiety.
How do macronutrients affect stress and anxiety?
In addition to micronutrients, macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats can also affect brain chemistry.
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the brain. The brain uses glucose, a simple sugar derived from carbohydrates, as its primary fuel source. Consuming carbohydrates can help increase the availability of glucose to the brain, which can improve cognitive function and promote feelings of wellbeing. However, choosing complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables is essential. They provide sustained energy and do not cause blood sugar spikes and crashes that can exacerbate stress and anxiety.
- Proteins: As discussed earlier, proteins are essential to produce neurotransmitters. Consuming protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs and legumes can help support optimal neurotransmitter production. Additionally, proteins are broken down into amino acids, used to build and repair tissues in the body, including the brain.
- Fats: Fats are an essential nutrient that is necessary for proper brain function. The brain is composed of approximately 60% fat, and certain types of fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are crucial for proper functioning neurotransmitters. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish like salmon, as well as walnuts and chia seeds.
While there is no single “perfect” diet for reducing stress and anxiety, making specific dietary changes can positively impact our mental wellbeing. Here are some strategies for using diet to manage stress and anxiety:
- Eat a balanced diet: Eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can help ensure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs to function correctly. For example, low magnesium levels have been linked to anxiety, while low vitamin D levels have been linked to depression. Eating a varied, nutrient-dense diet can help ensure the body has the proper nutrients to function properly.
- Eat more fibre: Eating a balanced diet rich in fibre is essential for maintaining a healthy gut. Fibre helps promote regular bowel movements, which helps remove toxins and waste products from the body. Some types of fibre are also known as prebiotics, and these feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, promoting a healthy gut microbiome. Foods that are rich in prebiotics include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas and whole grains. Incorporating prebiotic-rich foods into your diet can help promote gut health. See our article on Stress, Anxiety and Gut Health for more information.
- Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon, as well as walnuts and chia seeds, have been shown to reduce inflammation and help reduce anxiety symptoms. Consider incorporating these foods into your diet or taking an omega-3 supplement.
- Choose Whole Grains: Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and oats, are high in fibre and can help regulate blood sugar levels, contributing to reduced stress and anxiety.
- Eat those Greens: Leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, are high in magnesium, which has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
- Snack on Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds, such as almonds and pumpkin seeds, are high in magnesium and other nutrients that can help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Incorporate friendly bacteria: Friendly bacteria, also known as microbiotics or probiotics, can help improve gut health, which can help improve mental health. The gut-brain connection refers to the relationship between the gut microbiome and the brain. The gut is home to trillions of bacteria that play a crucial role in regulating the immune system and producing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and GABA, essential for regulating mood. Eating a diet high in fibre that includes a variety of plant-based foods and probiotic-rich foods like yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut can help support gut health and promote a healthy microbiome. See our article on Stress, Anxiety and Gut Health for more information.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol can both exacerbate anxiety symptoms, so it is best to limit or avoid them altogether. Instead, try drinking herbal teas or water to stay hydrated.
- Limit sugar and processed foods: Sugar and processed foods, such as ready meals and fast food, can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, contributing to anxiety symptoms. When blood sugar levels spike, the body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone. Over time, chronically high cortisol levels can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. To help regulate blood sugar levels, eating a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein is essential.
- Consider trying an elimination diet: If you suspect certain foods may exacerbate your anxiety symptoms, consider trying an elimination diet to identify trigger foods. This involves eliminating common allergens, such as yeast, gluten or dairy, and then slowly reintroducing them one at a time to see if symptoms worsen.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to anxiety symptoms, so it is essential to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
By incorporating these strategies into your diet, you may be able to help manage anxiety symptoms and improve overall mental health. However, it is important to remember that diet is just one aspect of a comprehensive treatment plan for anxiety. You should always consult a healthcare provider for personalised recommendations.
Which food supplements may help reduce stress and anxiety?
Supplements should not be used as a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet or for seeking professional help for severe or chronic stress and anxiety. However, here are some food supplements that have been shown to have potential benefits:
- 5-HTP: 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a natural compound produced from the amino acid tryptophan. It is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical in regulating mood, appetite and sleep.
- L-Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid necessary to produce serotonin. Serotonin is essential for maintaining healthy brain chemistry and mental wellbeing.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Friendly bacteria: Beneficial bacteria that live in the gut can positively impact mental health via the gut-brain axis or connection. Studies have shown that friendly bacteria may help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a role in regulating the nervous system. Studies have shown that magnesium supplements may increase relaxation and help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Theanine: Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. Studies have shown that Theanine may help reduce anxiety symptoms and promote relaxation.
It is important to note that the effectiveness of food supplements can vary depending on the individual and the specific supplement. Additionally, supplements can interact with other medications, so talking to a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen is essential. Purchasing supplements from reputable sources is also necessary to ensure quality and safety.
Which herbal supplements may help reduce stress and anxiety?
Several herbal supplements have traditionally been used to manage anxiety. Here are some of the most popular options:
- Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to help with stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that ashwagandha may help reduce cortisol levels. It works by regulating the body’s stress response system and promoting relaxation.
- Valerian Root: Valerian is a natural sedative used for centuries to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. It works by increasing the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness and relaxation.
- Rhodiola: Rhodiola rosea is a herb used in traditional medicine to help with fatigue and anxiety.
- Passionflower: Passionflower is a natural anxiety remedy traditionally used to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality. It is believed to work by increasing the levels of GABA in the brain.
- Chamomile: Chamomile is a natural relaxant used for centuries to promote calmness and reduce anxiety. It contains apigenin, a flavonoid shown to have anxiolytic effects, reducing anxiety.
Herbal supplements are generally considered safe when taken as directed. However, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider before taking any new supplements, especially if you are taking medications or have any pre-existing medical conditions.
Additionally, it is important to note that herbal supplements should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. If you are experiencing chronic anxiety, it is important to seek the help from a healthcare professional who can provide a proper diagnosis and recommend an appropriate treatment plan.
Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any ailments.
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