It is the most common mental health condition in Australia and when you’re in the grip of it, anxiety can seem unmanageable. But its bark is often worse than its bite and simple changes can go a long way in taming the beast.
Our diet is one, often overlooked way, understandably perhaps because we tend to think of what we eat as affecting our body instead of our brain.
A poor diet can cause inflammation in the body and affect your mood.
Increasingly however, research shows that food indeed has the power to affect our mood and that mental health conditions, which can be the result of many factors, are not always “in your head”, but can be the result of a “whole-body disorder, with dysfunction of the immune system (chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation)”.
A poor diet has the potential to aggravate anxiety (and depression), while a nourishing diet can help to reduce the risk of it or, if you suffer from it, help to make it more manageable.
“This might seem far-fetched but the importance of nutrients for mental health is generally underestimated,” says Natalie Parletta, a senior research fellow in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Adelaide. “People’s immediate response regarding links between diet and mental health is that people who are anxious, depressed etc. are likely have poorer diets. And while this is certainly true, longitudinal studies have shown that people with poorer diets are more likely to suffer from mental illness over time. There are also established biological mechanisms to explain why we need nutrients for healthy brain function.”
When we are lacking in certain nutrients, it can manifest in the way we feel, explains nutritional medicine practitioner, Fiona Tuck.
“We can often get labelled as a certain type of person e.g. a worrier, OCD or a stress head when in actual fact there may be something more going on,” Tuck says. “Emotional outbursts, anxiety, mood disorders, obsessive routines and neurotic behaviour such as overreacting to certain situations and physical responses such as panic attacks, nail picking, nail biting, hair pulling and even eating disorders may be a sign that your body is deficient in certain nutrients.
“What we eat can play a huge role in how we are feeling and by making a few simple changes to our diet and lifestyle we may even see a reduction in these types of behaviours.”
Our cravings when we’re anxious or stressed, for example, can offer clues to the nutrients we need.
“Anxiety, neurotic behaviours, an inability to cope with stress and overwhelming urges to eat the entire contents of the fridge or pantry may be your body’s way of trying to tell you something,” she says.
Tuck adds there are often patterns to our cravings.
“Carbohydrate cravings are common during periods of stress or low mood,” she says. “When we are low in vitamin B6, a vitamin required for healthy neurotransmitter function and serotonin production, we often crave breads, pastas and high carb foods. By increasing the wholegrains and vitamin B6 foods we can see cravings begin to diminish and our mood starts to elevate.”
Rebecca Reynolds, of the School of Public Health at the University of New South Wales, agrees that there is a link between food and feelings like anxiety, but says that those already prone to anxiety may be more sensitive to the effects of certain foods.
“Certain foods and drinks can potentially increase or decrease anxiety in the short- and long-term by direct or indirect effects on your brain, e.g. alcohol (including hangover tiredness, and being tired can increase anxiety), type of carbohydrate such as low or high glycemic index (affects your blood sugar levels and therefore highs and lows of hunger and energy), hydration, caffeine, omega-3 and monounsaturated fats, vitamins B6 and B12, iron,” Reynolds explains.
“If your body is deficient in certain nutrients, yes, it could result in ‘cravings’. For example, if you are iron-deficient, you are likely to feel tired, and perhaps turn to food to try to increase your feelings of energy. However, I’d say that psychology not related to physiological/body nutritional status is more of a contributing factor to any link between feelings of anxiety-diet, i.e. someone who is genetically predisposed (neurologically/brain chemical-wise) to feelings of anxiety/has a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder independent of diet is probably more likely to experience any effects of any anxiety-food/drink intake link than someone who is low in iron, B6 or other from an inadequate diet (e.g. tiredness due to diet, may result on low mood in one person, anxiety in another, no particular emotions in another).”
Still, Parletta says that “exciting emerging evidence” shows the extent our mental health can improve with an improved diet.
One recently published study Parletta was involved with found people with self-reported depression were helped by switching to a Mediterranean diet full of good fats, vegetables, wholegrains and unprocessed foods.
“This research is gaining greater momentum and awareness, and we are also gaining greater understanding of underlying mechanisms,” Parletta explains. “For instance chronic inflammation has been identified in people with depression and schizophrenia which would explain at least in part why there is a high overlap between heart disease, metabolic disorder, diabetes (other chronic conditions involving inflammation) and mental illness. Evolving research on the gut-brain axis, and the importance of the gut microbiome, is also shedding light on underlying mechanisms.”
Although such insights are “exciting”, Parletta stresses that diet alone is not a silver bullet – it is an adjunct that can be used with other therapies to tackle mental illness “one of the worst health issues in Australia”.
“Diet is not necessarily a cure-all,” she says, “but it can certainly provide greater resilience and a stronger foundation for dealing with life challenges”.
Tuck’s top tips to stay calm and stress free