What is anxiety, and what to eat
or not if you suffer from it?

By Patxo Escobar

In this article, we'll take a look at how your anxiety arises, what happens to your body when you get it, and explain how each food you choose to eat can move you away or closer to a state of anxiety. Here you can find a list of products that you should avoid if you suffer from this disorder or if you live in the midst of stress; and we created another one with vegetables, proteins, fats, nutrients and adaptogens, which will be very beneficial to maintain your state of relaxation.

What is anxiety?

Let us give you a simple, brief definition as a starting point. Anxiety is a state of alertness, nervousness or anguish that we feel in situations of danger, amazement or surprise. Most likely you feel a bit anxious when you start a new job, when you decide to jump from a seven-meter springboard in the diving pool, or when you say “I love you” to the person you like. This is a normal and natural behavior that combines various bodily and mental mechanisms – will be described later. You feel it because you are alive. But, when that feeling is permanent, and is there all day, and makes you feel afraid even in situations that do not involve any risk (such as taking a shower, or having dinner with your family), you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, and chances are this has become a pathology.

What causes that anxiety?

Do not get upset, we are on your side and we have made this article to help you, but it is important that you know that it is you –unintentionally– who creates your anxiety. Technically it's not just you, according to estimates by the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people on this planet suffered from anxiety disorders in 2017. After the pandemic, and according to the WHO itself, the figure would have increased by 25 percent. The triggers for anxiety are numerous and can stem from worry – “there isn´t enough money to make ends meet” –, from anticipation – “tomorrow will be worse than today” –, or from grief over something that has already happened – “why? what did I say that three years ago?” “Why didn't I dare to swim when I was a child?”–, among other mental forms.

Do you tend to control everything?

Fear of what the future may bring, and regret for what happened in the past, are the recurring causes of this disorder. In the end, if you review it carefully, that anxiety turns up when you feel that a situation is out of your control and the strict plan you have created. No one can know exactly what will happen tomorrow or a month from now. No one can erase what has been done before, but everyone, including you, can learn to live in the present moment, in the here and now, putting aside the pretense of being able to control everything, and accepting (and enjoying) life as it is.

At this point, it's up to you...

Let us propose something to you. If you are interested in learning more about the mental and bodily reasons that cause a state of anxiety, continue reading; If you are in a hurry and want to know (quickly) which foods, nutrients, and eating routines will help improve this disorder, click here

Why do you feel that anxiety?

Your emotions arise from your thoughts and in this way, you build your “beliefs”. In the morning your partner is in a bad mood and frowning, and you go like: “he is glowering at me because he doesn't love me anymore”. An emotion is generating that. “He is going to leave me, he got tired of me”; and that idea, which arises from an interpretation, you turn into something true (the belief has been formed). Suddenly, you feel very afraid, perhaps a little asphyxiated, your heart beats incessantly, there is confusion in your mind, you feel the usual symptoms of anxiety, which when overflowing, lead to panic attacks which began with your "interpretation” of your partner's gaze. Anxiety is born from those interpretations.

What is the fight or flight response?

In dangerous conditions, if an African lion attacks you, your body will turn on the fight or flight response, which will help you escape at lightning speed. This response arises in the sympathetic nervous system, a division of the autonomic nervous system, and which involves the so-called hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is referred to by Dr. David S. Goldstein in his text Adrenal Responses to Stress.

How is this mechanism activated?

Just so you can locate yourself on the map of your body: the hypothalamus is a small section of your brain, the pituitary gland is a gland also located in the brain, and the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys (they make up the axis to which we are referring). The first, the hypothalamus, sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which in turn gives an order to the adrenals to release adrenaline and then launch the fight or flight response; They will also produce cortisol, a hormone that, after the scare you have experienced, will call for calm within your body. That is, in short, the principle of this mechanism.

What if you are just making up that fear?

The fight or flight response will be very useful, without a doubt, if you have that wild lion in front of you. The problem arises when this system is activated without danger in sight. Let's go back to the situation described above, your partner looked at you angrily (or so you thought) and you thought he wanted to leave you. Those emotions that you created will activate the “axis” (and adrenaline will be released) and in your body the fight or flight mechanism will be activated even if there is not a hungry lion in your room. What caused it? Your interpretation of the facts. The "reality" that you invented. That is why we maintain that anxiety is manufactured by you based on the interpretations of the facts.

Why does your body react that way?

If you live in a state of alert all the time, it is because your body has lost its ability to adapt to stress, a task that is carried out by the autonomic nervous system, which is made up, in turn, of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Broadly speaking, the first allows us to activate the fight or flight response; and the second deals with the work of relaxation and recovery; it helps us sleep, and will be responsible for regenerating our tissues and detoxifying the liver – just to name a couple of jobs – when we are sleeping soundly and dreaming. There must be a harmonious relationship between the two. But, if the sympathetic system is constantly turning on the fight or flight mechanism (from our emotions), the parasympathetic system will have very little time to recover and relax our biology.

What causes our autonomic nervous system to become stressed?

Bad habits, such as a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, constant alcohol intake, prolonged exposure to various sources of radiation or white light from computer screens, cell phones, tablets, televisions, office lighting; working non-stop and compulsively, jet-lag, narrow-mindedness, and poor nutrition, needless to say, among other reasons.

A necessary break...

We do not want to go into the section on anxiety and food without you reading this first. If you live in a constant state of anxiety, if you have recurrent fear or anguish, even if there is no wild lion by your side, we recommend that you seek the advice of a psychotherapist so that they can start working together on your particular case. Beyond the definitions of the instructor's manual, if you have a generalized anxiety disorder, or a social anxiety disorder, or if you are going through an acute period of stress, keep in mind that anxiety and stress are yours. Therefore, if you seek improvement, you must take care of them in a loving and understanding way. Start with your inner work, exercise (cardio and weight), go for a walk, learn to breathe and meditate, among other practices. And, obviously, pay attention to your menu.

Does a wrong diet worsen anxiety?

Yes, it does. It goes without saying. If food is information that you provide to your body, poor nutritional choices will be detrimental to your body and mental health. That is why carefully choosing what you eat, when you eat, and why you eat, will be vital to improve your anxiety.

How many times a day should you eat if you suffer from anxiety?

Three times a day will suffice (breakfast, lunch and dinner), in a 12 hour window. If your first intake time is at 7:00 in the morning, try to have your last meal at 7:00 at night. And so you will give your body at least 12 hours of rest.

Can eating make your body stressed?

If you eat too much, yes. Keep in mind that every time you eat, complex machinery is turned on within the body, involving various organs, movements, enzymes, hormones, and glands. Eating is a pleasure, but it is a demanding bodily process. It is a job for the body. If you eat many times a day, the body will have to make a greater effort, it will concentrate on digestive and assimilation tasks, and it will have less time to recover, regenerate and relax – functions that correspond to the parasympathetic nervous system. (conoce cómo está tu sistema parasimpático).

How can this stress occur?

When you bite into an apple, a piece of cake or a chicken breast, the digestive system begins its work and the hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas, plays a very important role in it. It ensures that the glucose contained in food reaches the blood. That glucose, if you don't remember, is the main source of energy for our cells. If we eat five or six times a day, for example, insulin will be working all the time and when it, the 'queen' hormone of our metabolism, has so much to do, it can result in organic imbalances.

The rise and fall of insulin

When food enters the body, insulin appears to do its job and will have a "peak" (it is active). In the hours when we are not eating, the insulin will drop and it will be in its "valley" zone (it is 'resting'). If you eat all day, the queen hormone will make "peaks" all day and those big rises and few falls, in a body that suffers from stress, will trigger anxiety. In the midst of this excessive task, the work of cortisol can be affected, which indicates that it is a fundamental hormone so that we can adapt well to stress.

What should you not eat or drink if you have anxiety?

Surely many of these food sources are part of your diet and it would be better to leave them aside.

1. Sugar

In all its forms! White table sugar (sucrose), or brown sugar, or organic sugar –it's sugar!–, released fructose (in juice) or powder, agave syrups, all syrups, honeys, maltose, lactose and nectars; the vast majority of artificial sweeteners, such as dextrose or saccharin, to name a couple of examples.

Why is sugar not good for your anxiety?

Because it causes insulin to have very high “peaks” –we have just explained it–, and because it activates the so-called “reward mechanism” in your brain, which, after finishing a vanilla cupcake, makes you ask yourself: “why Why not eat another one? And you do it. And the question arises again. This happens because sugar is a highly addictive substance; You will always, always, want more.

That's why you should avoid:

  • Fruit juice (it's pure fructose without fiber; in other words, it's liquid with sugar)
  • boxed juices
  • Cakes, cupcakes and the like, especially donuts.
  • Sweets or candies (lollipops).
  • boxed cereal
  • Soft drinks, all of them, even if they claim to contain no sugar.
  • commercial ketchup (contains sugar!).

If you are looking for something sweet, you can eat the fruit as such, as nature gives it to you. This way you will be consuming fructose, some liquid and fiber, and your insulin will not have such extreme spikes and you will have a greater feeling of satiety. One fruit, not many. (And yes, very occasionally you can eat your favorite dessert).

2. Caffeine

Most of us like coffee and it is a noble drink with noble properties (we are talking about good coffee). But, if you suffer from anxiety, you better watch out for the caffeine in this preparation.

Why is caffeine bad for your anxiety?

Because it activates your adrenaline, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that is decisive in activating the fight or flight system – which we have described extensively. In other words, caffeine, in a body that has lost its adaptive response to stress, can turn on that alert mechanism and cause an episode of anxiety. Therefore, if you suffer from this disorder, you should avoid…

  • Coffee
  • Chocolates with a high percentage of cocoa (do not consume them in large quantities)
  • Matcha tea
  • Black, red, blue teas
  • Green tea (although this contains less caffeine)
  • energy drinks

3. White flours

Wheat breads and pastries, especially those found frozen or packaged in supermarkets, are also not good food sources if you are experiencing bouts of anxiety.

Why are white flours bad friends with your anxiety?

Because, in the end, they behave in your body as if they were sugar and will cause a high rise in insulin. In addition, they affect the intestinal flora and their permanent consumption and in high portions, will end up causing intestinal permeability. Many specialists have affirmed that the intestine is our second brain; there are intimate and valuable connections between these two organs, therefore, affecting intestinal health is putting mental health at risk.

4. Ultra-processed foods

This is the name given to products that, as a result of industrialization, have gone through multiple processes and end up in a package, a jar or a can. There are so many things at the same time, which in the end, turn out to be nothing.

Why do ultra-processed foods affect your anxiety?

Because, in reality, they are not food and will provide your body with very bad "information". Being laboratory creations, they include preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, high doses of sugars, hydrogenated fats, additives; many chemicals invented by the food industry with a single purpose: greater consumption. As the Argentine journalist Soledad Barruti, author of the book Mala leche (2018), put it, ultra-processed foods are "products that make us addicted and make us sick."

So avoid all those packaged, frozen, "ready-to-bake" products, soft drinks, candy bars, boxed cereals, and the vast majority of creations you see in supermarkets. Choose real food, food that is grown, that perishes.

5. Alcohol

Many people who suffer from anxiety tend to drink some liquor in order to calm their nerves. Although in principle the strategy seems to work, because alcohol suppresses certain areas of the brain's rational behavior, drinking without restraint is not a good strategy for those who suffer from mental disorders (no one should really drink excessively).

Why is alcohol bad for your anxiety?

Because it modifies our behavior and the levels of some brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin. The effect of the drink causes whoever consumes it, in most cases, to feel more relaxed, uninhibited, happy or funny. However, the anxiety remains there, even after its effect wears off, and it will be even more intense, if you add the discomfort of a possible hangover.

It is true that a couple of glasses of red wine, as part of a balanced diet and a healthy life, can contribute to your wellness thanks to its antioxidant qualities, but having a bottle or two will not benefit any human being.

Alcohol takes you to a world of fantasy, if you suffer from anxiety, what you need most is to reconnect with your reality, and learn to value it.

What to eat and what to drink if you suffer from anxiety?

You already know what to cross off your menu if you suffer from this disorder or if you are going through a stage of great stress. Now let's review what nutrients and foods can help you find the balance of your body.

1. Magnesium

This mineral, to which we recently dedicated a comprehensive article, (you can find it here) is crucial for the body's relaxation efforts and is a great ally of the nervous system. It lowers the heart rate, helps brain work and also helps you fall asleep easily. Keep in mind that most of the inhabitants of this planet have a chronic deficiency of this nutrient, it is very possible that you are one of them.

Where to find it?

In green vegetables (the greener, the more magnesium!), including spinach, kale, broccoli, Swiss chard; You will also find it in cauliflower, avocado, seaweed, cooked beans, or fruits such as bananas. Nuts are also good sources of this mineral, especially almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, and pecans, among others. That is why a large intake of vegetables in each daily meal is so important.

Patients with anxiety disorders are often recommended supplements containing magnesium citrate, glycinate, or threonate. The least versatile and effective presentation of this mineral is magnesium oxide. Its function is potentiated when associated with other elements such as potassium.

2. Choline

To function properly, our brain and nervous system require the help of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that exists thanks to choline. This nutrient, which is of increasing interest to scientists and scholars of psychonutrition, contributes to detoxifying the body, renewing various tissues and helping with organic recovery, which is why it is the best companion of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Where to find it?

In the egg, in fish such as salmon, or meat sources such as beef and chicken livers. However, if we seek to recover the function of the parasympathetic system, these foods will not be enough and it will be key to include supplementation that guarantees a greater contribution of this mineral. We advise you to look for it as citicoline, or Alpha GPC choline, which are the two most efficient presentations; choline bitartrate is usually of little use in these cases. Always check with your primary care specialist.

3. Vitamins D and B

Various studies have revealed that many patients with anxiety disorders or depression have low levels of these vitamins in their body. You... don't let your guard down and incorporate them into your diet.

Where to find vitamin D?

In salmon, mushrooms or egg yolks. However, the most direct way to obtain it or, better, to activate it, is by sunbathing with little clothing on for at least 15 minutes. That's right, vitamin D is a hormone that we have in our body, the rays of the star king 'awaken' it and that way we will obtain its benefits. If you live in a Nordic country or if the harsh winter has robbed you of the sun, look for a good vitamin D supplement – which also helps your defenses; We all learned that during the confinement due to covid-19.

Where to find vitamin B?

Eight major nutrients make up the B-complex vitamin family: thiamin (or vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), cobalamin (B12). We want to clarify this because it is usually believed that it is only one; it is better to think of it as a group. We can find several of its members in foods such as beef, chicken or turkey; in salmon, trout, eggs, beans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame or sunflower seeds. However, if you have ongoing B-complex deficiency, it may be wise to seek out a good supplement from your doctor.

4. Healthy fats, including omega 3

You should always include a good mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats in your menu. Insulin will have no problem with them and, in fact, these lipids will help control various hormones that make us want to eat without stopping. Fats, then, give us stability. And it makes sense, in the end, since our brain is made up of fat.

Where to find them?

Coconut and cocoa, for example, are two good sources of saturated fat; olives, the oil that is extracted from them and avocado, are unbeatable sources of monounsaturated fats; and fish such as salmon and tuna, or vegetable options such as flaxseeds, are foods rich in polyunsaturated fats, a group to which omega 3 fatty acids belong, which deserve a separate mention.

A research published in 2018, which involved 19 different studies and included nearly 1,200 patients, showed that those who consumed high doses of omega 3 fatty acids had improved their anxiety symptoms. Keep in mind that our body cannot produce these lipid sources on its own, so the only way to obtain them is through a proper diet.

Many psychiatrists recommend omega 3 supplementation to their patients with anxiety and depression disorders. If your specialist recommends doing it, go ahead...do it, but make sure they are certified mercury-free capsules.

5. Adaptogens, herbs, essences

This word refers to a vast universe of medicinal and botanical plants that for centuries have been part of Ayurvedic healing practices, in India, and Chinese medicine. In the West, they have become popular in recent decades. They are called that because they help our body to "adapt" to the challenges it faces on a daily basis.

Which contribute to anxiety management?

Let's start with ashwaghanda (or Indian ginseng), which will be very useful in reducing stress, as well as having regenerative properties and being essential for good physical performance and keeping our memory in good condition. Rhodiola (or golden root) is another valuable adaptogen that will relieve stress and fatigue. Rhodiola and ashwagandha complement each other, they are a powerful duo to begin to restore balance to the autonomic nervous system. They are usually prescribed in capsules - to ensure the therapeutic dose -, although it is possible to find them in some mixtures, with other nutrients, in powdered drinks to be reconstituted in water.

Eleuthero (or Siberian ginseng), schizandra, reishi (ganoderma mushroom) and maca (a root from Peru), among other botanicals, will also play a crucial role in this task.

Will infusions help you relax?

Our grandmothers were right when they said that chamomile and citron would help us “de-stress”. There is scientific evidence to support this claim. Infusions with these herbs help to relax the body. In a small clinical trial conducted in 2016, it was established that, although the continuous intake of chamomile did not prevent an anxious relapse, it was evident that those who took it and relapsed suffered less severe symptoms.

Another aromatic species with great benefits is lavender, which can also be taken as an infusion and, like the other herbs or mushrooms in this section, has relaxation functions. It is commonly found in essential oils to be used in diffusers to apply to the skin or can also be drunk as a tea.

In all the aforementioned cases, we will always recommend that, before ingesting capsules with adaptogens, or frequently consuming certain infusions, you ask for the advice of a specialist who knows your case and can provide you with accurate guidance. All of the above botanicals have great qualities, but if you don't know their dose – the right dose for you, not the one your neighbor or uncle uses – you won't get good results. We are all different.

6. Other food aid

Earlier we told you that green tea contains a bit of caffeine and that drinking it uncontrollably could cause you unnecessary nervous excitement. However, there are various studies that affirm that some components of this drink, such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) or L-theanine (an antioxidant), promote good brain function and reduce anxiety.

The same could be noted about dark chocolates with high concentrations of cocoa; in excess can operate as anxiety triggers, in adequate doses, according to existing evidence, its flavonoids (antioxidants) presumably have neuroprotective functions.

Finally, don't forget to consume foods that provide you with those probiotics that are so appreciated by the intestine (if it is in good condition, your brain will be too), you can find them in fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, kefir or sauerkraut.

7. And never lose sight of your hydration

It is estimated that more than 60 percent of our body is water. If you don't hydrate well, you're going to cause great bodily stress, and as you already know, if your body is stressed, it will be an easy prey to anxiety. The best liquid in the world is water; and our team will always recommend you drink it with a squeeze of lemon.

In brief…

Eat well, real food and with a generous amount of vegetables of various colors; without forgetting the deep green ones. Stay away from ultra-processed foods, sugar and alcohol. Check the list of foods and nutrients that you have seen in this text. Exercise. Watch your habits... sleep, breathe, meditate. Take some time to observe yourself. And, if anxiety still reaches you, do not despair. Sit next to it, it'll be gone soon. *Patxo Escobar is a journalist, creator of the project on anxiety and panic, 'TAP: The Anxiety Project'

*Patxo Escobar is a journalist, creator of the project on anxiety and panic, 'TAP: The Anxiety Project'