Anxiety is familiar to all of us. Even more so with all the uncertainty we are currently dealing with…
People are worried about their finances, their access to food and household supplies. Many are worried about their health, and that of their loved ones.
Even before all this, anxiety was a serious issue for many Americans.
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adults in the United States alone. They are the most common mental illness. The good news is that it is absolutely possible to reduce anxiety (1).One first step is to discover what activities and foods are acting to trigger anxiety within you.
In this article, we’ll explore what anxiety is, its symptoms, and the factors that trigger anxiety.You’ll also discover how to reduce anxiety naturally through an anti-inflammatory healing diet & a healthy lifestyle.
What Is Anxiety
Anxiety can be characterized as a fear or worry about something happening in the future, such as stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. These situations can be real, or perceived. Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress.
Occasional anxiety is completely normal. We all experience jitters, nerves, or fear from time to time, before important events, a job interview, or public speaking. However, experiencing intense, excessive, or persistent anxiety, fear, or worry can interfere with the quality of your life and health.
Persistent and intense feelings of anxiety can be hard to control and may hinder your daily activities, job, school work, relationships, and social life. Some people even experience panic attacks characterized by sudden feelings of anxiety or fear that may last for several minutes or longer.
If you’ve been experiencing anxiety for six months or longer that is interfering with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety, social anxiety disorder, phobias, or another form of anxiety. However, even if you only experience occasional or mild anxiety, or your anxiety is new and triggered by the global pandemic…
It is beneficial to look into the root causes of the issue and reduce anxiety triggers.
Symptoms of Anxiety
The symptoms of anxiety may differ from person to person depending on the situation and the form of anxiety you have. You may experience a racing heart, or you may even have scary panic attacks or nightmares (2, 3, 4, 5).
Common signs of anxiety may include:
Increased heart rate
Having a sense of danger
Sense of stress, distress, dread, or worry
Intense general fear or worry
Intense fear or worry about a specific situation, place, person, or activity
Feeling out of control
Feeling tired or weak
Gastrointestinal (GI) distress
Loss or increase of appetite
Difficulty falling asleep
Feeling a disconnect between your body and mind
Painful or worrisome thoughts or memories you are unable to control
Having difficulty controlling fear or worry
Urge or behaviors to avoid things that may trigger anxiety
What Can Trigger Anxiety?
When you think about factors that may trigger anxiety, considering conflicts in relationships, social events, painful memories, public events, public performances, financial troubles, painful memories, and personal trauma may come to mind.
These are most certainly important factors that may trigger anxiety. However, you may be surprised to know that your nutrition and overall health may also trigger anxiety. In fact, when your nutrition and overall health is compromised, these commonly considered factors can trigger anxiety even more so. Let’s look at these nutritional factors that may trigger anxiety (6, 7).
Blood Sugar Can Trigger Anxiety
Not eating regularly may lead to a blood sugar drop. Eating a diet high in refined sugar and sugary processed foods also lead to sugar crashes and potentially trigger anxiety. When you eat sugar, your body releases insulin to take care of excess sugar in your bloodstream. However, too much sugar makes it difficult for your body to balance your blood sugar levels and create balance. This leads to sugar crashes and ups and downs that may trigger anxiety, irritability, worry, nervousness, and sadness...
Just one good reason NOT to give in to “COVID-19 Snacking” (emotional eating) if you are feeling more anxious than usual!
The fact that blood sugar may trigger anxiety is not new knowledge. One of the first research on the topic that blood sugar may trigger anxiety was published in 1966. This study looked at people with reactive or functional hypoglycemia characterized by a relative drop in their blood sugar without reaching the hypoglycemic range.
Subjects experienced anxiety, depression, insomnia, trembling, racing heart, dizziness, and forgetfulness. They were also consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates and caffeinated beverages. Once they were put on a low-sugar, high-protein, and caffeine-free diet, their blood sugar levels evened out and their anxiety symptoms resolved (8).
Since this discovery, there have been a number of research studies that have shown how blood sugar levels may trigger anxiety. A 2015 cohort study has shown that a high glycemic load may lead to mood imbalances, hence it may trigger anxiety.
According to a 2016 case report, adding more protein, fat, and fiber to a diet may improve anxiety, mood, concentration, energy, and blood sugar issues of a subject with generalized anxiety and hypoglycemia. Once they returned to her former diet of refined carbohydrates, it triggered anxiety and symptoms returned (9, 10)
Gut-Brain Axis Dysfunction Can Trigger Anxiety
By now you should know how important your gut health is. Your gut literally affects everything in your body, including your brain and mood. It is not surprising that a gut-brain axis dysfunction can trigger anxiety.
The simplest way to understand the connection between your gut and your brain is thinking about a time when you felt nervous before a presentation, exam, date, or another event. Chances are you’ve felt butterflies in your stomach, nausea, stomach pain, or even diarrhea.
As you can see, psychosocial factors can affect your gut and physiology leading to inflammation and affect movements of your GI tract. Vice-versa, a compromised gut flora may compromise your mood and brain health and trigger anxiety (11).
How The Gut-Brain Axis Works
Your gut and your brain communicate through the gut-brain axis.One way they connect is through the vagus nerve which begins in the brainstem and travels down into the gut and stimulates bowel motility and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the gut.
The other way, your gut and brain communicate is through the microbial species that make up your microbiome. When your microbiome and this gut-brain axis are disrupted it may lead to a number of cognitive dysfunctions and mood disorders including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit disorder (ADD), sensory processing disorder, autism, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2016 scientific review discussed that your microbiome has bi-directional effects on your mood through the gut-brain axis. A compromised microbiome may trigger anxiety and lead to symptoms of various mood disorders. Mood disorders, such as anxiety may also compromise the constitution of your microbiome.
A 2017 scientific review agreed that gut dysbiosis and inflammation may trigger anxiety, depression, and other prevalent mental illnesses and probiotics may help to prevent or help treat anxiety and depression by restoring normal microbial balance. A 2019 review has shown that probiotic supplements, probiotic-rich foods, and a gut-healthy diet may help to balance your gut microbiome and lower symptoms of anxiety (12, 13, 14).
Foods That Can Trigger Anxiety
If you have anxiety, it is incredibly important to look at your diet. Inflammatory foods may increase inflammation, pain, and the risk of health issues. They may also trigger anxiety (19, 20).
1. Sugar and Processed Foods
Refined sugar is incredibly inflammatory. When you eat too much sugar, your body simply cannot process it quick enough. As a result, it releases pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines that may lead to physical and mental health issues.
Processed foods are not only high in sugar, but are usually high in other anxiety-triggering substances such as processed vegetable oils, artificial flavorings, gluten, and additives. Consequently, sugar and processed foods may both trigger anxiety.
2. Gluten and Grains
Gluten is a protein found in a variety of grains. Gluten is particularly problematic for those with Celiac disease or gluten allergies. However, a large number of the population is sensitive to gluten and may experience inflammation, pain, and health issues from it. Gluten may also trigger anxiety. For some, even gluten-free grains are difficult to digest and trigger anxiety.
3. Artificial Flavorings
Artificial ingredients are designed to enhance flavor, texture, or color, or to extend shelf life. Aspartame and MSG are two particularly dangerous artificial flavorings that may trigger anxiety.
However, you need to be careful with all artificial ingredients and other additives or preservatives, including monosodium glutamate, artificial coloring, high fructose corn syrup, guar gum, sodium benzoate, trans fats, and any artificial flavoring. They all may lead to inflammation, increase the risk of disease, and trigger anxiety.
4. Processed Vegetable Oils
Processed vegetable oils, such as corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, and peanut oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids. This means that they are also inflammatory and contribute to pain and health issues. Processed vegetable oils may trigger anxiety as well.
5. Conventional Meat Products
I personally do NOT believe that eating meat is important for your health. In fact, I promote a plant-based diet. However, if you eat meat, the kind of meat you eat absolutely matters. Animals raised for conventional meat products are not treated by the highest of standards. They are treated with hormones and antibiotics and fed with grain instead of grass. As a result, conventional meat products are inflammatory and may trigger anxiety.
6. Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine may trigger anxiety. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks, such as sodas and energy drinks may cause jittery effects and stimulate a flight or fight response similar to anxiety. Sodas and energy drinks are also full of sugar and artificial ingredients that can further trigger anxiety.
5 Ways To Reduce Anxiety Naturally
Conventional treatments of anxiety often include pharmaceutical medications. However, these medications usually serve as a bandaid without addressing the cause or fully solving the problem. It is possible to reduce anxiety naturally through a nutritious diet, a healthy lifestyle, and appropriate supplementation.
The following are key strategies to take on your way to reducing anxiety and living a more enjoyable life. Once you apply these on your own, if you are still struggling with anxiety then it may be time to work with a functional health practitioner to customize a specific plan for you to get well.
Anti-Inflammatory Healing Diet
An anti-inflammatory healing diet is essential for your overall health, including your mental health. Remove any foods that may trigger anxiety, including refined sugars, processed vegetable oils, processed foods, junk foods, artificial ingredients and flavorings, gluten, grains, conventional meat products, caffeine, and toxins.
Instead, turn to nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory and healing foods, including leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and Swiss chard, non-starchy vegetables, such as cucumber and celery, herbs and spices, such as turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and cinnamon, low-glycemic index fruits, such as berries and lemon, healthy fats, such as avocados, organic ghee and butter, and coconut oil, clean protein, such as organic grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish, wild game, and free-range eggs, nuts and seeds for fiber, and fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir.
Note: Clearly, with some supermarkets being low on supplies, we have to simply do our best until the current pandemic passes, or things stabilize.
Remove Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities may trigger anxiety. Common food sensitivities include sugar, gluten, corn, soy, dairy, and alcohol. However, you may have some personal, less common sensitivities as well.
To identify your food sensitivities you may try an elimination diet. You may also try a blood test.
Once you have identified your food sensitivities, it is important to remove them from your diet as they may trigger anxiety and lead to inflammation, pain, and health issues.
Again, if you are experiencing limitations with food choices at the moment, simply be aware and do the best you can.
Reduce Stress and Prioritize Good Sleep
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. High and chronic stress and a lack of quality sleep may trigger anxiety. To reduce anxiety, it is crucial that you reduce stress and prioritize good sleep. Admittedly, this may be EXTRA challenging as we face this pandemic together… But a little can go a long way.
Do what you can. To reduce your stress levels try prayer, breathing exercises, daily gratitude, journaling, spiritual practices, nature walks (or even around the deck or backyard, if self-isolated), and quality time with loved ones. Practice positive self-talk and learn to reframe your thoughts.
To support your sleep cycle, aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Develop a nighttime routine that works for you. Turn off electronics close to bedtime. Engage in relaxational activities and perhaps sip on a calming herbal tea before bed. Invest in a comfortable bed, sheets, and pillows.
And again, if your anxiety is related to the pandemic, do what you can, for now. Baby steps are better than no steps!
Improve Gut Health and Bowel Motility
Your gut affects your brain and mood and compromised gut health and gut flora imbalance may trigger anxiety. Improving your gut health and bowel motility is clearly crucial to prevent anxiety. Eating an anti-inflammatory is the first step, however, there are other ways to support your gut health.
It is really important to calm your body and eat your food in a relaxed state. This will help your body produce enough digestive juices to adequately break down, sterilize and absorb the nutrients you are putting inside of it. When you are stressed out, you will not be able to digest food effectively. If you eat on the go often, it is best to do smoothies and things that are light and easy on your digestive system during these more stressful periods.
If you happen to be one of the many, amazing first responders or health workers supporting us in this time of crisis...More frequent meals may help. At minimum, make sure you DO eat! Even a good quality protein bar will be better than not eating for an entire shift.
Move Your Body
Physical exercise has enormous benefits for your mental health. A lack of movement may trigger anxiety and increase mood imbalances. Research has shown that regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety and panic attacks (21). This is especially important to keep in mind if you are cooped up at home right now!
If you can… When you can, exercise regularly, 20 to 30 minutes 5 times a week, and move your body every day. Mix up your routine and find different forms of exercise that work for you.
Some people like high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Swimming, hiking, running, and biking are great for cardiovascular health and anxiety relief. Weight lifting, resistance training, kettlebell workouts, and CrossFit are fantastic for your strength… But right now many people are having to make do at home. Luckily, there are countless videos of people demonstrating how to use what’s available to you in order to create custom at-home workouts during quarantine or lockdowns.
Stretching and posturing exercises have been shown to have both physical and mental health benefits and may help to combat anxiety. Pilates and barre workout is low impact exercises that help to build strength while calming your mind as well.
Moving your body doesn’t have to mean structured workouts. Move your body daily by stretching, going for a short walk during lunch, dancing for your favorite song, running around with your kids, and playing with your pets. Remember to have fun.
And again, while working at home or in lockdown of any degree, make sure you get up and move REGULARLY.
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. However, frequent, excessive, and persistent anxiety can seriously interfere with your life and affect your overall health.
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Starting on Sunday, April 5th at 9pm EST, my friend, Dr. Elena Villanueva is going live with her Mental Health Masterclass and you’re not going to want to miss it.
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