As a teen, I bit my nails so short they bled. My mind raced; I was riddled with nervous energy, drowning in self-doubt and insecurity. With each day that edged closer to high school graduation, I grew more terrified of my uncertain future. So, I coped. By the time I was 16, I was a junk-food addict who binge-ate my emotions. I didn’t know it then, but I was a statistic.
One in three: That’s roughly how many teens struggle with debilitating anxiety at some point during adolescence. And age only slightly assuages this number—the National Institutes of Health reported in 2017 that nearly one in five US adults had managed an anxiety disorder the previous year.
And while “Keep Calm and Carry On” marketing has made a killing off of downplaying the implications of the disorder, the results of anxiety are very real and very serious. Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use—including 31 percent for whom it was directly related to anxiety and depression. This kind of trauma is not all in anyone’s head, either: Long-term effects of anxiety may include a compromised immune system, gastrointestinal malfunction, increased risk of heart disease, and memory loss.
Traditionally, science has approached treatment with a combination of psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) and medication, the latter intended to ease symptoms while the former helps suss out and address the causes. In recent years, alternative modalities, including yoga and meditation, have been adopted as well. But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests it’s time to put the research where, well, your mouth is—because food may just be the key to alleviating certain stress and anxieties.
Until we solve nutritional problems, we won’t be able to improve mental health issues in our society.
“While the relationship between nutrition and mental health may not feel intuitive at first glance, it’s key to understanding twin epidemics in modern health care,” says nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, MD, author of This Is Your Brain on Food and director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Diet and mental health are inextricably linked.”
Just look at the gut, she says. Research shows that 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, a chemical responsible for mood and emotion, is made in the digestive tract. The gut uses the same cells as the brain does, and the two organs are connected by the vagus nerve—a sort of two-way superhighway that carries chemical memos back and forth—so they’re in constant communication. Everything we eat gets translated into a chemical message. Poor food choices chemically set up conditions that pave the way for degraded mental health, beginning with gut inflammation that leads to inflammation in the brain—something not to be taken lightly. Brain inflammation means brain cells are dying; it causes grogginess and unclear thoughts and has been linked to depression, anxiety, and reduced motivation.
No amount of medication or therapy can fix this, Naidoo says. “Until we solve nutritional problems, we won’t be able to improve mental health issues in our society.”
Neurotoxins vs. Neurotransmitters
Bloating, fatigue, anxiety—I accepted it all as a part of daily life. As I made my way through high school and into my early 20s, chronic anxiety became routine, as did the disordered eating it gave way to, and after being deprived of nourishment for so many years, my body revolted. My lymphatic system, which typically rids the body of toxins, became so overloaded that it could no longer function. When I was 21, my doctors discovered a Stage 1 cancerous tumor in my neck. It was the worst kind of wake-up call.
I was raised in the Australian outback, an area that’s been populated by the country’s Aboriginal groups for thousands of years. Because of this, I was familiar with the Indigenous approach to healing, in which food and plants are medicine. My parents, who considered themselves naturalists, reinforced this approach with a reverence for nature and whole foods while I was growing up. And so, faced with the early stages of terminal illness, I turned again to food—but this time, it was for healing.
Without knowing it, I integrated techniques common in replacement therapy, willing myself to reach for nutritious, homemade alternatives to my familiar comfort cravings. When my anxiety had me desiring something satisfyingly greasy, I chopped potatoes and fried or baked them in olive oil, later switching to a higher smoke-point oil like coconut or avocado (because when oils break down, they release chemicals). I substituted natural ingredients wherever possible, developing wholesome versions of processed foods I longed for when stressed—like chicken nuggets, cookie dough, or chocolate balls (see page 66)—and soon, my comfort food became whole foods.
When I was diagnosed, a switch flipped, arming me with the necessary mental motivation to truly take on a new lifestyle. I’d transitioned away from eating gummy bears for breakfast, fast food for lunch and dinner, and sugary chocolate bars for snacks, and punctuating my stress with an entire box of cookies for a bit of quick relief—but I actually didn’t feel like I had given anything up. My favorite flavors and textures were still there but presented in a new-to-me way. I created a blog, The Earth Diet, to keep me accountable, challenging myself to eat only foods naturally produced by the earth for 365 days.
After three weeks of eating this way, in combination with a host of detox treatments—including colonics, coffee enemas, reflexology, and lymphatic drainage—the tumor had shrunk by a centimeter. With each passing week, it receded even more. Here I had this vascular anomaly that was acting as a real-time health compass for my choices. By the end of month three, the tumor in my throat had dissolved entirely.
Anxiety may be a sign that your production of certain transmitters is out of whack.
But something else happened, too. For the first time in five years, I experienced prolonged anxiety-free periods: full days when my sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response) wasn’t in overdrive—wasn’t even triggered. Now that I’m a certified nutritionist and have studied food at a biological level, this makes sense: Certain foods act as neurotoxins, causing inflammation and activating the nervous system, provoking anxiety. Without knowing it, I had been caught in a cycle for years, responding to stressors by reaching for quick fixes (what felt like comfort food at the time) that would only agitate and exacerbate my stress response further, all while making me dependent on the culprit.
There was a shame pattern tied up in all this, too. Knowing junk food was bad for me but feeling like I couldn’t stop eating it made me feel awful about myself, perpetuating the cycle. But what was occurring was actually a predictable biological chain of events: Stress is associated with the production of cortisol, a hormone that, if left unchecked, makes us crave sugary or carb-heavy foods that can be quickly turned into fuel—a fight-or-flight response designed to help us escape whatever triggered our stress in the first place (think: saber-toothed tiger eyeballing the same watering hole as you).
Today, we’re surrounded by sources of that fuel in the form of easy-to-access, cheap, heavily refined, processed foods. These disrupt harmonious brain chemistry and the endocrine system (responsible for producing hormones that help regulate mood, development, and metabolism); alter the nervous system’s functionality; and cause inflammation and oxidative stress. Simply put, it’s the perfect recipe for anxiety—and thus, the cycle continues.
But it works both ways. On the flip side of neurotoxins are neurotransmitters, those chemical messengers helping otherwise siloed neurons communicate. As in all relationships, communication is one of the body’s keys to success, promoting health and longevity. The human nervous system contains dozens of these messengers, each with its own primary function. Serotonin, for instance, regulates emotions, stabilizes mood, and generates feelings of happiness. Another well-known transmitter, dopamine, connects our pleasure–reward response and is also involved in memory and focus, blood flow, digestion, pain processing, stress response, and more. Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, increases awareness and arousal, while gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a calming neurotransmitter, responsible for slowing down the central nervous system and thus reducing impulsiveness, edginess, and nervousness.
Anxiety may be a sign that your production of certain transmitters is out of whack. Optimal mental and physical function relies on neurochemical balance, and the food choices you make throughout the day have a direct impact.
You can boost serotonin, for instance, by eating foods such as sesame and pumpkin seeds, organic cheeses, cremini mushrooms, and dark chocolate—all of which are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to the so-called happy hormone in your brain. Boost dopamine naturally by eating protein-rich foods including turkey, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, and legumes, all of which contain tyrosine and phenylalanine to support cognitive function. To increase GABA naturally, look to probiotic-prominent choices like fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and coconut water kefir, which help synthesize GABA in the gut.
Eating for Neuroprotection
In the same way that lab-produced medicines can be helpful mediators when it comes to anxiety disorders, certain foods cause powerful physiological reactions in our bodies, initiating a domino effect that mitigates undesirable psychological reactions, such as mental fogginess and anxiety.
Identifying natural (in other words, food) sources of neurotransmitters is a point of study for neuropsychiatrists investigating a new interdisciplinary approach dubbed nutritional neuroscience. Other factors under their microscope? Macronutrients (fats, carbs, and proteins) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals) and their effects on neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. Foods known as neuroprotectors (for example: leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds) balance body chemistry and boost neurotransmitter production, improving mood and sleep and preventing or soothing anxiety. And they’ve got three important elements in common: They’re rich in magnesium, omega-3 fats, and antioxidants.
Every cell in your body relies on magnesium to function. The mineral helps transform food into energy, turn amino acids into proteins, contract and relax muscles, and regulate the nervous system—plus it acts as custodian over your genetic makeup. And yet, half of people in the United States aren’t getting nearly enough of it in their diets, according to a 2018 report from the American Osteopathic Association. It’s a shame, really, considering that increasing magnesium intake can up your dopamine production, making you feel more relaxed and satisfied.
Certain foods cause powerful physiological reactions in our bodies
According to the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Medicine, the amount of magnesium you need varies by age and gender, but it’s recommended that men ages 31 and up get 420 mg each day, while women the same age should shoot for 320 mg. For context, a banana has roughly 32 mg of magnesium, while a cup of chickpeas has 79 mg. Other magnesium-rich foods include beans, seeds, nuts, soybeans, whole grains, wild rice, cacao, lentils, salmon, avocados, and spinach.
Omega-3s are similar to magnesium in that they’re vitally important to whole-body performance. This family of fatty acids affects everything from skin and eye health to brain function—and deficiencies are linked to neurocognitive disorders and behaviors associated with anxiety and depression. Think of them as equivalent to a car’s motor oil: Proper lubing prepares the entire system for smooth sailing. Without it, friction builds, causing dramatic declines in engine function. Omega-3s keep your engine running smoothly and are found in higher concentrations in walnuts, vegetable oils such as olive and coconut oil, grass-fed meats, and salmon.
Finally, there are antioxidants—the positive powers of which you’ve surely heard, but it’s helpful to understand why loading up on them matters. Your body is full of free radicals, which cause chemical reactions called oxidation. While a certain amount of oxidation is essential and occurs naturally, it’s a delicate balance, and when oxidation is thrown into overdrive, it manifests as anxiety and threatens the body’s ability to fight off disease-causing pathogens.
Antioxidants reverse this process. They stabilize free radicals, thus limiting oxidation and restoring oxidative balance. Furthermore, researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo found a direct correlation between low levels of antioxidants and high levels of anxiety, so loading up on goodies such as vitamins A, C, and E (all of which are antioxidants), for instance, protects your system from overdrive and your psyche from anxiety. The most potent source of all? A compound called gallic acid found in olive oil, but berries, legumes, and dark leafy greens are great options as well.