When I became a Registered Dietitian in 2006, anxiety wasn’t on my radar as a consideration when working with clients. But during the decade from 2007-2017 the U.S. saw a staggering increase in people suffering with anxiety. 18.1% of the adult US population now struggles with an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental health issue. More than a decade into my career, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients who identify anxiety as a primary health challenge.
The millennial generation has come to be known as the anxious generation. Individuals in this generation were kids in the late 80’s and 90’s and are now in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Many of us grew up on diets filled with processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats. We gulped down soda, munched on fat-free cookies, slurped down bowls of sugar-smack cereal, and gobbled microwaved macaroni and cheese to our heart’s content. Our gut microbiomes were decimated by indiscriminate use of antibiotics for ear infections, the common cold, and acne. Millennials were also the guinea pigs for potent new stressors: the ubiquity of social media, hours of screen-time, and smartphones. Additionally, we tend to be less connected to traditional support systems such as family, long-term communities, and religious faith. Of course all of these issues are quickly permeating other generations.
Effectively managing anxiety depends on the individual and can require a multi-pronged treatment approach including counseling with a psychologist and possible pharmacotherapy, but there are numerous strategies related to diet and lifestyle that can dramatically improve the severity and intensity of anxiety symptoms.
The diet that surfaced in the 80’s and prevails today is high in processed foods, sugar, and is low in healthy fat. It provides little our brains and microbiomes need to function optimally, but gives ample fuel for disease. The lack of fat starves our brains of the building blocks required to promote cognition, and states of happiness, satisfaction, and calm (especially omega-3 fats), while the lack of fiber denies beneficial gut bacteria the fuel required for their flourishing. If you add in a few rounds of antibiotics, you knock out many of those good bacteria, which leaves the gut open for repopulation by invasive and opportunistic bacteria. Research in mice shows that a lack of gut bacteria — produced in sterile conditions or after being given antibiotics — produces anxiety symptoms. While more research is required to determine the exact pathways and clinical applications of this new microbiome information in humans, the insight is illuminating. Including gut health in therapeutic treatment protocols is likely to yield positive results for overall mental health including anxiety.
So what can be done from a dietary point of view to reduce anxiety?
- Limit added sugar intake to 25g/day for women and 35g/day for men. Less is better.
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol consumption.
- Increase brain health supporting omega-3, monounsaturated, and saturated fats.
- Eat a whole food based diet with tons of non-starchy vegetables, ample healthy fats, and low to moderate amounts of low glycemic index carbohydrates.
- Experiment with going gluten or grain-free.
- Replenish your microbiome by consuming probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and yogurt every day.
- Drink bone broth and/or supplement with collagen protein powder — both are excellent for improving gut health.
- Consider targeted supplementation: B-complex vitamins, Vitamin D, Magnesium, and the herb ashwagandha.
Health challenges like anxiety don’t occur in a vacuum and are unlikely to be fully managed with improved diet alone. We should take steps to live in a way that promotes all types of health: mental, physical, emotional, and environmental. Here are some key strategies to implement for a lower-anxiety life:
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
- Be physically active — move your body everyday.
- Don’t smoke tobacco.
- Learn to meditate and make time for meditation practice everyday — it’s like weight training for the brain.
- Get outside — take a walk, go on a bike ride, enjoy the sounds of naturally running water, get your hands dirty in a garden.
- Put your phone down and turn off your computer.
- Connect with people in person & engage with your support system.
- Find what works for you: baths, saunas, use of essential oils, and yoga, are all time-proven anxiety reducers.
If reading these anti-anxiety dietary and lifestyle interventions gives you anxiety, try to focus on making just one change at a time. Breakdown the behaviors you want to develop into small steps — make them as achievable as possible. For example, you could begin by taking the suggested supplements or committing to walking outside for 5 minutes every day. With a 5 minute walk the bar is set low enough that we know we have the ability to do it. We can all find a spare 5 minutes and after at first minute outside, we often realize it feels good to move our bodies and 5 minutes might turn into 10, 20, or longer. Another helpful strategy is to link the behavior you’re trying to develop to another habit you currently have. For example you can link taking supplements with brushing your teeth. Once you’ve mastered those new habits, build on them. Perhaps the 5 minute walk turns into a 5 minute jog and in addition to taking supplements you include 5 minutes of centering yoga or meditation. We need to recognize that these small steps won’t alleviate anxiety on their own, but with time and persistence the compounding effects of positive habit stacking will help us feel better. Our lives are built choice by choice, habit by habit.
We can overcome anxiety one small deliberate step at a time.