6 Foods to Avoid if You Have Anxiety

Disclaimer: This article was written for educational purposes. If you suspect that you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, please reach out for professional help.

We all experience stress and anxiety from time to time. In those moments, it can be tempting to quell emotions with food. For some, food can be a source of comfort or distraction. But, sometimes, they can aggravate what you may already be feeling. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the U.S. population — about 40 million people– experience anxiety. There are various tools to deal with anxiety, such as therapy, meditation, exercise, and medication. But, making some changes in your diet can help too. 

Here are six foods that might be worsening your anxiety. 

  • Sugar

Sugar is a wonderful tool for quieting anxious thoughts, but it can just as harmful. Though you might think of sugar as something that provides an extra energy boost, studies show that it may have negative impacts on your mood. They found that sugar has no positive long-term impact on your mood. In fact, a recent 2019 study stated that it increased the chances of mood disorders in men and recurrent mood disorders in both men and women. 

The reason we reach for a sugary treat whenever we are anxious might be because it makes us feel less stressed. Sugar suppresses activity in the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis), thus giving us the illusion of being relaxed. However, this is a temporary relief if you experience chronic stress. 

Cutting sugar out of your life, though painful and seemingly limiting, can help you handle your anxiety a bit better. The first few days (or weeks) you might experience irritability, confusion, and anxiety. So, if you start craving sugar, reach for a piece of fruit or vegetable. There are many easy and tasty recipes online! 

  • Coffee

I used to be a big coffee drinker. In college, it was what kept me awake most of the day. But, one day, I decided to give it up. I traded my coffee cup for a bit of mental quiet.   

Though there are many health benefits to coffee, it can actually be a risk factor for those with anxiety. Depending on the brew, coffee can 95 grams of caffeine in it (this is just in a regular 8-ounce cup). Studies have found a strong association between caffeine and anxiety. A 2008 study found that coffee blocks adenosine (a brain chemical that makes you feel tired) and triggers the release of adrenaline. In fact, some of the symptoms that you get from drinking too much coffee are similar to anxiety symptoms: heart palpitations, nervousness, and restlessness.  

After cutting back on coffee (though I still indulge in a small cup diluted with a fair amount of plant-based milk), I felt a bit more at ease. If you decide to cut back or quit coffee, there are great alternatives to help you do so. You could try chicory coffee or golden milk. 

  • Aged, fermented, or cultured foods 

You may be wondering how do cheese and cured meats affect anxiety. Well, during the fermentation period, these foods release biogenic amines, which accumulate the more the food ages. One of these amines is histamine. I’m sure you’ve heard the term in the same sentence with Benadryl and Claritin. But, histamines are chemicals that help your body get rid of allergens. However, eating foods that are high in histamines, such as wine, cheese, and cured meats, can produce an intolerance. 

They can produce anxiety, insomnia, and increase adrenaline levels.  

If you are concerned or think that your diet might be a factor, talk to your health care professional to see if you have histamine intolerance. Consider reducing the amount of cured or fermented foods you eat.   

  • Nightshades

Nightshades include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and berries. Nightshades boast of many health benefits, but these vegetables and fruits produce their form of pesticide– glycoalkaloids. Though their intended targets are earthworms and insects, glycoalkaloids are harmful to humans too. This chemical blocks acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that helps produce a neurotransmitter necessary for sleep. Thus, resulting in sleepless nights and more frequent bouts of anxiety. Though nightshades carry this neurotoxin in small doses, it can accumulate over time if you eat them frequently. 

Unfortunately, cooking does not destroy glycoalkaloids, but there are other ways to minimize your exposure. 

  • Gluten

Gluten refers to a specific group of proteins found in cereal grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. Though the popularity of gluten-free options has risen, people assume that it caters to people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. However, going gluten-free can help you better cope with anxiety and other mental health issues. 

Gluten causes intestinal inflammation, but it can also aggravate mental health issues. In fact, there is literature linking celiac disease and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Though there is not an exact explanation for how celiac disease and mental health issues are related, some physicians and psychiatrists suggest biological and psychosocial reasons. One popular theory deals with the bidirectional communication between the gastrointestinal tract and brain. Researchers posit that any alteration in intestinal permeability, a hallmark trait of celiac disease, can eventually develop psychiatric manifestations. 

There are many gluten-free options out on the market, but before adhering to a gluten-free diet, consult with a professional to check if you have a gluten sensitivity. 

  • Processed foods

You may already all know that processed foods are bad for you, but sometimes they are hard to resist. They are also convenient if you are in a rush or in the mood for snacking, but they can have adverse effects on your mental health. 

Processed foods, like savory snacks and microwave-ready meals, contain high amounts of sugars and fats. Such high amounts of sugars can create spikes in your insulin levels and produce anxiety. Additionally, these foods are typically low in essential vitamins that your brain needs. Whether processed foods are a definitive cause of anxiety is still unknown. 

Food plays a role in almost every part of our lives– from biophysical development to social development. But, we often forget that it plays a role in our mental health.  

We often see it as a coping mechanism rather than a medicine. I won’t say that food can cure whatever mental health issue you are coping with, but changing your dietary habits can help you manage them a bit better. Before you make any drastic changes, please consult with a professional. 

I hope this article will be useful to you. Let us know in the comments below what kind of dietary changes you have made and how it has helped you. 

Take care! 

Additional Sources:

Casarella, J. (2019, September 9). Foods to Avoid If You Have Anxiety or Depression. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression

Drillinger, M. (2019, August 7). The 5 Worst Foods for Your Anxiety. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/surprising-foods-trigger-anxiety#_noHeaderPrefixedContent

Ede, G., M.D. (2016, July 07). These 5 Foods and Substances Can Cause Anxiety and Insomnia. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/diagnosis-diet/201607/these-5-foods-and-substances-can-cause-anxiety-and-insomnia

Frothingham, S. (2019, May 24). Caffeine and Anxiety: How Does Your Caffeine Habit Affect Anxiety? Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/caffeine-and-anxiety

Garam, J. (2011, June 30). I Quit Coffee to Cure My Anxiety. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/progress-not-perfection/201106/i-quit-coffee-cure-my-anxiety

Sack, D., M.D. (2013, September 02). 4 Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201309/4-ways-sugar-could-be-harming-your-mental-health

Sawchuk, C. N., Ph.D., L.P. (2017, May 24). Find out how food and anxiety are linked. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/coping-with-anxiety/faq-20057987

Naidoo, U., MD. (2019, August 29). Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441

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