Leave Anxiety on the Plate

Leave Anxiety on the Plate

Uma Naidoo, author of This Is Your Brain on Food, explores how the foods we eat may be driving up our anxiety.

Many people are oblivious to the fact that when mental health is affected, the root of the problem is not solely in the brain. Instead, one or more of the body’s connections with the brain has gone awry.

We know that these connections are quite real. Depression can affect the heart. Pathologies of the adrenal gland can throw you into a panic. Infections darting through your bloodstream can make you seem like you have lost your mind. Maladies of the body frequently manifest as turbulence of the mind.

But while medical illness can cause psychiatric symptoms, we now know that the story goes even deeper. Subtle changes in distant parts of the body can change the brain, too. The most profound of these distant relationships is between the brain and the gut. Centuries ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recognized this connection, warning us that “bad digestion is the root of all evil” and that “death sits in the bowels.” Now we are figuring out how right he was.

Though we are still on the forefront of discovery, in recent years the gutbrain connection has provided one of the richest, most fertile research areas in medical science and the fascinating nexus of the field of nutritional psychiatry.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorder in the United States, with up to a third of the population suffering from one during their lifetime. Even that might be an underestimation, since anxiety often goes undiagnosed and untreated. There is a tendency to accept anxiety as an inevitable part of living in a stressful modern world. It’s true that totally escaping worry is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you have to let anxiety impinge on you living your best, most fulfilled life.

While there are several approaches to treating anxiety, only 50 to 60 percent of people respond to medication and psychotherapy, and only a quarter of patients have complete resolution of their symptoms. A crucial part of battling anxiety is making sure your diet is full of foods that are calming and free of foods that put you on edge.

Foods to Embrace

High-fiber foods: Beans, brown rice, berries, bran, pears, apples, bananas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, artichokes, almonds, walnuts, amaranth, oats, buckwheat, and pearl barley

Aged, fermented, and cultured foods: Yogurt, kombucha, miso, tempeh, apple-cider vinegar, and pickled vegetables

Tryptophan: Turkey and other meats and chickpeas, especially when combined with carbohydrates

Spices: Turmeric

Herbs: Lavender, passionflower, and chamomile

Vitamins: D, B1, B6, A, C, and E

Minerals: Magnesium, potassium, and selenium

Foods to avoid Western diet staples: Foods high in bad fats (red meat, fried foods) and high-GI carbs (white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta, and anything else made from refined flour).

Caffeine: Keep caffeine consumption under 400 mg/day.

Alcohol: For men, stay under 14 drinks per week and no more than four drinks in any single day; for women, stay under seven drinks per week and no more than three drinks in any single day.

Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame is particularly harmful, but also saccharin, sucralose, and stevia. Adapted excerpt reprinted with permission from This Is Your Brain on Food by Uma Naidoo,

© 2020. Published by Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown Books.

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