If you’ve read other articles around here, you likely know that our nutrition can have a HUGE impact on our anxiety levels!
Whether it be through blood sugar levels, our gut health, hormone balance, vitamin & mineral levels – and so much more – there’s no doubt the way we eat impacts how we feel both physically and mentally!
There are MANY foods that can be extremely supportive for our anxiety levels that help to keep us feeling grounded, calm, and balanced.
However, on the flip side, by way of our modern industrialized food system, there are A LOT of food ingredients that can actually contribute to worsening our anxiety levels.
The Difference Between Ingredients & Food
First and foremost, let’s make a distinction between the terms food vs. ingredients!
As a nutritionist, it’s very rare that I see whole FOODS triggering anxiety within my clients.
What are whole foods you might ask?
Whole foods are ones that are grown in nature, and eaten as closely to the way they’re found as possible (aka minimally processed).
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this, for example if there’s an undiagnosed food allergy or sensitivity that a person is continuously consuming – and a few other reasons, we can talk about another day.
However, for the most part, whole foods (as long as they are grown/ raised with care) are anxiety easing by nature.
Why is this the case?
Whole foods provide our bodies & brains with the nutrients they need to thrive. More specifically, there are certain foods in particular that can be incredibly therapeutic for anxiety!
So now on to the flip side, there are a lot of man made ingredients that are added to our foods that can definitely be triggers for anxiety!
‘Ingredients’ often consist of things like additives, preservatives, food dyes, chemicals, artificial sugars, etc.
How Can Certain Food Ingredients Worsen Our Anxiety?
There are a few primary mechanisms in which certain ingredients can worsen our anxiety.
Here are some of the main ways in which certain food ingredients can trigger or worsen anxiety:
- Through disrupting the health of our gut – for example, by harming important mood regulating gut bacteria
- By causing inflammation within our bodies. Chronic inflammation within the body (especially in that of the gut) can lead to inflammation in the brain. This type of inflammation is commonly referred to as neuro inflammation – and is a known trigger for anxiety (7)
- Through directly impacting our hormonal stress response – for example, causing a spike in cortisol (stress) levels
- By causing a rapid spike in blood glucose levels – which can lead to physiological symptoms that mimic those of a panic attack – which can be a trigger for anxiety. For example, a rapid heart rate, and/ or shallow breathing
Today I share some common ingredients that can be triggers for anxiety – by way of one or more of the mechanisms listed above!
Common Food Ingredients that Can Trigger or Worsen Anxiety
Red Dye #40:
Red Dye #40 is actually a petroleum based substance (!!) and is one of the most commonly used food dyes in the U.S. It can be found in anywhere from; candy, condiments, cereals, baked goods, pop, juice, gelatin, dairy products, all the way to even salad dressings.
On brain scans at Amen Clinics, Red Dye #40 has been found to significantly alter brain function and increase activity throughout the brain when ingested. Reported symptoms include; stomach upset, migraines, jitteriness, nervousness, an inability to concentrate, and occasionally increased aggressive behaviour. (1) Red Dye #40 is defintiely an ingredient you want to avoid if you are prone to anxiety.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG):
MSG stands for Monosodium Glutamate and is most commonly used as a flavour enhancer often added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats.
Although a controversial topic as the FDA regards MSG as ‘Generally Recognized As Safe’ (GRAS) there are numerous reports of MSG causing adverse reactions in people including anxiety, headaches, nausea, fatigue, chest pain, sweating, and much more. (2, 3) For those struggling with anxiety, it’s an ingredient I certainly recommend limiting as much as possible.
Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide worldwide – and sprayed on numerous crops – both GMO and non GMO. When ingested in humans, glyphosate is known to impact the tight junctions of the gut membrane and harm important gut bacteria (8).
In fact, in 2010 glyphosate was actually approved to be patented as an antibiotic due to it’s anti-microbial properties (4). These properties are not just limited to weeds – they impact the health of the soil our food is grown in and even the microbial diversity of our own guts! Because the gut and the brain are so connected, we know that harming important gut bacteria can have a direct impact on anxiety levels.
Sadly, glyphosate is a lot more common in our foods than one might think. It unknowingly taints both whole food and processed food ingredients. For example, in 2016 General Mills received a lawsuit for charges stating that their Nature Valley granola bars are tainted with Roundup and glyphosate. For so long the company failed to communicate this to consumers – going as far as making false advertisement claims that their bars were ‘100% natural.’ (9)
The best way to avoid glyphosate is to shop at local farmers markets where you can talk to your farmers, grow your own food, and purchase organic foods from the grocery store as much as possible. It’s important to pay attention to both fresh produce along with any packaged foods you might buy. Always looking for the Non GMO verified and organic labels will help you to greatly reduce glyphosate exposure to your body.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
High fructose corn syrup is the epitome of how our food system places profit and convenience above all else. HFCS was invented as an alternative to table sugar as it is sweeter to the taste buds, has a longer shelf life, and is cheaper to produce (5).
Due to its highly processed nature, HFCS can be very challenging for the body to recognize and process. On top of this, it can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels – which can trigger feelings of anxiety.
Because of its incredibly sweet nature – High Fructose Corn Syrup can also impact the brain by altering dopamine signalling (6), further impacting one’s mood and ability to feel pleasure.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, it’s a good idea to minimize this type of highly processed sugar, and instead opt for sweeteners that are less processed such as that of; maple syrup, raw honey, dates, etc.
As you can see, there are many ingredients that can show up in our food system that can impact our bodies and minds in all sorts of different ways.
I share this post NOT to make you feel like you ALWAYS need to eat a perfectly clean diet, avoid all packaged foods, nor do to make you feel like you need to carry ‘food fear’ (or should I say ‘ingredient fear’) around with you at meal times.
Instead, I share this post to help spread awareness about the sneaky ways our food can impact our anxiety levels – and to encourage you to be curious when it comes to the food you eat.
A great way to do this is to start reading ingredient labels on all packaged foods you buy 🙂 This way you can avoid these ‘anxiety triggering ingredients’ listed above as much as possible to help keep your body and mind feeling calm, grounded, and amazing!
If you want to learn more about how you can eat to ease your anxiety – check out my ‘Eat to Ease Anxiety‘ Online Course here or reach out to me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org for one on one support!
Photos thanks to: Tatjana Liberty Photography