Anxiety occurs when the brain perceives a potential stressor with an abnormal and overwhelming sense of fear. Anxious people typically feel extreme unease or nervousness about various imminent events or uncertain outcomes, which are often far from reality.
Psychology Today explains, “People can feel anxious because their neural circuitry has become so sensitized it perceives threat where it doesn’t exist.” (1)
So What Causes Anxiety?
It’s important to note that there are all sorts of different causes of anxiety! To name a few, some people’s anxiety might be triggered by external events such as facing a traumatic event, another persons’ might be reinforced by societal programming, other people might struggle with anxiety due to financial/ relationship/ or work stress, and someone else might feel anxious from a medications’ side effects.
Aside from external factors anxiety can be triggered (and/or worsened) due to physiological reasons within the body. In her book, “The Mood Cure”, Julia Ross explains that, “much of our increasing emotional distress stems from easily correctable malfunctions in our brain and body chemistry- malfunctions that are primarily the result of critical, unmet nutritional needs” (2).
So, to answer the question of “what causes anxiety?” – it’s important to understand that yes, there are often external factors that trigger anxiety – however there’s also underlying physiological causes for anxiety and/or physiological reasons that can make it worse.
Listed below you’ll find 5 of the most common underlying physiological conditions that cause anxiety:
# 1: Poor Gut Health/ Dysbiosis
Poor gut health and/or dysbiosis is one of the LEADING physiological causes of anxiety! The reason being is that the gut is home to so many incredibly important bacteria that help with the synthesis and reception of mood regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA, and dopamine.
A healthy gut contains approximately 1000 trillium bacteria – a number far too huge to even comprehend! However, if gut health is poor (in the case of our guts, poor refers to lacking in diversity), it likely will not be housing enough of the right types of important bacteria to help with mood regulation.
In her book, “This is Your Brain on Food“, Dr. Uma Naidoo suggests that the chemical by-products of important intestinal bacteria and bioactive peptides might also help to protect the nervous system. She also suggests that diversifying the composition of gut bacteria might suppress the stress response through the HPA axis (5).
There are more and more studies which are finding direct links between specific gut bacteria strains and anxiety reduction. In a recent study done on both rats and humans, it was found that there was significantly decreased levels of anxiety in those who were given a probiotic formulation consisting of Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 (3).
Another study found, that when germ-free mice were given the bacterial strain, Bifidobacterium infantis, they experienced much less exaggerated responses to stress, and the introduction of this bacterial strain even altered brain chemistry to indicate a decreased level in stress hormones (4).
As you can see, if struggling with anxiety, it’s incredibly important to first look at diversifying your microbiome. The bacteria in our guts have a whole host of important functions in supporting mood! And the truth is, even if you’re someone who eats really healthy, gut health can always be improved!
How to Improve Gut Health & Microbiome?
- Eat more fermented foods! Aim for at least 1 a day – 1 per meal is even better!
- Avoid pesticides
- Breathe your biome by spending time in nature 🙂
- Hug people – healthy microbiomes are fed by interaction with other peoples’ microbiome
- Consider a probiotic supplement (for short term usage only) – please be very aware of the quality of which you take – talk to me or another health care provider specializing in mental health to ensure you’re taking the proper strains!
- Avoid anti-biotics as best you can
- Eat a wide diversity of whole plant based foods
#2: Imbalanced Blood Sugars
Low blood sugar or challenges with blood sugar regulation is another very common underlying physiological cause of anxiety. This is because the brain needs a steady supply of glucose (sugar) to function optimally. If blood sugars are low, the brain does not get the necessary stream of glucose it needs, which can often lead to anxiety and depression (6).
On top of this, when blood sugars drop too low, cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. When cortisol is released, the anxious mind can be further triggered, spiralling into anxious thoughts and feelings.
How to Balance Blood Sugars?
- Avoid excess refined sugars, white flour products, and other refined foods
- Eat 3 balanced meals per day that contain lots of vegetables, a nourishing protein source, a complex carb/ fibre source, and healthy fat(s) (see picture for example)
- Eat a solid, balanced breakfast
- If hungry between meals, eat a snack that contains a carb and a fat OR a carb and a protein – carrots and hummus or apple and almond butter are always my go to’s!
#3: Vitamin/ Mineral Deficiencies
In our world today, where food is seemingly more ready available than ever before – you might not expect that vitamin and mineral deficiencies would be so prevalent. However, we are living in a world abundant with calories but lacking nutrients.
Without eating enough whole foods such as fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans/ legumes, nuts and seeds – vitamin and mineral deficiencies can manifest within the body and have a huge effect on anxiety levels (6) (11)!
A 2010 study done on woman found that those who ate a more “traditional” whole foods & nutrient dense diet of vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains, and grass fed lean red meat and lamb had lower likelihood of both anxiety and depression (12).
Dr. Uma Naidoo, nutritional psychiatrist and author of “This is Your Brain on Food” explains that over the many years in her practice as a doctor she’s witnessed that Vitamin D, B vitamins (particularly B6), magnesium, and Omega 3’s can greatly contribute to anxiety. She also references numerous scientific studies to back these findings up (5).
In her book, “The Anti- Anxiety Food Solution“, Trudy Scott explains; “Low levels of the mineral zinc and vitamin B6 are frequently associated with a type of anxiety characterized by social anxiety, avoidance of crowds, a feeling of inner tension, and bouts of depression. Often times this subset of symptoms is due to a genetic condition called pyloria (6).
It’s also important to keep in mind that even if someone is consuming a primarily whole foods based diet, large scale agriculture leaves soil lacking in nutrients, which leaves plants that make up ones’ diet unable to pass on to humans what’s needed to function optimally (13).
Finally, if someone is chronically anxious and struggling with their digestion due to being in a constant fight or flight mode – absorption of various key nutrients can be a huge issue, leaving them deficient in important vitamins and minerals necessary for a calm mind.
Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies that can cause anxiety include:
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
NOTE: although supplementation can be helpful for immediate results, vitamin & mineral deficiencies should be corrected in the long term with diet changes. It’s important to work with a health care professional such as a nutritionist (like myself :)) or a naturopath to seek support in proper supplementation practices.
#4 Hormone Imbalances
Hormone imbalances can be another major underlying physiological cause for anxiety. Most often, females who menstruate experience increased levels of anxiety in the luteal phase (pre-menstrual phase) of their cycle. This can often indicate estrogen dominance and can cause a lot of frustrating conditions within the body – anxiety being one of them!
If you want to know more about hormone imbalances & anxiety, I have a whole blog post called, “Are Imbalanced Hormones Causing Your Anxiety?” that you should definitely check out!
It’s also important to note that anxiety can be a side effect of hormonal birth control. If you’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time and have also been on the pill – it could be a good idea to consider going off of it. Be sure to talk to a holistic health care practitioner to help set your body up for success as you transition off of it (9).
#5 Undiagnosed Food Sensitivities/ Allergies
Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies can be a very sneaky cause of anxiety that one might not think to look for! In his book, Nutrition and Mental Illness, Dr. Pfeiffer explains, that food sensitivities can create imbalances in key chemicals in the brain (7). These imbalances can go on to cause anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, irritability, and mood swings (8).
Most Common Food Allergies & Sensitivities that can Lead to Anxiety:
- Gluten (celiac and non celiac gluten sensitivity)
- Food dyes
The best way to test for food allergies is to work with a health care practitioner to do an elimination diet.
- Chronic inflammation: it’s often believed that inflammation is the root of all illness. When the body is chronically inflamed, it can be another underlying physiological cause of anxiety (10)
- Amino acid deficiencies: as outlined by Trudy Scott, in “The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution” deficiencies in various amino acids can be another physiological cause for anxiety. For example deficiencies in, GABA, tryptophan, tyrosine, and glutamine have all been found to be connected to anxiety levels (6)
So, as you can see, anxiety is complex – and most often there are various underlying physiological conditions that make anxiety worse! If you have anxiety, it’s incredibly important to look for ways to manage it by addressing both the external factors going on in your life (seeing a therapist is a great way to do so), as well as addressing the underlying physiological conditions that might be causing your anxiety!
If you want to know more, download my FREE “Eat to Ease Your Anxiety Guide” or click the black tab at the bottom of this page to schedule a COMPLIMENTARY nutrition discovery call with me!
NOTE: I am a registered holistic nutritionist, who focuses on educating people on how to use food to support their best health and reduce their anxiety. I am not a doctor nor a therapist. When struggling with anxiety it’s important to always consult with other trained health care professionals (such as doctors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.) in tandem with focusing on your diet. This information does not exclude you from doing so.