While a small percentage of the "happy hormone" serotonin is released from a cuddle, regular exercise, and a healthy amount of sun exposure, the remaining 95 percent is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. That’s right — this often overlooked area of the body is lined with a hundred million nerve cells or neurons, which not only help the body to digest food but play a vital part in guiding your emotions.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain,” said Eva Selhub M.D., contributing editor to Harvard Health Publications, adding that the production of the neurotransmitter is heavily influenced by the billions of "good" bacterias that make up the intestinal microbiome.
Not only do these strains protect against toxins and fight "bad" bacteria, but they’re also helpful in maintaining the neural passageways between the gut and the brain.
“The gut-brain axis refers to the communication between the gut (the enteric nervous system) and the brain (the central nervous system)," said dietitian Simone Austin.
If a healthy gut means a healthy mind, then we simply need to know more. Imagine if we could begin to ease our anxieties and depression by making better choices when it came to our diets? Here, we investigate.
Foods that heighten anxiety
Alcohol. Though a glass of wine at the end of the day is often thought of as a means to relax and unwind, for many, this is not the case. Alcohol, a depressant and a sedative, alters serotonin production and that of other neurotransmitters. So, despite the initial mood boost a glass of vino can provide, it can actually worsen anxiety in the long run.
From alcohol dependencies to alcohol-induced anxiety, the effects alcohol has on your gut and brain can be far more hindering than helpful.
Refined sugars. Not only does a diet abundant in sugars have a negative impact on insulin production, it can also promote inflammation and oxidative stress, said Dr. Selhub.
“Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression,” she said.
A recent study from Princeton University also found that rats who consumed a diet heavy in processed sugars were more likely to develop anxious tendencies once their sugar source was taken away.
Coffee. Despite coffee being rich in incredible antioxidant properties — which have recently been found to promote weight-loss, protect against Alzheimer’s, and even make you live longer — the drink should be treated with a level of caution for those who suffer from anxiety.
A cup of joe in the morning can increase your heart rate and sometimes bring on that "wired" feeling. Although this in itself does not create anxiety, it can, for some, worsen symptoms.
“If coffee triggers anxiety or insomnia, it should be limited, but if it supports energy and mood, aim for no more than two cups daily," nutritionist and celebrity chef Zoe Bingley-Pullin said.
Foods that help anxiety.
Whole grains. Austin recommends a regime high in dietary fiber, which in addition to fruits and vegetables, can also be found in the form of whole grains.
“Lentils and legumes also have good fiber, however, they may cause excess flatulence for some,” she said, adding that “gut discomfort can increase anxiety in some people.”
Fermented foods. A scientific breakthrough came earlier this month, confirming the link between microbes and mood stability and behavior. Though the link in humans has long been speculated, the study from the University of California Los Angeles was the first to prove it, when previously a correlation had only been found in mice.
Sauerkraut, yogurt, miso, kimchi, and kefir are all fermented foods that contain an invaluable source of "good" bacteria or probiotics, said Austin. Sure, taking a probiotic supplement is one way to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, but why not take the delicious route and enjoy some picked vegetables as a side to lunch or dinner, or substitute natural yogurt in the place of sour cream?
Almonds. Along with being a fantastic way to beat bad snack cravings and prevent "hangriness" (a made-up but very important feeling we should all avoid if we want to maintain a balanced mood, said Austin), almonds also contain high levels of zinc, magnesium, good fats, and iron.
“Fueling yourself regularly throughout the day with around three meals — and for some people snacks in between — can help keep your blood glucose and energy levels regular,” Austin said.
In terms of almonds as a snack, these golden nuts help to keep us feeling calm and satiated and provide healthy fats for neurotransmitter and brain function.
What is the best diet for preventing anxiety?
While incorporating the above foods into your regime may see like an improvement, those unsure which foods are best for them are encouraged to look into eating the Mediterranean way.
“Studies have compared ‘traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical ‘Western’ diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25 percent to 35 percent lower in those who eat a traditional diet,” Selhub said.
Researchers believe this is due to the high vegetable, whole grain, oily fish, lean meat, and fermented foods that are present within these types of diets.
But remember, always seek consultation from your healthcare professional before adopting a new diet or exercise regime.
This post was written by Katie Skelly. For more, check out our sister site Now To Love.