Controlling Gut Behavior
by Amanda Box, N.D.
We have all felt it at some point in our lives. The feeling that paralyzes us sends us into a cold sweat and lends our heart to beat at the speed of light. Anxiety is fear incarnate. It originates from our worries, our fear of failure or simply believing worst is bound to happen.
I personally battle with anxiety. I loathe the awful sense of powerlessness that anxiety brings. But it is a battle over the mind and one that isn’t always easily won!
Releasing negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones can overcome anxiety. One important way to do this is processing through thoughts and fears on paper and with a friend or counselor.
However, what you put into your body can also affect the intensity of your anxiety. Though much of anxiety originates from thoughts and mindset, a healthy body is important for a healthy mind! Our mind, body and spirit are interconnected. So keeping all three aspects healthy is imperative for overcoming anxiety.
Food affects our mood. Particular foods create calm, while other foods produce anxiety. The key to overcoming afflicting anxiety just may be a diet that enhances a sense of peace and a calm mind.
Below are two lists of foods. The first is the list of foods to avoid that promote anxiety. These foods stimulate the nervous system or increase stress hormone production like cortisol. If you battle anxiety, then totally eliminate these foods from your diet to feel your best.
The second is a list of foods that help ease anxiety. These foods contain nutrients that promote a calm mind and help lower stress levels in the body. Make them a regular part of your diet and they will keep you calm and lower your anxiety.
4 Foods to Avoid for Anxiety
This is by far the most obvious food on the list to avoid. Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and can cause physical manifestations of anxiety, even if anxious thoughts aren’t present. It speeds the heart rate and can lead to an over-excited jittery feeling that exacerbates or creates anxiety. Some people do well with just a small amount of caffeine in the morning. However, eliminating it all together is best for calming the mind and body.
When I refer to sugar, I am not just referring to white sugar. I am referring to all things that encompass sugar: fruit juice, corn syrup and honey, etc. All these sugary foods can negatively affect the body. They spike blood sugar levels which, in turn, flood your body with cortisol, a stress hormone. When cortisol levels are high, you can feel on edge and anxious. Therefore, steer clear of sugary drinks and desserts. Instead, opt for natural sweeteners that do not affect the blood sugar such as stevia.
3. Processed Foods
Processed foods included already made meals like boxed foods and fast foods. These foods contain a plethora of ingredients that are nearly unpronounceable. This abundance of fake food is not tolerated well by your body. Chemicals from the artificial preservatives and other ingredients can aggravate the brain by exciting neurotransmitters. This creates a sense of anxiousness and overstimulation. Many of the artificial ingredients are additive as well. Your body begins to crave these processed foods and you become anxious if you’re not able to eat them. The best way to avoid processed foods is to choose foods as close to their natural state as possible and cook your meals from scratch.
Also, read labels. If you see ingredients that sound more like chemicals than food, but it back on the shelf and buy something healthier!
Many people drink alcohol to help calm their nerves. However, alcohol can backfire. It can cause an even higher level of anxiety the following day.
- Alcohol depresses the body.
- That depression can carry through to the following day.
- Depression feeds anxiousness.
The short term fix that alcohol creates can also be addictive, creating a cycle of anxiety and more depression.
Foods to Eat to Calm Anxiety
Green pumpkin seeds are high in zinc. Studies have found that anxiety is linked to a zinc copper imbalance. Too much copper and not enough zinc in your body can cause anxiety. Just a small handful a day of pumpkin seeds provides a daily dose of zinc! Pumpkin seeds provide a healthy balance that offers relief for people suffering from anxiety.
Fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as salmon and sardines can increase EPA levels in the brain. EPA is the primary anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid for the brain. High levels of EPA are correlated to a calmer mood and lessened anxiety. Essentially, EPA will make you happier and better able to handle stress. If you don’t consume large amounts of fish, then purified fish oil supplements can increase your EPA.
In a study of chocolate’s health benefits, eating 40 grams of dark chocolate (74% cocoa) every day for two weeks significantly reduced stress hormone levels. Those tested also noted feeling less anxious after eating the chocolate. This is likely due to cocoas flavonol content. Flavonols are a subclass of flavonoids, natural chemicals found in plants, fruits and vegetables that repair cellular damage. Flavonoids are antioxidants so they help to lower stress and inflammation throughout the body.
Turkey is high in amino acid l-tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps you feel calm. Tryptophan found in protein like turkey has been found in studies to lower anxiety levels!
Full-fat yogurt or kefir
The majority (95%!) of serotonin, your feel good neurotransmitter that keeps you happy and calm, is produced in the gut. Therefore it is important to eat foods that help maintain proper intestinal balance.
To cultivate proper bacterial balance in the gut, go no further than your refrigerator! Naturally elevate your mood and reverse anxiety with fermented foods. The bacteria in fermented foods create an environment suitable for proper serotonin production. Fermented foods like kefir and yogurt contain probiotics that restore your gut health. Since gut microbes may influence your behavior, this is proof that fermented foods make us happier!
Tea (chamomile and green tea)
Each of these teas has anxiety reducing benefits.
The effect of chamomile is to soothe and calm the nervous system. When feeling anxious, drink chamomile to relax. Studies showed drinking chamomile tea lowered anxiety in 2 weeks! Best of all, chamomile comes without the nasty side effects of traditional anxiety and depression medications.
Green tea contains amino acid l-theanine, which has a soothing, calming effect on people who drink it. L-Theanine stimulates production of brain waves known as alpha waves. Alpha waves indicate a person is relaxed. L-Theanine also increases the levels of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These two neurotransmitters directly affect a person’s mood and help induce a sense of calm and relaxation.
So, alleviate your mood and feel better by drinking quality green tea!
Eggs contain copious amounts of choline, needed for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is essentially the opposite of adrenaline. It induces a state of relaxation and promotes sleep. Farm raised cage free eggs are the best choice. They are fresher and have higher levels of nutrients. Eggs just may give you a new reason to come out of any depressing anxiety phase!
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are low in calories, and high in many nutrients, including magnesium. Magnesium is a natural nervous system relaxant. A lack of magnesium can cause electrical changes in your brain.
Most diets are deficient in magnesium, and stress causes our bodies to deplete this important mineral. This is why getting enough magnesium in your diet while you’re stressed is so important. This essential mineral is key to relaxation and a lowered sense of anxiety. Nutrition just may trump any other form of self-help anxiety methods!
The Gut-Brain Connection
As mentioned earlier, our gut and our brain have an intimate connection. Many refer to the gut as the second brain, and for good reason! Our enteric nervous system is the name of the nervous system that resides in our gastrointestinal tract and enables us to “feel” the inner world of our gut and its contents. It is equipped with its own reflexes and senses to control gut behavior.
Our central nervous system, which is located in our brain and spinal column, is connected through the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem down to the abdomen.
It is through the vagus nerve that gut bacteria transmit information to the brain. Thus, the nerves in our gut probably influence a big part of our emotions.
Also, the gut produces more serotonin in the gut than it does in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps us to feel good and it produces a sense of calm. This gut-brain connection applies to anxiety levels as well.
Dr. Kirsten Tillish, a lead author in a study of gut bacteria and anxiety stated, “Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with their gut.”
All of this makes creating a healthy gut environment key to overcoming anxiety. I believe there are 3 keys to creating a healthy gut.
Supplementation with a daily multi-strain probiotic is important in creating a healthy bacterial environment in the gut. Fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha are also great to add into your daily diet to boost healthy bacteria.
Prebiotics are dietary fibers that act as food for good bacteria. This allows the healthy bacteria to multiply. Some foods containing prebiotics include:
- Chicory Root
- Jerusalem artichoke
3. Going Gluten Free
More and more research is pointing out that gluten intolerance and diseases such as Celiac, can cause anxiety and depression. Shockingly, as much as 80% of the population is thought to have some degree of gluten sensitivity!
Lectins contained in gluten can cause intestinal inflammation and permeability of the intestinal walls allowing toxic microbes to pass through the gut, into the bloodstream and to the brain causing anxiety! Some even believe that gluten itself can cause anxiety. Dr. Rodney Ford, a New Zealand-based pediatrician and author of The Gluten Syndrome, believes that gluten harms your nervous system directly and produces symptoms such as anxiety.
Going gluten free takes a firm commitment and cannot be done partially. I’ve been gluten free for nearly a year now and have no plans to go back. It has changed the health of my gut and my mind dramatically and has been worth the sacrifice. Honestly, with the rise of gluten free alternatives, I haven’t had to sacrifice much. Nearly every gluten product now has a tasty gluten free version.
Incorporating these 3 keys will create a healthy “second brain” and lower your anxiety levels. You’ll truly be amazed at how powerful the gut-brain connection is once you begin to make changes to your diet!
Below are two recipes to get you on the road to lowered anxiety and a healthy gut. The first is a salmon recipe. This incorporates the omega 3s from fatty fish and prebiotics such as garlic. Serve this with a healthy serving of asparagus on the side for even more prebiotic power. This recipe is also gluten-free!
- 1 lb wild caught salmon
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp cold organic butter, cubed
- ½ tsp sea salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- ¼ tsp Italian seasoning
- ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375ºF.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the lemon juice and minced garlic; allow the lemon juice to reduce to 1 tablespoon. Add in 1 tablespoon of butter, remove pan from heat and swirl so the butter starts to melt. Place back on the heat for a few seconds, removed and continue to swirl until butter completely melts. Repeat with second tablespoon of butter. When butter is completely melted, remove sauce from stove.
- Place the salmon filet in a piece of foil large enough to fold over and seal. Using a brush or spoon, brush the salmon with the garlic butter sauce. Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes. Cover with foil so that all sides are properly closed so the sauce does not leak.
- Bake the salmon for 12-14 minutes or until firm. Open the foil and allow the fish to broil under the broiler for 2-3 minutes, keeping an eye on it so the fish does not burn. Remove from oven, top with parsley. Serve with a side of steamed asparagus.
This next recipe incorporates the mood lifting power of dark chocolate with zinc rich pumpkin seeds. Though only two ingredients, these little bites can calm a sweet tooth as well as calm the mind.
- 3 tbsp of dark chocolate (at least 74% cocoa content)
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds (raw or roasted)
- Melt chocolate in the microwave for 20 seconds. Heat for 10 second intervals, making sure to stir in between.
- On a piece of wax paper drip chocolate from a spoon and make 8 even circles around the size of a quarter.
- Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds into the chocolate and slightly press down.
- Let dry for around an hour or place in the fridge for even faster results.
Remember, what you eat can have a huge influence on the levels of anxiety you’re feeling. Don’t rely on simply medications any longer! Take your health into your hands and begin eating in a way that lowers your anxiety. I have personally experienced the power of food choices on my anxiety and I encourage you to as well!
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Amanda Box is a Traditional Naturopath and a graduate of Clayton College of Natural Health. She’s been in the health and wellness industry for over 12 years and currently practices naturopathic consulting in the Kansas City, Missouri area. Her passion is helping others achieve wellness of the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. If you don’t have a good local naturopathic practitioner to turn to for your personal needs, Amanda does phone consultations! She can help you with weight loss, detox/cleansing, acute and chronic illnesses, skin and body care, grocery shopping, pantry overhauls, and more! Visit her blog “My Life in a Healthnut Shell” at http://amandabox.blogspot.com/ for contact info.