6 Feel-Good Foods That Actually Increase Anxiety Levels

Foods That Increase Anxiety

With the latest survey from the National Center for Health Statistics showing 28% of U.S. adults are experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorder (up from 18% pre-pandemic), it’s clear that Americans need to find ways to bring anxiety levels down. Researchers are now looking more closely at the metabolic implications of anxiousness. It turns out that what you are eating may have a lot to do with what’s eating (worrying) you! Did you know that often the very foods and beverages we seek out to soothe anxious feelings, although providing temporary relief, make anxiety worse in the long run?

Did you know that often the very foods and beverages we seek out to soothe anxious feelings, although providing temporary relief, make anxiety worse in the long run? Click To Tweet

Here are 6 foods to avoid that may be causing or exacerbating anxiety symptoms in you or a loved one.

1. Coffee

This is a tough truth to swallow (pun intended). Although many anxious Americans love coffee, coffee does not love the anxious. One Cambridge study that followed the coffee consumption of college students found that high caffeine intake in this population was associated with headaches, anxiety, and psychological distress.

It is not just high quantities of coffee that fuel anxiety. Another study published in Neuropsychopharmacology showed that participants who had a particular neurotransmitter genetic variant affected by caffeine reported increased anxiety with as little as 1½ cups of coffee (150 mg of caffeine).

The American Psychological Association labels caffeine a drug that is “notorious for causing the jitters and anxiety” and warns that people with underlying mental health issues may be more susceptible to its ill effects. Indeed, coffee can aggravate anxiety and exacerbate a panic disorder.

The excess worry and fear that define anxiety make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Coffee’s caffeine content can add to an anxious person’s sleeplessness, and sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety. This causes a vicious cycle, because a sleep-deprived anxious person may then drink coffee to stay awake!

2. Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

Sugary treats such as candy, baked goods, desserts, pastries, and soda may feel like a haven for anxious nerves but consuming them will only make anxiety worse. The same goes for refined carbohydrates—that is white flour, white bread, white rice, snacks, pasta, and breakfast cereals.

When you eat something high in added sugar or refined carbohydrates, it causes your blood sugar to spike and then drop faster than it would if you had something that was more balanced with protein, carbs, fiber, and fat.

These blood sugar spikes and drops make anxious feelings worse. For some people, it can have a dramatic effect, feeling almost like a panic attack.

A 2019 study that followed the dietary patterns of more than 1,100 Greek adults over age 50, found that those with a diet high in saturated fats and added sugars had higher anxiety. Similarly, researchers observed increased symptoms of anxiety in a 2018 animal study where subjects were fed a diet high in refined carbohydrates.

Remember, added sugars can come in many forms. A Harvard Health publishing article on sugar and anxiety symptoms warns that there are many foods with “hidden” sugar such as filtered fruit juice, salad dressings, yogurt, ketchup, sweet marinades, pasta sauce, and barbecue sauce.

3. Unhealthy Fats

Too much saturated or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) can also crank up anxiety levels.

There are numerous animal studies showing a correlation between the consumption of saturated fats and anxiety. Researchers believe that high consumption of saturated fat leads to high overall levels of inflammation in the body, which impacts the central nervous system and brain function—and this increases vulnerability to anxiety.

A 2020 Iranian study that looked at dietary fat in young women found that hydrogenated fats were associated with higher degrees of stress and anxiety than with other, healthier fats.

Saturated fat comes primarily from meat and dairy. (Plant sources such as palm oil and coconut oil are high in saturated fat but may have anti-inflammatory effects due to their medium-chain fatty acids.)

Thankfully, the FDA banned trans fats in 2018, but they gave food manufacturers and restaurants through the end of 2021 to phase them out. Trans fats (listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on ingredients labels) are often in fried foods, margarine, shortening, pies, cakes, cookies, donuts, and frostings.

4. Processed Meats

A visually appealing charcuterie board at a social gathering may represent relaxation, but the cured meats may actually do the opposite as processed meats increase inflammation in the body and thus invoke anxiety.

Additionally, cured meats contain high amounts of salt. Excessive salt intake raises blood pressure and increases the workload of the heart, causing the body to release adrenalin into the bloodstream, which leads to feelings of anxiousness.

Of course, many processed types of meat are high in saturated fat, and as you just learned, that factors into increased anxiety too!

5. Alcohol

When you drink alcohol, a flood of dopamine enters the pleasure center of the brain. While the feel-good chemical swirls through your head, you may feel relaxed, less inhibited, confident, and happy. But it is short-lived. When dopamine levels dip back down again, nervous feelings return.

Those who are already anxious are even more sensitive to this effect. It can exacerbate anxiety and also lead to alcohol dependence. (About 20% of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol dependence.)

Further, alcohol disrupts sleep and can lead to blood sugar spikes, especially if you drink on an empty stomach. Drinking alcohol excessively can lead to dehydration and physical hangover symptoms. All of these effects from alcohol serve to increase anxiety levels.

6. Artificial sweeteners.

We’ve all seen the commercials showing beautiful, fit people happily enjoying artificially sweetened soda. Don’t believe it! Artificial sweeteners have been associated with a host of health issues, including anxiety.

Known neurotoxins, artificial sweeteners can disrupt normal nervous system function leading to increased symptoms of anxiety.

One study focusing on nutrition as a metabolic treatment of anxiety suggested that increased anxiousness from artificial sweeteners may be a result of the adverse impacts they have on the microbiome and inflammation.

Another study in Nutrition Neuroscience suggested that aspartame (i.e., Equal and Nutrasweet) can inhibit the transport of dopamine and serotonin precursors into the brain and may increase the levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, shifting brain chemistry to be more anxiety-prone.

Don’t Stress

If you struggle with anxiety and enjoy any of these foods or beverages, don’t let this information fuel more anxiety. Get a psychiatric evaluation or consult your medical doctor to determine a sustainable course of action to help keep your anxiety in check.

Anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health problems can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

1 Comment »

  1. Finally someone is speaking out about the side effects of some foods and drinks that can cause multiple health issues.! I am now 79 years young and VERY healthy. I used to have Chronic Fatigue, Irritable Bowel, Leaky Gut, Migraines and extreme back and leg pain, etc. I could barely walk because of the pain and had to be carried to the car and driven to an arthritis specialist in Ardmore, OK. To this day I am faithful to avoiding everything that was found to cause all of my health issues! Bless you for opening up this conversation and I hope you will continue with a suggestion for aggressive testing for all possible allergies and sensitivities that might be causing so many health issues!!

    Comment by Virginia Smothers — November 8, 2021 @ 9:52 AM

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