The Relationship Between Anxiety and Food
According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, anxiety is defined as “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill: a state of being anxious.” This state is usually a normal reaction to a new situation or derived from stress and often leads to anxiety about food. However, the continuous and sustained occurrence over time affects behavior and interferes negatively with daily life. In addition, it alters a person’s mood.
How does anxiety manifest itself?
Generally, the symptoms of anxiety are physical and behavioral. They occur as a result of altered beliefs, thoughts, and physiological processes of the body. The most common are:
- Difficulty breathing due to the sensation of lack of air
- Dizziness and hot flashes
- Loss of enthusiasm for activities previously enjoyed
- Crying for no reason
- Irritability and sadness
- Digestive discomfort (nausea, diarrhea, constipation, heaviness and bloating, food intolerances…)
- Sleep disturbance and insomnia
- Muscle aches and fatigue
- Increase or loss of appetite accompanied by weight gain or loss
- Desire to eat sweets and snacks
In addition, it increases the risk of suffering from viral infections or the appearance of itching or fungus on the skin. That’s because anxiety weakens the immune system. Next, it’s important to make reference to one of the main reactions in the body that triggers anxiety.
Serotonin, tryptophan and anxiety
First of all, you should know that the brain produces neurotransmitters. These are chemical substances that are responsible for establishing the connection between neurons. They also regulate various functions such as sleep, hunger, mood and nutrient absorption. With regard to anxiety, two stand out: serotonin and tryptophan, since both decrease and are responsible for most of the symptoms.
It’s also appropriate to say that tryptophan is an essential amino acid and precursor of serotonin. So, if its intake is low, synthesis is blocked, depleting blood and brain reserves. Several scientific investigations have analyzed this situation, as well as the relationship with the microbiota. We know this as the gut-brain connection.
Food anxiety: Microbiota as modulator between anxiety and food
You may be wondering what anxiety has to do with gut bacteria. It just so happens that 90% of serotonin synthesis takes place in the gut thanks to these bacteria. Therefore, it’s key to maintain a balance in microbial diversity, both in quantity and quality. However, in the face of stress, microbial diversity becomes imbalanced, favoring an increase in the Clostridium genus and a decrease in Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
In turn, this alters our attitude towards life and food. For this reason, clinical trials have taken place that found supplementation with Lactobacillus helveticus and rhamnosus as well as Bifidobacterium longum to be beneficial.
Food anxiety: How to manage it
Taking into account all of the above, the most logical thing to do is to consume foods rich in tryptophan, as we can’t synthesize it. In this way, we’ll stimulate the formation of serotonin. Therefore, some foods rich in this amino acid are:
- Oily fish
- Seeds and nuts
However, this doesn’t mean that anxiety will simply disappear. People must ask for psychological help, breathe deeply and calmly, and look for some distraction such as exercise.
Also, as much as possible, avoid buying and reduce the consumption of foods with added sugars (sweets, cookies, pastries), snacks, and salty snacks. In addition, they contain hydrogenated or trans fats that alter the intestinal microbiota and reduce the number of beneficial species.
Mood and diet
Finally, researchers have conducted studies on people diagnosed with depression and anxiety to determine which diet is the most appropriate to improve symptoms. Although there’s no one diet that’s more beneficial than another, both agree that the basis of these diets should be fruits, vegetables and greens. They’re a source of potassium and magnesium, which stimulate other neurotransmitters such as GABA, whose function is relaxing.
Other essential nutrients are the omega 3 found in oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mullet, etc.) and nuts. Also, antioxidant vitamins such as C and E. These nutrients help reduce mood swings, fatigue, and insomnia, as they’re anti-inflammatory.
In summary, all of us at some point in our lives will experience occasional anxiety, and food can help us. However, if this lasts over time, it”s best to combine it with relaxation techniques and follow up with a psychologist to provide us with some tools to manage it.