Clean Eating & Anxiety: Is There A Connection?

Clean eating is sometimes dismissed as a ‘fad diet’, but it’s not really a diet and certainly not a fad. It’s based on the idea that eating whole foods, while restricting or avoiding processed foods can yield health benefits. This fundamental belief is supported by evidence[1], which shows that high intake of refined sugar, trans fats, and other additives can contribute to a variety of ailments. Not surprisingly, cutting back on processed foods and focusing on whole foods may also help cope with anxiety disorders. Although there is a need for more research, this idea is supported by animal studies [2], which show that diets high in sugar and fat can affect behavior. Research into the gut-brain axis [3] also points to the role of diet in brain function and mental illness. 

We’ll take a closer look at some food groups that are notable in the context of clean eating and anxiety relief.

Healthy Fats

Despite what you may have heard, not all fats are unhealthy. When we talk about healthy fats, we’re mainly referring to omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These nutrients are vital for brain health and are found most abundantly in foods like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Vegetarian sources of these healthy fats include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Studies suggest [4] that adequate intake of these healthy fats can improve the brain’s ability to adapt to different situations, helping you cope with stressors more efficiently.  

These anti-anxiety benefits could be linked to the vital role that healthy fats play in the regulation of dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters. They are also known to reduce inflammation, which can protect against brain cell dysfunction that is linked to mental illnesses like anxiety.

Vitamins E & D

While balanced nutrition is essential and all of your vitamin requirements should be met, vitamins E and D deserve mention, as deficiencies in both vitamins have been linked to anxiety and depressive disorders. Vitamin E intake can be boosted by consuming nuts like almonds and peanuts, and by using oils like sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean oils. Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, but it can also be obtained from the same fatty fish that are rich in healthy fats. Other whole food sources of the vitamin include egg yolks, beef liver, and cheese. Vitamin D deficiencies are among the most common, so it’s important to get your levels tested and take supplements if you need to. 

Vitamin E works as antioxidant, protecting against free radical damage and is believed to protect against changes that increase the risk of anxiety and depression. Research shows [5] that vitamin E supplementation may even slow the progression of degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. Similarly, vitamin D is essential for mental health as studies suggest [6] that vitamin D deficiency results in neuronal changes and a reduction in serotonin levels in the hippocampus. 

Minerals – Magnesium and Zinc

As with vitamins, adequate intake of all minerals is essential for the maintenance of optimal health. However, we now know that magnesium, zinc, and potassium play a particularly important role in the maintenance of mental health. Magnesium appears to be particularly important, as research suggests [7] that magnesium deficiencies are widespread among patients who suffer from depression. This important mineral can be obtained from whole foods including leafy greens like spinach and kale, pulses like chickpeas and soybeans, nuts like almond and cashews, seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin, and whole grains like wheat, barley, and oats. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are also good sources of magnesium. 

Like magnesium, low serum levels of zinc have been observed in patients [8] with depressive disorders. Zinc may benefit patients with disorders like anxiety and depression as it is believed to increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (sometimes described as brain fertilizer!) in the hippocampus. Zinc intake can be increased by eating whole foods, especially red meats like beef, pork, and lamb. Shellfish like oysters are healthier low calorie sources of zinc. The mineral can also be obtained from the same nuts, seeds, pulses, and whole grains used to boost magnesium intake.

Probiotics

The role of probiotics in gut health, inflammation, and mood disorders is a burgeoning area of research and there’s much that we have to learn about the subject. So far however, studies do show [9] that probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, and tempeh, can help in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders because of the strong connection between the gut microbiome and brain function. One study published in the journal Gastroenterology [10] found that the functioning of brain regions that regulate emotion and sensitivity improved with daily consumption of 125gms of yogurt twice a day for 1 month. 

While our focus here is limited to a few food groups and nutrients, this in no way implies that other nutrients are non-essential. The importance of the nutrients mentioned here is emphasized as they are most commonly associated with anxiety disorders. In addition to ensuring balanced nutrition and increasing your intake of the foods mentioned here, you should also increase your intake of whole foods that are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, as they are associated with a wide range of health benefits, including stress reduction and improved brain function. 

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723973/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3762204/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31460832-the-microbiota-gut-brain-axis/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4540034/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9110909-a-controlled-trial-of-selegiline-alpha-tocopherol-or-both-as-treatment-for-alzheimers-disease-the-alzheimers-disease-cooperative-study/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132681/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046018/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20156515-the-role-of-zinc-in-neurodegenerative-inflammatory-pathways-in-depression/
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25470391-gut-emotions-mechanisms-of-action-of-probiotics-as-novel-therapeutic-targets-for-depression-and-anxiety-disorders/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3839572/