Dr. Caroline Leaf – There is so much to be anxious about these days, including what to eat. But did you know that there is a way of eating that can actually help reduce the level of anxiety you experience on a day-to-day basis? In this week’s blog and podcast, I discuss the anti-anxiety diet with RD Ali Miller, and how you can balance your hormones, and heal the brain and body by changing what you eat!
Ali is an integrative functional medicine practitioner and bestselling author. She focuses on functional medicine, that is looking at the body from a holistic standpoint and helping people achieve and maintain optimal mental and physical health. She is known as the “body’s detective”, and has made it her life’s work to find the root causes of the chronic conditions many people today battle with.
In many cases, the problems we face come down to stress. As Ali notes, stress is one of the most overlooked or normalized experiences. Many people fail to acknowledge how their stress and anxiety levels are connected to their mental and physical health—chronic stress is the Achilles’ heel of whole body wellness. It creates dysfunction in all our regulatory systems, leaving us in a constant fight or flight state, which affects our immune systems, sleep, digestion and so on. In women, unmanaged stress and anxiety often impact our hormonal balance, which can cause all sorts of health issues, and end up making us feel more depressed and anxious!
This is not just the case with adults. More and more children deal with health issues like childhood obesity, diabetes, behavioral challenges and anxiety, which is negatively impacting their development and their overall wellbeing. In many cases, these changes are a result of what we eat: the highly processed and refined MAD (modern American diet), as I discuss in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart, has caused all sorts of health and environmental problems around the globe, severely affecting our mental and physical health by impacting blood sugar levels and our ability to nourish ourselves.
Thus, Ali places great emphasis on what she calls diet optimization, that is making our diet work for us and not against us. We must go back to the basics, and focus on real, sustainable whole foods that are high in protein and good fats, which help balance hormones and blood sugar levels, maintain our development, produce neurotransmitters, help with satiety and weight management, help us focus and so on. We can use the way we eat to help the body heal the mind, and vice versa!
Ali’s anti-anxiety diet approach focuses on six different areas, meeting each person where they are in their personal health journey:
1. Removing inflammatory foods, such as highly processed and refined foods, and foods high in sugar and carbohydrates.
2. Resetting the gut microbiome. Rebalancing our neurotransmitters and reducing our stress and anxiety starts in the microbiome. The gut-brain has over 500 neurons and 100 trillion cells, and produces most our neurotransmitters, including GABA and serotonin, which help reduce our anxiety and calm us down.
We can help heal and strengthen the gut microbiome and manage our stress response by eating a healthy diet high in probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt and fermented teas like kombucha, as well as taking good quality probiotics (which populate the gut with healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (which feed the good bacteria). In fact, probiotics and prebiotics are often called nature’s Prozac because of the healthy effect they have on the microbiome, and how they encourage the production of GABA and serotonin, which help calm us down!
However, if you take digestive aids and eat a healthy diet and are still experiencing discomfort or distress in your gut, it may be beneficial to do a gut cleanse, which Ali discusses in detail in her book, which helps reset the gut microbiome.
3. Repairing the gut. As mentioned above, we want the gut to be healthy and in a symbiotic state, that is working with the brain and body, because it is integral to the production of neurotransmitters that help manage the stress response and our anxiety levels.
A healthy gut helps calm us down, while an unhealthy gut can cause nutrient deficiency, digestive distress, bloating, irregular bathroom habits, flatulence, inflammation, immune sensitivity, leaky gut and so on, which can make us feel anxious by putting the brain and body into a stressed state.
4. Restoring micronutrient status, such as adding good quality, tested and safe supplements like B vitamins and diet optimization. Ali has her own supplement line called Naturally Nourished, which offers third party-tested and pharmaceutical grade supplements that are both high quality and effective, so check them out!
For more on the issues associated with supplement industry, see my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
As with all hormones, if cortisol is in overdrive, or if it is suppressed, it can make us feel stressed out and anxious. Generally, our cortisol levels peak in the morning to help us feel awake and ready for the day ahead, and start decreases as they day goes on, so that we can rest at night. If cortisol functions in this way, it is anti-inflammatory, helps stabilize blood sugar, helps the anti-histamine response and so on.
However, if our cortisol levels are too high, we can experience the opposite, which can lead to excessive belly fat, disrupted sleep, irritability, mood swings, a physiological stress response (such as the need to move about) and so on. Likewise, if our cortisol levels are too low, we tend to have more allergies due to the dampened anti-histamine response, more inflammation and more fatigue, which can also make us feel stressed and anxious. This is why it is important to focus on the health of our adrenals and make sure that they are functions properly, as adrenal fatigue can severely impact our mood and anxiety levels.
6. Rebalancing neurotransmitters. Our neurotransmitters work in a delicate symphony; when we have too much or too little of any neurotransmitter, we can experience negative affects like an increase in our anxiety levels or a toxic stress response.
In conventional medicine, medications like anti-depressants tend to focus on the receptor site of one neurotransmitter, not the whole system, and this is often done blindly. This approach does not take the time to look at everything associated with our mood and how we feel: genetics, nutrients, diet and so on, so they are not rebalancing the intricate symphony of neurotransmitters we need to be healthy. The conventional approach is reductionistic, rather than holistic, and does not make the mind-body connection work for us.
This intricate balance is also important when it comes to female hormones like progesterone and estrogen. When they work in tandem, they help balance blood flow and our moods. However, if we are in a constant state of flight or fight, our body’s perceived need for survival affects the production of these hormones, particularly progesterone, which is turned into cortisol. This can lead to a hormonal balance in women, which can result in relative estrogen dominance. This, in turn, can lead to mood instability, stress and anxiety, and can negatively affect the microbiome and serotonin levels, which only increases our body’s sense of “danger ahead!”.
As a result, hot flashes and hormone issues are not just a problem for women going through menopause. Younger and younger women are experiencing hormonal imbalances, which can lead to problems such as hot flashes, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), infertility and irregular menstrual cycles. This is why Allie recommends her Relax and Regulate supplement, which helps balance the production of hormones like estrogen and progesterone, and puts the body back on track.
Hormone replacement therapy is another option for people who deal with hormonal-related health issues. However, don’t just take any old hormones! Hormone replacement therapy needs to be regulated by annual testing, and the hormones need to be bioidentical, which means they are identical in molecular structure to the hormones produced in our body, not synthetic like certain kinds of birth control. Rather than suppressing regular ovarian functions, bioidentical hormones work with your body and help heal you from the inside out.
Your diet can also help heal you from the inside out, balancing your hormones and neurotransmitters and helping you feel great. The keto diet is actually great for issues like PCOS and infertility! Ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier, helping the hypothalamus produce leptin, which makes us feel full and safe, and aids the production of GABA, lessening our fight or flight response and calming us down. This, in turn, helps the body exit survival mode and start producing the hormones and neurotransmitters we need to function on a day-to-day basis, including estrogen and progesterone. Our metabolism starts returning to normal, and we can access our body fat and start using it a fuel, which also helps balance our hormones by helping the pituitary gland function as it should.
Yet it is not just important to go keto. How you do keto is equally important. A healthy low carb/high fat diet should include real, whole foods, and should avoid trendy food items that say they are keto, but are processed and refined foods with unhealthy ingredients. As Allie says, don’t replace the foods that got you into trouble with the keto versions of the same food, such as keto cakes and keto donuts.
In fact, it is important to be careful of natural and non-natural non-caloric sweeteners. These products tend to sterilize the microbiome, which can work against you over time, and can develop into an addiction to sweet things. If you are doing keto, it is far better to create a savory palate that focuses on vegetables and meat, which will give you a different level of food freedom. You won’t have to trick yourself with keto versions of the foods you miss, and you will get lots of great prebiotic fibers, to help heal the microbiome, which means a healthier brain and body!
It is also important not to demonize any macronutrient. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates; rather, match your carb intake to your metabolism. You may want to start at 30g a day to kick start the healing process, but you can increase this as needed. It is important to find your metabolic flexibility. You may even find that carb-cycling or a low glycemic diet can be helpful, especially if you have a low-percentage body fat, are at an ideal body weight or have irregular periods (adding more carbohydrates may help restore ovulation by balancing your hormones).
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