Nutritionist Clare Backhouse looks at the causes of anxiety and explains how good nutrition can be part of the solution
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, or know someone who has, you will know how much of an impact it can have. You might be surprised to learn that nutrition can play a vital role in addressing it.
Anxiety is a fear related to a threat: a sense that something is going wrong, or is about to. It’s common to feel temporarily on edge before doing something daunting, like a job interview. But anxiety can become too-frequent and too-familiar, so that even mild challenges in life become fear triggers. For some, it becomes debilitating.
Anxiety is an especially worthy topic for this magazine because it’s twice as commonly experienced by women than by men.
On top of that is the fall-out from COVID. If we ourselves haven’t experienced stress and anxiety around COVID, we probably know someone who has. What with everything else going on in the news, too, it can feel as though the whole world has grown more anxious.
Biology and peace
1 John 4:18 says that “perfect love drives out fear”, and the scriptures are filled with God’s call to turn from fear and worry. I find it encouraging that we’re asked not to accept chronic anxiety as our hopeless fate, but to believe that, in Christ, we can experience peace. However, the gift of peace isn’t purely spiritual or emotional. There are biological aspects to it too.
And since we have each been created with a spirit, a soul and a body, let’s have a closer look at the biology – and see how loving our bodies wisely may help to cast out fear.
1. The nervous system
In chronic anxiety, the nervous system is more easily and strongly triggered into ‘sympathetic’ mode. This mode speeds heart rate, shuts down the digestive system and causes shallow breathing – which is great when you need to escape from a wild animal, but not when you’re trying to get on with your day.
Happily, the sympathetic mode has one key hack: breathing. Slow, gentle diaphragm breathing can physiologically invite the body back to a calm, ‘parasympathetic’ state (and it’s also a great way to prepare the digestive system for eating).
I love to combine the benefits of good breathing with encouragement from scripture, for example using an app like Live From Rest (see
livefromrest.com). It’s remarkable how powerful just two minutes of slow breathing and audible truth can be.
2. Blood sugar balance
If we eat carb-heavy, sugary food, our blood sugar levels tend to spike and crash, which can trigger anxiety. On the other hand, if we eat plenty of protein and healthy fat at mealtimes, we slow down the absorption of sugars from food, support balanced blood sugar and support a calmer mood.
If anxiety is a challenge for you, you may want to consider your caffeine consumption. This is because caffeine can trigger the ‘sympathetic’ response and create a physical sensation of anxiety. One (otherwise calm) client of mine suffered his first panic attack simply from drinking lots of coffee on an empty stomach before an event.
4. Gut health
Imbalances in gut bacteria may produce toxins that then cause anxious feelings, especially if there are food sensitivities going on. Typical culprits are gluten, dairy, corn, soy and even nuts. For some of my clients, watching for food triggers, and supporting the gut with probiotic foods or supplements, can make all the difference to their mood.
Many people are surprised to learn that our bowel movements should occur at least once per day. Anything less than this may cause or worsen anxiety for a variety of reasons. This is why I often recommend drinking two litres of water, and adding more vegetables to the menu, for anyone who’s constipated.
Nutrient deficiencies have been found to impact mood. For example, the B vitamins and zinc are known to support stable, balanced mood. While vegans and vegetarians are advised to supplement with B12, the other B vitamins and zinc are often forgotten.
One of my clinical specialisms is thyroid health, and anxiety is a classic symptom in both hyper (overactive) and hypo (underactive) thyroid disorders. If you have previously had ‘borderline’ thyroid blood results and are struggling with anxiety, it may be time to re-check your thyroid. Ask your doctor to check T3 and antibodies as well as TSH and T4.
8. Nervous system
In addition to these physical issues, let’s not forget that trauma experiences are an important cause of anxiety. This is because unprocessed trauma can lock our nervous system into acting as if the original trauma is ongoing, or could happen again at any minute. ‘Silent’ trauma, such as childhood neglect, can prove just as challenging as more overt tragedies. Because anxiety can interfere with digestion, I often refer my clients to qualified practitioners in trauma recovery.
In recent years it’s been discovered that increased inflammatory cytokines - signalling molecules in cells that promote inflammation - in the body are associated with anxiety and depression. This is one of the reasons we tend to feel a bit low when we are recovering from illness, and why chronic anxiety may result from lingering illnesses.
Lack of sleep is a classic trigger for anxiety, and it’s been shown that insomniacs are more likely to switch into the ‘run from danger’ sympathetic nervous system mode.
In fact, sleep is so important, we’ll discuss it in more depth next time. For now, here’s to perfect love displacing our fears this autumn – in body, mind and spirit.