Ahead, Uma Naidoo, MD—a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutritional biologist, and author of the forthcoming book Calm Your Mind with Food—shares need-to-know insights on the interplay between inflammation and anxiety. Plus: a few of the top anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting foods that comprise her yay list and which to consume in moderation.
- Uma Naidoo, MD, Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutritional biologist
The link between inflammatory foods and anxiety
As Dr. Naidoo explains, the gut and brain are intimately connected before we take our first breaths. “These organs arise from the same cell line in the human embryo,” she shares. It’s no surprise, then, that the food-mood connection—via the gut-brain axis—is robust. Inflammatory foods can wreak havoc in the gut, which can manifest in inflammation in the brain, thus triggering mind and mood imbalances. “Gut inflammation or dysbiosis can cause an increase in symptoms of anxiety. I see this in my clinical work all the time," Dr. Naidoo says.
Many of the same foods that you likely know you should limit for overall health top the nutritional psychiatrist’s list, but they’re worth recapping.
FWIW, not *all* processed foods are quote-unquote bad. Staples including but not limited to canned beans, oats, and Greek yogurt can very well be a part of a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet. However, ultra-processed foods that pack additives and artificial ingredients and lack brain-boosting vitamins, minerals, and fiber are a different story. According to Dr. Naidoo, you can typically spot these if they have lengthy ingredient lists (often with unrecognizable and/or hard-to-pronounce names), long shelf lives, and processed additives such as sugar and saturated and/or trans fats. Such foods “feed the bad microbes in the gut for worsened inflammation and, therefore, stress,” she explains.
Tip: Dr. Naidoo suggests opting for whole foods when possible: fresh and frozen fruits, veggies, whole grains, fatty fish, legumes, and the like. “Focus on the produce section, of course, but the center aisles are especially great for budget-friendly items like dried beans, lentils, legumes, canned wild salmon, oysters or mussels, organic beans, and chickpeas,” she notes.
Added and refined sugars
Sugar is added to countless food items. You might not even realize it, in part since it can be hidden under the guise of over 250 different names. While you’re bound to be privy to the fact that sugar is in some of your favorite treats like pastries, chocolate, and candy, Dr. Naidoo cautions that the sweet stuff also lurks in less obvious items including salad dressing, ketchup, and pasta sauce. “The hyper palatability of these foods may initially please taste buds, but they ultimately wreak havoc on gut health, exacerbate inflammation, and overwhelm the body with more sugar than it needs—which, all in all, can increase anxiety and [lead to an] uneven mood,” she says.
By the way, artificial sweeteners won’t make for a good dupe. “One study showed that people who consume artificial sweeteners, mostly via diet drinks, are more depressed than those who don’t consume such beverages,” Dr. Naidoo shares. She also cites research illustrating how artificial sweeteners have potentially toxic effects by altering brain concentrations of neurotransmitters that help regulate mood.
Tip: Going cold turkey on sweets can seem daunting—not to mention unrealistic. Instead, Dr. Naidoo suggests relying on fruit and other antioxidant-rich snacks to satisfy your sweet tooth, like enjoying a bowl of berries with high-quality dark chocolate.
“Focus on the produce section, of course, but the center aisles are especially great for budget-friendly items like dried beans, lentils, legumes, canned wild salmon, oysters or mussels, organic beans, and chickpeas." —Uma Naidoo, MD
Dr. Naidoo is wary of highly processed oils, the bulk of which are byproducts of abundantly grown industrial crops. “These include corn, soybean, palm oil, and more. Through processing, these oils become incredibly high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and ultimately devoid of anti-inflammatory omega-3s.” For reference, omega-6s aren’t “bad” in and of themselves. But an excess of them (and an imbalance in relation to omega-3s) “contribute to an excess of inflammatory molecules throughout the body, especially in the gut and brain,” Dr. Naidoo continues.
Tip: To curb inflammation and anxiety, Dr. Naidoo suggests opting for heart-healthy cooking oils such as EVOO for the likes of dressings and dips, or avocado oil when cooking.
Finals words on inflammatory foods and anxiety
Reducing inflammation—especially by way of diet—can make an impact on stress and anxiety. “By eating to help lower inflammation in our bodies, we decrease the load of 'lifestyle' stress upon our brains, and therefore our mental health,” says Dr. Naidoo. In time, we can become better equipped to adapt to duress and thus bolster long-term mental health. “In addition, when gut inflammation is reduced, the function of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which improves mood, and tryptophan, which calms stress, are shown to improve,” she continues. The result? Fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and a balanced gut, to boot.
All said, it’s not just about restricting what causes or exacerbates inflammation; it’s equally crucial to know what to add to your diet to support your mind and mood with food. Dr. Naidoo advises adding flavorful spices with antioxidant potential to your dishes. Think: turmeric (always with a smidge of black pepper), rosemary, saffron, and oregano. In addition, she advocates for eating a rainbow a day. “The compounds in produce that give them color are actually powerful plant nutrients, termed phytonutrients, that exhibit a high degree of antioxidant activity,” she explains. However, this tip isn’t only limited to produce on the ROYGBIV spectrum. “From the allicin in white-colored garlic and onions, to the anthocyanins behind berries’ vivid blues and purples, a diet rich in colorful produce has shown to reduce damage from free radical compounds in the body,” she shares. If you ask me, the calming, anti-inflammatory potential of these foods is enough to elicit an initial sigh of relief and make your mouth water.
- Guo, Xuguang et al. “Sweetened beverages, coffee, and tea and depression risk among older US adults.” PloS one vol. 9,4 e94715. 17 Apr. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094715
- Whitehouse, Christina R et al. “The potential toxicity of artificial sweeteners.” AAOHN journal : official journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses vol. 56,6 (2008): 251-9; quiz 260-1. doi:10.3928/08910162-20080601-02
- Tena, Noelia et al. “State of the Art of Anthocyanins: Antioxidant Activity, Sources, Bioavailability, and Therapeutic Effect in Human Health.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,5 451. 23 May. 2020, doi:10.3390/antiox9050451
- Chung, Lip Yong. “The antioxidant properties of garlic compounds: allyl cysteine, alliin, allicin, and allyl disulfide.” Journal of medicinal food vol. 9,2 (2006): 205-13. doi:10.1089/jmf.2006.9.205
- Han, Xuesheng, and Tory L Parker. “Anti-inflammatory, tissue remodeling, immunomodulatory, and anticancer activities of oregano (Origanum vulgare) essential oil in a human skin disease model.” Biochimie open vol. 4 73-77. 3 Mar. 2017, doi:10.1016/j.biopen.2017.02.005
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