By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
Anxiety disorders can be extremely disabling. Common symptoms include:
- Constant worry
- Chronic frustration
- Frequent irritability
- Prolonged tension
- Feelings of turmoil
- Tooth grinding
- Jaw pain (from clenching the jaws)
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Inability to cope
In some cases generalized anxiety is accompanied by panic disorder, which is characterized by attacks of intense, overwhelming fear that may be accompanied by:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Tightness in the chest or throat
- Stomach cramps, nausea, or other digestive disturbances
These attacks may occur in response to stressful events or consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, or may come out of the blue, with no apparent cause. Both hereditary factors and life experiences may contribute to the disorder.
Many people with panic disorder also develop agoraphobia. Agoraphobics begin avoiding places and situations that they fear will trigger panic attacks, such as public transportation, movie theatres, and restaurants.
Common drug therapies for generalized anxiety and panic disorder include benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that have sedating effects; Buspirone (BuSpar), which doesn’t cause drowsiness but may have a variety of other side effects; and antidepressant medications. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is also quite effective for both generalized anxiety and panic disorder.
Unfortunately, panic disorder is quite resistant to natural therapies when used on their own, and in most cases a multifaceted approach is required. Nutritional therapy can be beneficial as an adjunct to either cognitive-behavioural therapy, pharmacological intervention, or both. While support for the benefits of nutrition and supplementation comes primarily through anecdotal reports and small-scale studies, there are indications that certain nutritional interventions can help reduce generalized anxiety and panic attacks.
What to Eat
Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, particularly B-complex vitamins and magnesium. A healthy, nutritious diet rich in vitamins and minerals can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, which often accompany panic disorder. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can boost the body’s stores of vitamins and minerals that are depleted by prolonged stress.
Supplements of vitamin B, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3s (fish oil) may also be beneficial, but some supplements can interact with medications and are contraindicated with certain medical conditions. Consulting a doctor is necessary to determine safe, effective doses.
What to Avoid
Stimulants such as cocaine and caffeine are particularly bad for those who are at risk for panic disorder, as they may trigger panic attacks even after discontinuing their use because their effects on the nervous system can linger. Nicotine can also worsen the symptoms of panic disorder.
Foods that should be avoided by those who suffer from intense anxiety include:
- Alcohol – Drinking can trigger anxiety reactions, especially when the alcohol wears off.
- Sugar – Refined white sugar is particularly bad, but honey, corn syrup, molasses, and fructose should also be cut out or kept in moderation.
- Artificial food additives and preservatives – These substances, often found in processed foods, may trigger reactions in people who are sensitive to them.
- Aspartame and MSG – Aspartame, which is found in artificial sweeteners, and MSG, a common flavouring in snack foods, are neurotoxic, and should be avoided.
Those who suffer from panic attacks should particularly avoid eating refined ingredients, such as white flour and white sugar, as they can cause a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, the symptoms of which include anxiety and emotional instability. Thiamine helps to metabolize sugar, and so those who eat a lot of simple carbohydrates can deplete their thiamine stores. White rice is also a bad idea, as thiamine is located in the husk of brown rice, which is removed to make white rice. Refined and processed carbohydrates are usually stripped of much of their magnesium as well, and magnesium deficiency may also be a factor in panic disorder.
Those who suffer from panic disorder should also avoid skipping meals. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can cause the body to release adrenaline in order to prevent fainting, which can trigger a panic attack in susceptible individuals. Eating many small meals over the course of the day rather than a couple of big meals is best.
Food allergies may also play a role in anxiety and panic disorder for some people. It may be worthwhile to try eliminating different foods (i.e., wheat, dairy) for two weeks at a time to determine whether a food allergy is aggravating anxiety symptoms.
For information on vitamins, minerals, and other supplements for anxiety, see the main Anti-Anxiety Supplements page. For a full list of anxiety remedies, see the main Panic and Anxiety Treatments page. For more on the link between eating and anxiety, see Hypoglycemia, Anxiety, and Panic Disorder.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation. Those with health concerns should consult a qualified practitioner.
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- Women’s Health Services. (n.d.). “Anxiety and Panic Attacks: Nutrition.” WHS.org.au.