This New Diet Is Supposed to Help Your Anxiety

May 11, 2018

I live by the mantra “everything in moderation” – which means I put my nose in diets because they usually restrict or eliminate certain foods, and I throw in review copies of books about diets for free tables at the publishing company I work for. This happens a lot.

Recently, though, I came across a book that promises to change everything I thought I knew about the mind-body connection and help me banish anxiety.” The author of “The Anti-Anxiety Diet: A Whole-Body Plan to Stop the Mind Race, Banish the Worry, and Live Carefree” is nutritionist Ali Miller, RD. The book caught my attention because the night before I had been Googling “how to reduce anxiety naturally” and “how to get rid of breakup-induced anxiety without taking medication. (And yes, both described my life at the time).

I was intrigued by the possibility of beating anxiety with the right foods, and I did some serious digging into this diet. I read it from cover to cover and interviewed Miller himself. I also interviewed Josh Axe, a naturopathic doctor and author of the forthcoming Keto Diet, and Maya Feller of Maya Feller Nutrition, MS, RD, to find out if other nutritionists thought the program would work.

What I’ve learned about anti-anxiety diets – from what you can and can’t eat to why the foods you consume actually matter when it comes to beating anxiety – convinced me to give it a try. Here’s what happened.

What is the Anti-Anxiety Diet?
“The Anti-Anxiety Diet is a food-as-medicine approach, which means understanding that food can either cause disease and dysfunction or be used to promote healing and prevent disease and anxiety,” says Miller.

The 12-week program uses what Miller calls the “six Rs”: remove inflammatory foods, reset your gut microbiome (the collection of trillions of bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal system), repair your gastrointestinal lining, restore your micronutrient status, and rebalance your neurotransmitters.

Sounds confusing and difficult, right? But it’s essentially a combination of a ketogenic diet and an anti-inflammatory protocol. That means you simultaneously stop eating any foods that contain inflammation (Miller says there are five: gluten, corn, soy, sugar, and dairy) and start consuming a high-fat, moderate-protein diet. The latter can put you into ketosis – a state that occurs when your body stops burning glucose from carbohydrates for energy and starts burning ketones from fat.

In addition to this, the program emphasizes supporting gut health through diet, so you’ll increase levels of serotonin (the “happy” hormone) and GABA (a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of relaxation). This part of the program is specific to each participant, based on responses to three book quizzes: one about your gut bacteria balance, another about leaky gut, and a third about your adrenal glands, which produce the hormone.

Based on the results of my quiz, the book suggested that I try a capsule containing an herbal adaptogen, a plant extract that supposedly restores balance and may fight anxiety (although more research is needed to confirm this). I should also limit my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day – or better yet, switch to matcha. But others who try this diet may be asked to adopt different changes and restrictions.

Okay, so how does this help with anxiety?

The theory behind the plan is that inflammation, gut distress, and neurotransmitter imbalances can cause and amplify anxiety – and that anti-inflammatory foods, keto diets, and gut-friendly foods can reduce anxiety.

How does the ultra-fashionable keto diet help you? By going low-carb, you can change the rate of glucose metabolism in the brain so that you can more actively convert glutamate to GABA, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with relaxation.” Because GABA is a mood stabilizer, the idea is that the ketogenic diet can act as a mood stabilizer,” says Feller. Anecdotal reports also suggest that following a keto diet can help reduce anxiety symptoms, fear and depression, Feller adds.

As for how inflammation and anxiety are linked, Miller says that people with anxiety disorders tend to have high levels of inflammatory chemicals in their bodies. This “leads to a surge of excitatory neurotransmitters, which creates more anxious thoughts and feelings,” she explains.” She says. Since 90 percent of serotonin is in the gut, serotonin production can be hindered when the gastrointestinal and intestinal tracts are inflamed. This, in turn, can increase feelings of stress, she says.

With all this information and curiosity, I decided that 6-12 weeks was a reasonable trade off for a less stressful life for me. (The diet takes at least 12 weeks, but you can make it a long-term lifestyle by constantly cycling between the two phases, says Miller). So I have faith in this approach to food as medicine, even as research continues to emerge and I’ve investigated whether it actually relieves my anxiety.

Preparing the plan
On the Sunday night before I started my diet, with my anti-anxiety diet grocery list in hand, I filled my cart with the usual suspects: kale, eggs, spinach, chives, nut butters, pickles, coconut oil, and kombucha. I added some new keto and anti-inflammatory foods: chicken, turkey, bacon, pickles, nut cheeses, and a whole bunch of herbs and spices (ginger, basil, mint, sea salt, and garlic). I also bought turmeric and magnesium supplements, both of which were recommended based on my answers to quizzes in the book.

As a New Yorker, I eat out a lot, so I know that when I go to a restaurant or order take-out, staying in ketosis for as little as six weeks is the hardest part. I decided to take a look at the menus of the restaurants I frequent and luckily, they all have gluten-free and dairy-free options that I can make to fit my anti-anxiety diet. (For example, at one cafe, I ordered a roquefort and egg bowl without a toast rim, and at a deli, I could easily get a spinach or kale salad with avocado, eggs, and grilled chicken).

With my research complete, fridge fully stocked, shelves emptied of processed foods, and a restaurant game plan in place, I was ready to go. While Miller says one can do stage one for up to 12 weeks, I decided to just do six, minimum.

Stage 1: Rough start, then calm down
I had been warned by Axe and Miller about the “keto flu,” where some people start keto with flu-like symptoms like nausea, irritability, and fatigue, and I only experienced one symptom: brain fog. By the end of the week, the fog had started to break, but mentally I was more uncooperative than usual.

After a week, this lifted, and as time went on, I experienced some side effects. My cravings for sweets began to appear and my workout performance began to suffer. But at six weeks, I realized that I was feeling more grounded. While trying an anti-anxiety diet really wasn’t the only thing I started doing to manage my anxiety – I’d also been keeping a gratitude journal, going to yoga, drinking more water, and spending more time with friends – I really felt calmer.

Phase 2: Eat more carbs, but be more grounded.
After maintaining keto, this phase is easy. I can eat 90 grams of carbs instead of a paltry 30 grams – come on granny smith apples! Two days later, I was back at the gym. Two days later, I was back in the gym.

After three weeks of the recommended total of seven weeks of Phase 2, Miller gave me promising feedback. She said that I had repaired my gastrointestinal lining and restored my microbiome, as well as reduced pre-existing inflammation, so my anxiety symptoms should remain where they were – at a more manageable level than when I started.

Does the anti-anxiety diet work?
In the end, I’m happy with how I feel inside and out. The anti-anxiety diet was a bit intensive, but I still really feel more grounded (and I’ve lost some belly fat). Oh, and I no longer feel the need to Google various versions of the term “how to overcome anxiety”. So I will say that these results make me feel like the diet was worth it.