Foods That Can Cause, Trigger, or Worsen Your Anxiety
Certain foods can cause anxiety or trigger or worsen anxiety. What we put into our body matters. Researchers are discovering what foods improve mental health, including anxiety, and which ones hurt it. Everything we eat is broken down in the digestive system and is released into the bloodstream where its molecular components are distributed and used by the various organs in the body. This includes the brain. The brain needs the right combination of nutrients to fuel its neurochemistry. If we don’t eat right, the brain doesn’t receive the healthy fuel it needs and often receives substances that damage it (for example, caffeine and anxiety don't mix). In this way, foods can cause anxiety, trigger it or even worsen it.
What a food does to you depends on your experience with anxiety.
- If you haven’t previously dealt with anxiety, eating the wrong foods can cause, or at least contribute to the development of, new anxiety.
- Sometimes, people experience sporadic or occasional anxiety that flares in the presence of external stressors. Can foods trigger anxiety? Researchers have discovered that yes, foods are one of the external stressors that cause anxiety to rear its ugly head in people who only experience it every once in a while.
- If you live with chronic worry, fear, or panic, there are foods that worsen anxiety of any nature (learn how foods play a role in anxiety and panic attacks).
Some Foods That Can Cause, Trigger or Worsen Your Anxiety
Both foods and beverages can exacerbate anxiety. Beverages are digested just like food, and the molecular components are distributed through the body. Three of the biggest liquid contributors to anxiety are
- Sugary drinks like sodas, juices, etc.(see Sugar and Anxiety: How Sugar Can Make Your Anxiety Symptoms Worse)
Basically, these substances are liquid foods that cause, trigger, or worsen anxiety. They can cause blood sugar levels to surge then crash, which is an erratic energy rollercoaster that negatively effects anxiety. All these drinks can cause irritability and the sense of being on edge. Restlessness, dehydration, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping are common effects of alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. These feel like some of the symptoms of anxiety.
In addition to contributing to anxiety, alcohol (and illicit drugs) can interact with many medications, creating side effects that range from unpleasant to life-threatening. They can also prevent anxiety medications from working properly. Blocking something that’s helping you is another way that substances can cause, trigger, or worsen your anxiety.
List of Harmful Foods for Anxiety
Regarding foods causing anxiety, a simple guideline is this: The more refined or processed something is—the further it’s removed from its natural state—the more detrimental it can be for your anxiety and overall mental health.
This is because as natural foods like grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, and others are processed and refined, they lose key nutrients. And let’s not forget the artificially manufactured products like hydrogenated oils, additives, preservatives, and other substances created completely or partially in factories.
These are just some of the foods that can cause anxiety or worsen it:
- Fast food
- Fried foods
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
- White bread
- White pasta
- White rice
- Chocolate other than dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa
- Chips and similar snacks
- “Instant” products like potatoes, rice, oatmeal; however, instant oatmeal, for example, may be processed more quickly by the body (causing an energy spike then plummet that can cause anxiety) than slow-cooked oatmeal, yet instant oatmeal does have nutritious properties and is better for you than white bread or chips)
- Refined cereals (they are often sugary)
These foods are especially harmful and can cause, trigger, or worsen your anxiety. You might have other foods that contribute to your own anxiety.
Any food, even healthy food good for anxiety, can have a negative effect on anxiety if you are sensitive to the food. A food sensitivity is different from a food allergy. It can make you feel terrible and experience things like anxiety, but it doesn’t cause a dangerous immune system reaction.
Common foods that people can be sensitive to include:
- Food additives
If you are experiencing anxiety, part of the reason could be a sensitivity to one or more of these foods. Other than the food additives, these are all healthy foods that your body needs and natural foods that can often help anxiety. You could consider consulting with a nutrition specialist to discuss the possibility of food sensitivities and how to replace any food with an equivalent source of nutrients.
Whether you’re experiencing new anxiety, have anxiety that is occasionally triggered, or existing anxiety that is worsening, foods and drinks could be at least partially responsible. Try eliminating harmful foods from your diet. You just might discover that your anxiety diminishes.
Last Updated: 08 June 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD