Can switching your diet change your mental health? One anxious woman decided to find out.

By Gabrielle Kassel
Updated January 11, 2019

I live by an “everything in moderation” mantra—which means I turn up my nose at diets, since they usually restrict or eliminate of certain foods, and I toss review copies of books about diets on the free table at the publishing company where I work. This happens a lot.

Recently, though, I came across a book promising to change everything I thought I knew about the mind-body connection and help banish my anxiety. “The Anti-Anxiety Diet: A Whole Body Program To Stop Racing Thoughts, Banish Worry, and Live Panic-Free” is authored by nutritionist Ali Miller, RD. The book caught my eye because I had been Googling “How to reduce anxiety naturally” and “How to get rid of breakup-induced anxiety without drugs” the night before. (Yep, both describe my life at the time.) 

RELATED: What Is Panic Disorder—and How Do You Know if You Have It?

Intrigued by the possibility of beating anxiety with the right foods, I did some serious digging on this diet. I read it cover to cover and interviewed Miller herself. I also spoke to Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine and author of the upcoming Keto Diet, and Maya Feller, MS, RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition, to find out if other nutrition pros thought the plan would work.

What I learned about the anti-anxiety diet—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 contribute to disease and dysfunction, or be used to promote healing and prevent disease and anxiety,” says Miller.

This 12-week plan employs what Miller calls The Six R’s: removing inflammatory foods, resetting your gut microbiome (the trillion-strong collection of bacteria that live in your GI system), repairing your GI lining, restoring your micronutrient status, and rebalancing your neurotransmitters.

Sounds confusing and hard, right? But it’s essentially a combination of the ketogenic diet and an anti-inflammatory protocol. That means you simultaneously stop eating anything containing inflammatory foods (Miller says there are five: gluten, corn, soy, sugar, and dairy) and start consuming a high-fat, moderate-protein diet. The latter sends you into ketosis—the state your body enters when it stops burning glucose from carbs for energy and starts burning ketones from fat.

Beyond that, the plan emphasizes eating to support gut health, so you increase your levels of serotonin (the “happy” hormone) and GABA (a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of relaxation). This part of the plan is specialized per participant, based on answers to three in-book quizzes: one about your gut bacteria balance, another about leaky gut, and a third concerning your adrenal glands, which produce hormones. 

Based on my quiz results, the book recommended that I try a capsule containing herbal adaptogens, which are botanical extracts that reportedly restore balance to the body and may fight anxiety (though more research is needed to confirm this). I'm also supposed to limit my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day—or better yet, swap it for matcha tea. But other people who try the diet may be asked to adopt different changes and restrictions.

RELATED: Woman Dies From Rabies After She Was Misdiagnosed With Panic Attacks

Okay, so how does this help anxiety?

The theory behind the plan is that inflammation, gut distress, and neurotransmitter imbalances can lead to and amplify anxiety—while anti-inflammatory foods, the keto diet, and gut-friendly foods can reduce it. 

How does the super trendy keto diet help? By going low-carb, you can change the rate of glucose metabolism in the brain so there's a more active conversion of glutamate to GABA, the neurotransmitter linked to relaxation. "Because GABA is a mood stabilizer, the idea is that the ketogenic diet acts as a mood stabilizer,” says Feller. Anecdotal reports have also suggested that following keto can help reduce anxiety symptoms, fear, and depression, adds Feller.

As for how inflammation and anxiety are linked, Miller says that people who have anxiety tend to have a high amount of inflammatory chemicals in the body. That "causes a surge of excitatory neurotransmitters, which creates even more anxious thoughts and feelings,” she explains. And since 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, when the GI tract and gut are inflamed, production of serotonin may be hindered. That in turn increases feelings of stress, she says.

Armed with this info and curious, I decided that trading 6-12 weeks of my life for a less stressed-out existence was a reasonable deal. (The diet takes a minimum of 12 weeks, but you can make it a long-term lifestyle by continually cycling between the two phases, says Miller.) So I put faith into this food-as-medicine approach, even if the research is still emerging, and investigated whether it could really ease my anxiety.

RELATED: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: How to Tell the Difference

Prepping for the plan

On the Sunday night before I embarked on the diet, with my anti-anxiety diet grocery list in hand, I filled my cart with some of my usual purchases: kale, eggs, spinach, leeks, nut butter, pickles, coconut oil, and kombucha. I added some new keto and anti-inflammatory eats: chicken, turkey, bacon, kimchi, nut cheese, and a ton of herbs and spices (ginger, basil, mint, sea salt, and garlic). I also picked up turmeric and a magnesium supplement, both of which were recommended based on my answers to the in-book quizzes.

As a New Yorker, I eat out a lot, so I knew keeping keto for the six-week minimum would be hardest when I went to restaurants or ordered takeout. I decided to look at the menus at the restaurants I frequent, and luckily, they all had gluten-free and dairy-free options, which I could doctor up to fit the anti-anxiety diet. (For instance, at one cafe I ordered a lox and eggs bowl without the side of toast, and at a deli I could easily get a spinach or kale salad with avocado, egg, and grilled chicken.)

With my research done, fridge fully stocked, shelves emptied of processed foods, and a restaurant game plan in place, I was ready to go. While Miller said a person could do phase one for up to 12 weeks, I decided to just do it for six, the minimum.

RELATED: 7 Dangers of the Keto Diet

Phase 1: A rough start, then calmness

I’d been warned by Axe and Miller about “keto flu,” the flu-like symptoms some folks experience right as they’re starting ketosis, such as nausea, irritability, and fatigue, I only experienced one symptom: brain fog. By the end of the week the fog had started to break, but mentally I was less with it than usual.

After a week, that lifted, and as the weeks went on, I had a few side effects. My cravings for sweets kicked in and my workout performance began to suffer. But at the six-week mark, I realized I had been feeling more grounded. While it’s true that trying the anti-anxiety diet isn’t the only thing I’ve started doing to manage my anxiety—I’ve also been gratitude journaling, going to yoga, drinking more water, and spending more time with friends—I really did feel calmer.

Phase 2: More carbs, but more grounded

After keeping keto, this phase was easy. Instead of a paltry 30 grams of carbs, I could have as much as 90 grams—bring on the granny smith apples! After two days, I was back to crushing it at the gym.

Three weeks into phase two out of a recommended seven weeks total, Miller gave me promising feedback. She said that I had repaired my GI lining and restored my microbiome, as well as reduced pre-existing inflammation, so my symptoms of anxiety should continue to stay where they are—at a level that's a lot more manageable than when I started.

Did the anti-anxiety diet work?

In the end, I’m pleased with how I feel internally and externally. The anti-anxiety diet was a somewhat intensive undertaking, but I still really feel more grounded (and I've lost some belly bloat too). Oh, and I no longer feel the need to Google various versions of the phrase "how to get over anxiety." So I’d say the results made the diet worth it. 

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