I Tried a Diet Meant To Get Rid of Anxiety

Can switching your diet improve your mental health?

I live by an "everything in moderation" mantra—which means I don't typically follow diets, since they usually restrict or eliminate 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 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.

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. I also spoke to Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author of the upcoming Keto Diet, and Maya Feller, MS, RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition, to find out if other nutrition experts 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 managing 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," Miller said.

This 12-week plan employs what Miller called 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 (gastrointestinal tract—what your digestive system is made up of) lining
  • Restoring your micronutrient status
  • Rebalancing your neurotransmitters (molecules in the nervous system)

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 said 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 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 was 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.

How Does This Diet 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 can the 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," Feller said. Anecdotal reports have also suggested that following the keto can help reduce anxiety symptoms, fear, and depression, Feller added.

As for how inflammation and anxiety are linked, Miller said 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," Miller explained. And since 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, when the GI tract and gut are inflamed, the production of serotonin may be hindered. That in turn increases feelings of stress, Miller said.

Armed with this info and curiosity, 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, Miller said.) So I put faith in this food-as-medicine approach, even if the research is still emerging, and investigated whether it could really ease my anxiety.

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, 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.

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, the 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.

Phase 1: A Rough Start, Then Calmness

I'd been warned by Axe and Miller about "keto flu," the flu-like symptoms some people experience right as they're starting ketoses, 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, the fog 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. Trying the anti-anxiety diet wasn't the only thing I started doing to manage my anxiety—I'd also been gratitude journaling, going to yoga, drinking more water, and spending more time with friends—but 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, noting 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 was pleased with how I felt internally and externally. The anti-anxiety diet was a somewhat intensive undertaking, but I really felt more grounded (and I've lost some belly bloat too). Oh, and I no longer felt 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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