by Dr. Will Cole
It’s easy to disassociate anxiety and other mental health problems from your physical health as a completely separate issue. But in reality the way you feel mentally can be a direct correlation between how you feel physically and what you are feeding your body.
Sugar in particular is one of the biggest contributors to a poor mental state.
A Double Edged Sword
Xanax and Valium are what are known as SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors). When you’re feeling anxious “popping a Xanax” is as synonymous in today’s society as taking an aspirin for a headache. These drugs prevent the reuptake of serotonin making more serotonin available for your brain. When these medications were developed it was believed that anxiety was caused by low serotonin levels. But now further research has found that high levels of serotonin are, in fact, making anxiety levels worse.
And guess what also raises serotonin levels? Yep, you guessed correctly. Sugar. So, if you struggle with anxiety every time you eat sugar you are contributing to the neurochemical reaction of anxiety and further perpetuating your dependence on prescription drugs. Marry Poppins was obviously not too far off when she sang “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Where It All Begins
All disease can be linked back to your microbiome. The correct balance of bacteria in your microbiome is responsible for exactly how healthy you are. You can either feed good bacteria or bad bacteria by the foods you choose to eat. Sugar is the perfect fuel for all types of bad bacteria including yeast overgrowths such as Candida.
An overload of bad bacteria leads to none other than chronic systemic inflammation. And even though you might not have digestive symptoms, you can still have digestive problems. They are most likely just manifesting themselves in another part of your body. Studies have shown that lower levels of beneficial bacteria, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus helveticus are found in those struggling with anxiety.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Your gut and your brain have been connected together from the beginning. When you are in the womb these two organs develop from the same fetal tissue and continue their connection your entire life through the gut-brain axis and vagus nerve.
A whole area of research known as “the cytokine model of cognitive function” is actually focused on how inflammation, due to these dysfunctions in the microbiome, can lead to anxiety and depression. Long-term inflammation ends up damaging your protective blood-brain barrier leaving your brain’s immune system to work in overdrive to fight off intruders. Over time an inflammatory-autoimmune response occurs and your immune system starts to attack your healthy brain and nervous tissue.
Because of this inflammation on the central nervous system it makes sense that anxiety is more common in patients with autoimmune disease.
There are three stages to the autoimmune spectrum:
- Silent Autoimmunity: There are positive antibody labs but no noticeable symptoms.
- Autoimmune Reactivity: There are positive antibody labs and symptoms.
- Autoimmune Disease: There’s enough body destruction to be diagnosed.
And for this reason, even though you may not be sick enough to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease there can still be enough damage done to prompt autoimmune reactivity against the brain.
Also, since around 80% of your immune system is stored in your gut you can see the uber importance of a healthy microbiome.
Now let’s look at another piece of the anxiety puzzle: blood sugar. When you consume too much sugar it can lead to blood sugar spikes, imbalances, and insulin resistance and when your blood sugar is on a roller-coaster it throws off you’re your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) which is responsible for releasing your stress hormone cortisol. Your “fight or flight” response that happens when you are stressed or anxious is due to an increased stream of cortisol. Because of this constant up and down your body never really gets a chance to calm down which further perpetuates the feelings of anxiety.
In addition, imbalanced blood sugar can increase those feelings of hanger and always needing sweet and salty foods in order to feel satisfied. You’ll never get off the hamster wheel that is blood sugar and anxiety.
It’s been shown that diets mainly comprised of sugar and high glucose foods raise anxiety but by switching to a low-sugar diet can drastically lower anxiety after just 4 weeks!
The next step in order to start calming your anxiety is to stop feeding it. Running labs is a great way to understand where your baseline is and how drastically you need to change your diet to start healing. These are the most common labs that I run to asses gut, brain, and blood sugar function.
1. Microbiome Labs: These labs will check your gut bacteria and give you better indication if your gut has been compromised.
- Comprehensive stool analysis can assess the bacterial diversity of the gut.
- Zonulin and Occludin Antibodies: These are two proteins that control gut permeability. If you have antibodies it could mean there has been damage to the intestinal tight junctions.
- Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) Antibodies: These are bacterial endotoxins located in your gut. If antibodies are found in your blood that could be a sign of leaky gut syndrome.
2. Autoimmune Reactivity Brain Labs: These blood labs can look for raised antibodies.
3. Blood sugar labs: These are some of the labs I run to determine if you blood sugar is out of whack.
- Serum insulin: Optimal range: < 3 ulU/mL
- C-peptide: Optimal range: 0.8 to 3.1 ng/mL
- Fasting blood sugar: Optimal range: 75 to 90 mg/dL
- Hgb A1C: Optimal range: < 5.3%
- Triglycerides: Optimal range: < 100 mg/dL
- HDL: Optimal range: 59 to 100 mg/dL
Switch to natural sweeteners
Having a treat here and there is definitely not a bad thing. However, it’s important to be smart about satisfying your sweet tooth by using natural sweeteners instead. Raw honey is one of my favorite options due to its high antioxidant content. It’s been shown too, that eating honey instead of sucrose can decrease anxiety. My sweetener guide can help you make the best choice for a sugar alternative.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.