As a teen, I bit my nails so short they bled. My mind raced; I was riddled with nervous energy, drowning in self-doubt and insecurity. With each day that edged closer to high school graduation, I grew more terrified of my uncertain future. So, I coped. By the time I was 16, I was a junk-food addict who binge-ate my emotions. I didn’t know it then, but I was a statistic.
One in three: That’s roughly how many teens struggle with debilitating anxiety at some point during adolescence. And age only slightly assuages this number—the National Institutes of Health reported in 2017 that nearly one in five US adults had managed an anxiety disorder the previous year.
And while “Keep Calm and Carry On” marketing has made a killing off of downplaying the implications of the disorder, the results of anxiety are very real and very serious. Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use—including 31 percent for whom it was directly related to anxiety and depression. This kind of trauma is not all in anyone’s head, either: Long-term effects of anxiety may include a compromised immune system, gastrointestinal malfunction, increased risk of heart disease, and memory loss.
Traditionally, science has approached treatment with a combination of psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) and medication, the latter intended to ease symptoms while the former helps suss out and address the causes. In recent years, alternative modalities, including yoga and meditation, have been adopted as well. But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests it’s time to put the research where, well, your mouth is—because food may just be the key to alleviating certain stress and anxieties.
“While the relationship between nutrition and mental health may not feel intuitive at first glance, it’s key to understanding twin epidemics in modern health care,” says nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, MD, author of This Is Your Brain on Food and director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Diet and mental health are inextricably linked.”
Just look at the gut, she says. Research shows that 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, a chemical responsible for mood and emotion, is made in the digestive tract. The gut uses the same cells as the brain does, and the two organs are connected by the vagus nerve—a sort of two-way superhighway that carries chemical memos back and forth—so they’re in constant communication. Everything we eat gets translated into a chemical message. Poor food choices chemically set up conditions that pave the way for degraded mental health, beginning with gut inflammation that leads to inflammation in the brain—something not to be taken lightly. Brain inflammation means brain cells are dying; it causes grogginess and unclear thoughts and has been linked to depression, anxiety, and reduced motivation.
No amount of medication or therapy can fix this, Naidoo says. “Until we solve nutritional problems, we won’t be able to improve mental health issues in our society.” Neurotoxins vs. Neurotransmitters
Bloating, fatigue, anxiety—I accepted it all as a part of daily life. As I made my way through high school and into my early 20s, chronic anxiety became routine, as did the disordered eating it gave way to, and after being deprived of nourishment for so many years, my body revolted. My lymphatic system, which typically rids the body of toxins, became so overloaded that it could no longer function. When I was 21, my doctors discovered a Stage 1 cancerous tumor in my neck. It was the worst kind of wake-up call. I was raised in the Australian outback, an area that’s been populated by the country’s Aboriginal groups for thousands of years. Because of this, I was familiar with the Indigenous approach to healing, in which food and plants are medicine. My parents, who considered themselves naturalists, reinforced this approach with a reverence for nature and whole foods while I was growing up. And so, faced with the early stages of terminal illness, I turned again to food—but this time, it was for healing.
Without knowing it, I integrated techniques common in replacement therapy, willing myself to reach for nutritious, homemade alternatives to my familiar comfort cravings. When my anxiety had me desiring something satisfyingly greasy, I chopped potatoes and fried or baked them in olive oil, later switching to a higher smoke-point oil like coconut or avocado (because when oils break down, they release chemicals). I substituted natural ingredients wherever possible, developing wholesome versions of processed foods I longed for when stressed—like chicken nuggets, cookie dough, or chocolate balls (see page 66)—and soon, my comfort food became whole foods.
When I was diagnosed, a switch flipped, arming me with the necessary mental motivation to truly take on a new lifestyle. I’d transitioned away from eating gummy bears for breakfast, fast food for lunch and dinner, and sugary chocolate bars for snacks, and punctuating my stress with an entire box of cookies for a bit of quick relief—but I actually didn’t feel like I had given anything up. My favorite flavors and textures were still there but presented in a new-to-me way. I created a blog, The Earth Diet , to keep me accountable, challenging myself to eat only foods naturally produced by the earth for 365 days.
After three weeks of eating this way, in combination with a host of detox treatments—including colonics, coffee enemas, reflexology, and lymphatic drainage—the tumor had shrunk by a centimeter. With each passing week, it receded even more. Here I had this vascular anomaly that was acting as a real-time health compass for my choices. By the end of month three, the tumor in my throat had dissolved entirely.
But something else happened, too. For the first time in five years, I experienced prolonged anxiety-free periods: full days when my sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response) wasn’t in overdrive—wasn’t even triggered. Now that I’m a certified nutritionist and have studied food at a biological level, this makes sense: Certain […]