Nate Steiner/Flickr
Source: Nate Steiner/Flickr

Do you suffer from panic attacks or have trouble sleeping? If so, you may have tried stress reduction techniques or even medications, but has anyone ever asked you what you eat? It may surprise you to learn that certain everyday foods, some of which are considered healthy, have the capacity to overstimulate your nervous system just as powerfully as a stressful life event.

Medications may be helpful in managing your symptoms in the short term, but what if you could get to the root cause of the problem once and for all? If you identify which ingredients in your menu are working against you, you can gain control over your symptoms, avoid co-pays and side effects, and most importantly, protect your health from the damaging effects of internal biological stress.

When it comes to anxiety and insomnia, the foods listed below can be chemical triggers for anyone. Those at highest risk include women, people over 40, individuals with multiple chemical/medication sensitivities or allergies, and anyone with conditions affecting the digestive or immune system such as IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, or chemotherapy treatment.

Which foods are most likely to press your panic button?

HOerwin56/Pixabay
Source: HOerwin56/Pixabay

1. Caffeine 

Caffeine is a notorious nemesis in sleep and anxiety disorders. In a recent study of people with panic disorder, caffeine increased stress hormone levels in all participants and triggered panic attacks in about half of them. Caffeine keeps you awake by blocking sleep-promoting adenosine receptors in the brain. Even five hours after drinking caffeine, 50% of it remains in your bloodstream and has been shown to impair sleep. In fact, it takes a staggering 16 to 24 hours for caffeine to completely leave your system. This means that even a single morning cup of coffee may affect your sleep quality at night. To see if caffeine is your culprit, gradually cut back a little each day rather than going cold turkey to minimize withdrawal headaches, fatigue, and concentration problems.

Wku/Pixabay
Source: Wku/Pixabay

2. Nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and goji berries)

Plants in the nightshade family produce natural pesticides called glycoalkaloids, which are designed to kill predators like insects and worms, but are also toxic to human cells. These cunning chemical weapons block the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, resulting in overstimulation of the nervous system in sensitive individuals. Anxiety is just one of many neuropsychiatric side effects documented in humans. Common nightshade ingredients in prepared foods include potato starch, chilies, bell peppers, tomato paste, paprika, red pepper flakes and cayenne. Most people eat nightshades in some form every day, so glycoalkaloids may accumulate in your system over time. It takes at least five days for glycoalkaloids to clear your system, so you’ll need to remove these foods completely for a week or longer to see if they are bothering you. Cooking doesn’t destroy glycoalkaloids, but there are other simple ways to minimize your exposure

Skitterphoto/Pixabay
Source: Skitterphoto/Pixabay

3. Alcohol

Alcohol can be very effective in relaxing you and helping you fall asleep. However, as alcohol starts to wear off in the middle of the night, sleep quality suffers significantly. Metabolism varies depending on age, gender, genetic background and other factors, but the primary predictor of how long alcohol remains in your bloodstream is quantity. On average, each “drink” (1.5-oz shot, 12-oz beer, or 5-oz wine) takes two hours to clear your system: two drinks—four hours, three drinks—six hours, etc. As alcohol wears off, "mini-withdrawal" effects can range from restless sleep to bad dreams to full-blown panic attacks. If you're in the habit of drinking every evening, cut back gradually to minimize potential for withdrawal, which can temporarily worsen sleep and anxiety problems.

klinik/Pixabay
Source: klinik/Pixabay

4. Aged, fermented, cured, smoked, and cultured foods (salami, cheese, sauerkraut, red wine, etc.).

The way to turn a fresh whole food like beef, milk, grapes, or cabbage into a gourmet food like aged steak, brie, merlot, or kimchi is to add bacteria to it and let it ferment. During fermentation, bacteria break down food proteins into tiny molecules called biogenic amines, which accumulate as the food ages. The most important biogenic amine found lurking within aged foods is histamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that can aggravate our digestive, hormonal, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. Histamine causes anxiety and insomnia in susceptible individuals, partly through its ability to increase levels of adrenaline, our "fight-or-flight" hormone. Histamine is indestructible, so cooking and freezing don't help. This article contains more detailed information, including meat, seafood, and beverage tables as well as food preparation tips to keep your histamine levels low.

Stocksnap/Pixabay
Source: Stocksnap/Pixabay

5. Sugar, Flour, and other Refined Carbohydrates

All sugars and starches, except those that come in the form of a natural whole food like a piece of fruit or a sweet potato, are considered refined carbohydrates

Popular breakfast foods like orange juice, sweet yogurts, and most cereals are rich in refined carbohydrates that start your day with a blood sugar spike, setting into motion a hormonal chain reaction that can affect your mood, energy, concentration, and appetite for hours. After insulin surges to bring your blood sugar down, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline rush in to prevent your blood sugar from crashing. Since most people eat refined carbohydrates like bread, chips, or noodles during lunch and dinner as well, they are essentially riding this invisible roller coaster 24 hours a day. 

In this study, a single serving of a glucose-sweetened beverage caused adrenaline levels to double in adults and quadruple in children, not peaking until four hours after the drink was consumed. 

Adrenaline causes panic symptoms like sweating, lightheadedness, and palpitations in sensitive people. These sensations are often mistaken for “hypoglycemia” (low blood glucose) even though in most cases, blood glucose doesn’t fall below normal. 

The standard advice to people who feel panicky between meals is to eat carbohydrates every three hours to prevent blood sugar from dropping. However, that approach can actually worsen the problem over time by increasing your body’s dependence on sugar as well as your risk for insulin resistance.

It is much wiser to remove refined carbohydrates from the diet to prevent blood sugar from spiking in the first place. I recommend eliminating them for at least two weeks to see how you feel. It is best for all of us to permanently avoid these processed sugar sources anyway, so in taking this one small step toward identifying your dietary demons, you’ll be taking a giant leap toward overall good health.

Bottom Line

The most powerful way to change your brain chemistry is by changing how you eat. Keep a food and symptom journal to see if you notice any patterns, keeping in mind that some foods may not trigger symptoms until many hours later. What you discover may be the key to your peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. 

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