Studies suggest that a low-carb diet may cause depression and anxiety — if it's deficient in healthy complex carbs like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The food you eat affects your mental health as well as your physical health.
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Low Carbs May Cause Anxiety
An April 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal Open explored the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological stress. Prior research shows increasing evidence that diet is linked to mental health, note the researchers. Results of the investigation revealed moderate daily intake of vegetables was tied to a lower incidence of stress, a finding consistent with earlier discoveries.
An older case report from March-April 2006 published in Psychosomatics and featured in the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute gives an account of a woman who had been successfully treated for panic attacks. After starting on the Atkins diet, a high-protein and low-carbohydrate eating plan, she suffered a recurrence of panic attacks, which had been resolved for some time. Upon quitting the diet and resuming consumption of carbohydrates, her symptoms gradually reduced and were completely gone after several days.
While the Psychosomatics case report involves only one person, it provides a real-life illustration of what studies such as the British Medical Journal Open have found. Healthy carbs, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are loaded with nutrients that enhance wellness in innumerable ways. Any diet that restricts such an important food group is likely to have downsides. The bottom line is that low carbs may cause anxiety or at least increase the risk of the disorder.
Low Carbs and Depression
In an article worth noting from the February 2004 Massachusetts Institute of Technology News, the author interviewed MIT researcher Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., about findings on low-carbohydrate diet in rats. Wurtman explained that, when a person stops eating carbohydrates, his brain stops regulating serotonin, a chemical that boosts mood. She noted that only carbohydrate consumption naturally activates the production of serotonin.
Wurtman, also interviewed in Psychology Today in March of 2004, provided additional insights on the connection between eating insufficient carbohydrates and poor mental health. She said many people who go on low-carbohydrate eating plans report feelings of depression, anger and irritability. Wurtman advocates a diet high in complex carbohydrates to prevent such mood disorders.
An April 2019 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine reviewed studies investigating the effects of dietary interventions on mental health. The authors concluded that healthy diets can reduce symptoms of depression. One of their dietary recommendations is to eat meals high in fiber and vegetables while cutting back on refined sugars. In other words, they advocate the intake of complex carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates.
How Food Affects the Brain
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the brain works hard 24/7, so it requires a constant supply of fuel, which comes from the foods you eat. Just like an expensive car, the brain operates best when it receives high-quality fuel from foods rich in vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are plentiful in these components.
An expensive car won't run as well when it gets inferior fuel, and in the same way, your brain won't function at its best when you eat a poor diet that's high in refined and processed foods. Harvard reports that multiple studies show a link between consumption of refined sugars and brain malfunction that manifests in mood disorders like depression.
A July 2017 study featured in Psychiatry Research reviewed studies examining the effect of dietary patterns on depression. It found that nutritious diets characterized by low consumption of meat, along with high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, antioxidants and low-fat dairy were associated with a lower risk of depression. Conversely, diets low in fruits and vegetables but high in sweets, refined grains, red meat and processed meat were linked to a higher likelihood of depression.
The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan that would fit all the criteria of how to eat for optimal health, including mental wellness, notes Harvard Health. This diet focuses on plant foods, which, in addition to fruits and vegetables, includes whole grains, nuts and seeds.
The eating plan also involves protein foods like fish and yogurt. It avoids processed meat, sugary foods and refined grains such as crackers, cookies and white rice. Anyone looking for low-carb help should remember to cut back on refined carbs and eat plenty of healthy carbs.
Exercise for Mental Health
Exercise is critical for maintaining mental fitness, states the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It offers an array of benefits for the brain, including boosting cognition, concentration and alertness. Physical activity also relieves stress, elevates mood, enhances sleep and improves self-esteem. Some of these effects may stem from the fact that exercise activates the release in the brain of endorphins, chemicals that create positive emotions.
Read more: How Exercise Improves Mood
Engaging regularly in aerobic activity produces mental health benefits, some of which come quickly, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Calming effects start after only five minutes, and some studies suggest a mere 10-minute walk can improve mood in people with depression. The advantages may be temporary, but they show that a simple activity can provide hours of relief.
Can exercise help people with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that involves unusual shifts in mood and activity levels? A March 2015 study featured in Frontiers in Psychology reviewed studies relating to the effects of physical activity on the illness. It concluded that workouts may be effective for reducing the depression phase of the disorder.
The Mayo Clinic recommends 30 minutes or more of exercise on three to five days per week to reduce depression or anxiety. If you don't enjoy formal exercising, it's still possible to get a workout. Any physical activity, such as gardening or playing sports, will offer benefits. Pick a mode of exercise you enjoy and set reasonable goals. Check with your doctor before starting.
- British Medical Journal Open: "Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Psychological Distress: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Analyses Based on a Large Australian Sample"
- Psychosomatics: "A Case of the Re-Emergence of Panic and Anxiety Symptoms After Initiation of a High-Protein, Very Low Carbohydrate Diet"
- UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute: "A Case of the Re-Emergence of Panic and Anxiety Symptoms After Initiation of a High-Protein, Very Low Carbohydrate Diet"
- MIT News: "Carbs Are Essential for Effective Dieting and Good Mood, Wurtman Says"
- Psychology Today: "Low-Carb State of Mind"
- Psychiatry Research: "Dietary Patterns and Depression Risk: A Meta-Analysis"
- Psychosomatic Medicine: "The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Exercise for Stress and Anxiety"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "A Brief Review of Exercise, Bipolar Disorder, and Mechanistic Pathways"
- Mayo Clinic: "Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms"
- Atkins: Phase 1: Induction