Anxiety is a normal part of life. We all get anxious sometimes, especially during periods of uncertainty or change.
Some anxiety is good — it can motivate you to make difficult changes in your life, and anxiety can be a sign that there’s something you’re avoiding that needs your attention.
However, anxiety can also become overwhelming. If you suffer from severe anxiety on a regular basis, or you have panic attacks, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression, it can feel like your mental health runs your life.
The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to manage anxiety. New research shows that diet is one of your most powerful tools for calming anxiety, balancing neurotransmitters in your brain, and improving your overall mental health.
In this article, you’ll learn how reducing your carb intake with a ketogenic diet or low-carb meal plan can improve your brain function and relieve anxiety, brain fog, inflammation, and more.
Anxiety is an emotion that involves discomfort and a sense of turmoil. It’s the feeling that not everything is okay, or that something bad may happen at any moment.
Anxiety often comes with intrusive thoughts and obsessive behavior. It can involve feelings of dread regarding future events, social situations, or other triggers.
Unlike fear, anxiety is not a passing response to a real or perceived immediate threat. It’s a concern about what could happen, not what is happening.
While anxiety is a normal emotion, people who regularly experience anxiety may suffer from an anxiety disorder. The most common anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and panic disorder. Severe anxiety can be a cause of (or symptom of) mental illness.
The causes of anxiety are complex. Anxiety seems to come down to a combination of genes, environmental factors, brain health, and diet.
While generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is six times more common in the children of people with GAD, genetic inheritance explains less than 30% of GAD cases[*]. People with difficult childhoods or a history of trauma are more likely to suffer from anxiety[*].
At the brain level, scientists think that anxiety may come from an imbalance between GABA (your brain’s main calming neurotransmitter) and glutamate (your brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter). Anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium, for example) work by increasing GABA activity, which calms down your brain. Antidepressants that increase serotonin can also improve anxiety symptoms.
Stress, inflammation, and obesity can cause or exacerbate the brain chemical imbalances found in anxiety[*][*]. Studies show that people who suffer from severe or chronic anxiety have higher levels of inflammation in their bodies, which can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease[*][*].
Diets high in sugar and refined carbs can also contribute to anxiety by altering your gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria have a direct line of contact to your brain, and they can make neurotransmitters (including calming GABA and excitatory glutamate) that influence your anxiety level[*][*].
Eating processed foods, fried foods, refined grains, and sugary products correlates with heightened anxiety[*].
If you have an undiagnosed food allergy, eating problem foods activates your immune system. Your immune system can start attacking your own body, which causes inflammation (including brain inflammation) that can trigger anxiety.
Ketones are little bundles of fuel that your body and brain use for energy. Your body produces ketones naturally when you’re on a high-fat, low-carb diet like a ketogenic diet. You can also take ketones in supplement form.
One of the most popular ketone supplements is beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), a ketone that increases the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in your brain and raises your GABA levels[*][*][*].
According to animal studies, beta-hydroxybutyrate may also help treat stress-related mood disorders like anxiety by reducing brain inflammation[*][*][*]. You can take beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) as a supplement, or you can get it naturally through a ketogenic diet. BHB has a variety of benefits that extend beyond relieving anxiety.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are another effective way to raise your ketone levels and provide your brain with a clean source of energy. MCTs are coconut-derived fatty acids in oil or powder form that your body can easily use as fuel. Rodents that eat MCTs show a marked decrease in anxious behavior[*].
A ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that pushes your body to burn fat for fuel instead of sugar. Research on the keto diet is still relatively new, and there aren’t yet any human studies showing that eating keto directly decreases anxiety. However, a good deal of indirect research in humans, as well as animal research and a large collection of anecdotal evidence, suggests that keto might make you less anxious.
First off, keto is one of the most effective diets for sustainable long-term weight loss[*], and overweight people who lose weight experience a significant drop in anxiety, regardless of how they lose the weight[*].
Keto also changes the neurotransmitter balance in your brain. It started out as a way to reduce seizures in people with epilepsy[*][*], which researchers believe has to do with restoring healthy inhibitory-excitatory balance in the brain[*][*][*][*][*][*]. Scientists think that anxiety, like epilepsy, involves imbalances in GABA and glutamate — basically, your brain is hyperexcitable and it overreacts to potential threats[*][*][*][*][*]. Keto may be able to bring your brain back to baseline.
Even if you don’t have epilepsy, research shows that the keto diet can rebalance neurotransmitters in your brain like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine[*][*][*]. Ketogenic diets may reduce anxiety through pathways comparable to anti-anxiety medications[*][*][*].
High-carb diets result in insulin resistance, which is associated with high risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease[*][*]. Insulin resistance in brain cells is also linked to increased anxiety levels, and a keto diet is very effective at reversing insulin resistance[*][*][*][*][*][*].
Oxidative stress — from fried food, sugar, mental stress, and disease — drives inflammation that can damage brain cells and increase your risk of anxiety[*][*][*][*][*][*]. The keto diet reduces oxidative stress and helps clear out damaged cells, which may help prevent symptoms of anxiety[*][*].
Psychological stress also floods your body with cortisol, the stress hormone. Long-term stress and high cortisol levels can change your brain and contribute to anxiety, and ketosis can help reverse these changes[*][*].
If you take medication for anxiety or other mental health issues, speak to your doctor, psychiatrist, or other mental health care provider for medical advice before you go keto.
Because the keto diet can alter the chemistry of your body and brain, it could impact the effectiveness, dosage, and side effects of your medication[*].
Research shows that a multi-pronged approach to anxiety is more effective than drugs alone[*][*][*]. If you’re suffering from anxiety, you may also consider adding in other proven treatments like talk therapy, exercise, deep breathing, meditation, and other stress reduction techniques.
The Takeaway: Can The Keto Diet Ease Anxiety?
If you want to reduce your anxiety levels, a ketogenic diet may help.
The keto diet works by calming down brain inflammation, shifting your gut flora, and restoring your neurotransmitter balance in favor of feeling relaxed rather than anxious.
Living with an anxiety disorder can be complicated and challenging. A low-carbohydrate diet plan may be a useful tool for helping you feel your best. Our complete beginner’s guide to keto will tell you everything to know about how to start a ketogenic diet and what you can expect from it. Give it a try and see how you feel.