Do you struggle with anxiety or have trouble sleeping? You’re far from alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population (1).”
And, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, among adults in the U.S.:
- 30 to 35% have brief symptoms of insomnia;
- 15 to 20% have a short-term insomnia disorder, which lasts less than three months; and,
- 10% have a chronic insomnia disorder, which occurs at least three times per week for at least three months (2).
Between these two issues, far too many people are losing far too much sleep each night (which can lead to innumerable horrible impacts on health and happiness). If you’re one of the millions, you might consider medications or natural sleep aids (which can indeed be very helpful), but what if you could get to the root cause of the problem? Did you know that there are common foods – even healthy foods – that can trigger anxiety and insomnia?
We all know that caffeine and sugar can cause a spike in energy levels potentially disrupting sleep, but there are a handful of other offenders you probably aren’t aware of.
Here are 5 surprising foods that can cause anxiety and insomnia.
(Note: These foods haven’t been shown to cause the conditions, just symptoms related to them.)
#1 Synthetic food dyes
Not a food per se, but used widely in junk foods, candy, condiments, and even yogurt and juices – synthetic food dyes can be a hidden anxiety or insomnia trigger. Over three decades of research on artificial food colorings have found a solid connection between them and hyperactivity in children – which is why the EU requires warning labels on foods that contain them (3,4). And while the same level of scientific scrutiny has not been applied to adult consumption, some people have found similar impacts on mood and behavior and at least 1% of adults and 2-7% of people with allergies suffer from food dye intolerance (5).
#2 Aged, pickled, fermented, cured, smoked, and cultured foods
Salami, aged cheeses, sauerkraut, Merlot, kimchi, soy sauce, and the like contain 2 elements that can keep you from getting a good night’s rest: tyramine and histamine. Tyramine is an amino acid that increases the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant, and histamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that can aggravate the nervous system (6,7). “Histamine causes anxiety and insomnia in susceptible individuals, partly through its ability to increase levels of adrenaline, our ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone,” writes Dr. Georgia Ede for Psychology Today (7). Also good to know, Ede says histamine “is indestructible, so cooking and freezing don't help.”
#3 Spicy foods
They’re called “hot” for a reason. Ever feel beads of sweat spring up on your forehead when you’re eating spicy foods? That’s because they mess with your body’s thermoregulation. Capsaicin, the primary spicy compound in peppers, sends signals to your brain that it’s overheating triggering your body’s natural cooling mechanisms (like sweating). In at least one study, Tabasco sauce and mustard eaten with the evening meal markedly disturbed sleep by messing with the subjects’ body temperature – and the right temperature is vital to achieving the best rest (8).
Plants in the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, peppers, okra, paprika, and goji berries) produce glycoalkaloids, which can cause issues for some people. “These cunning chemical weapons block the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, resulting in overstimulation of the nervous system in sensitive individuals,” writes Ede. “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.”
#5 Corn, cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, and shellfish
What do all of these foods have in common? They’re the top 8 food allergens, and if you frequently suffer from anxiety or insomnia, a food allergy or sensitivity might be to blame (9). You can develop allergies to foods at any point in life, so don’t count this out if you’ve never had issues before.
While this list is comprised of some of the biggest instigators of anxiety and insomnia, every person is different and any food could be keeping you from the calm mood and deep sleep you need for optimal health and well-being. Start a food and symptom journal to see if you notice any connections (keeping in mind that some foods may not trigger symptoms until 2-3 hours later). What you find could be the key to serenity and the sweetest sleep of your life!
- “Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.
- “Insomnia Awareness Day Facts and Stats.” Sleep Education, sleepeducation.org/news/2014/03/10/insomnia-awareness-day-facts-and-stats.
- Stevens, Laura J., et al. “Dietary Sensitivities and ADHD Symptoms: Thirty-Five Years of Research.” Clinical Pediatrics, vol. 50, no. 4, Feb. 2010, pp. 279–293., doi:10.1177/0009922810384728.
- Ravella, Shilpa. “Food Coloring Is Probably Bad for Us. It's Also Unnecessary. Why Hasn't the FDA Banned It?” Slate Magazine, 7 July 2016, www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2016/07/food_coloring_is_bad_for_us_but_the_fda_won_t_admit_that.html.
- Miller, Anna. “Should You Be Worried About Food Dyes?” US News & World Report, 17 March 2016, https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2016-03-17/should-you-be-worried-about-food-dyes.
- Volkas, Lila. “Edible Answers to Insomnia? A Search for Nutritional Solutions for Sleepless Nights.” Bay Area Bites, 21 May 2016, ww2.kqed.org/bayareabites/2016/05/19/edible-answers-to-insomnia-a-search-for-nutritional-solutions-for-sleepless-nights/.
- Ede, Georgia. “These 5 Foods and Substances Can Cause Anxiety and Insomnia.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 July 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/diagnosis-diet/201607/these-5-foods-and-substances-can-cause-anxiety-and-insomnia.
- Edwards, Stephen J., et al. “Spicy Meal Disturbs Sleep: an Effect of Thermoregulation?” International Journal of Psychophysiology, vol. 13, no. 2, 1992, pp. 97–100., doi:10.1016/0167-8760(92)90048-g.
- “New Findings on Insomnia: Is This at the Root?” All Body Ecology Articles, 11 Aug. 2016, bodyecology.com/articles/new-findings-on-insomnia-is-this-at-the-root.
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