Food to Eat to Beat Anxiety

5 ways to address anxiety through food6 minute read

Food to Eat to Beat Anxiety

Are you always waiting for something to go wrong?

According to the Mental Health Foundation, more than 8 million people in the UK suffer from anxiety disorders [1], and it affects twice as many women as men.

Anxiety feels different to every individual, but generally it can be categorised as persistent nervousness, worry, fear, irritability, sleep disturbances and a general sense of apprehension. According to Google, the number of anxiety web searches has nearly doubled over the past 5 years.

While there is no one cause of anxiety, it is accepted that the way we lead our lives can dramatically influence our mental wellbeing. This includes the food we eat.

Your food not only provides you with energy, but also influences the delicate balance of your hormones, the production of neurotransmitters and the regulation of your stress response—all of which come together to affect your mood.

If you often find yourself waiting for that proverbial shoe to drop, it may be worth experimenting with a few simple tweaks to your diet. Here’s where to start:

1) Balance your blood sugar

When it comes to your health (both mental and physical), the importance of balancing your blood sugar cannot be underestimated.

It all comes down to your hormones. When you eat something sweet or starchy, your body works to rapidly remove the sugar from your bloodstream. This sharp drop in blood sugar then causes your adrenal glands to release adrenalin. This hormone helps restore normal blood sugar levels, but it also creates a sense of ‘fight of flight’—leaving you feeling on edge.

There are several studies that show blood-sugar fluctuations—the roller coaster effect described above—are a key contributor to chronic anxiety [2].

So what can you do? Rather than eating lots of refined carbohydrates (think bread, pasta and sugary cereals), it’s best to favour whole, naturally fibrous carbohydrates such as fruit and vegetables. Their fibre means they are broken down more slowly, so their sugar is released more steadily.

Another useful tactic is to eat a source of protein with every meal or snack, as this also slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream. Try not to skip meals, either, as this can cause blood sugar to dip too low.

2) Watch your caffeine intake

Studies have found that those prone to anxiety may have a reduced ability to metabolise caffeine [3]. This means its stimulating effect lasts for longer and, in higher doses, can leave a person feeling nervous and irritable rather than simply alert. It can even lead to heart palpitations.

Research suggests that 3 or 4 cups each day (comprising approximately 400mg caffeine) is a beneficial amount of coffee [4]. However, individual responses vary dramatically.

Listen to your body. Do you have a nice, gentle buzz after one cup of coffee, but a second cup can make you feel a bit jittery? When you tune in, it’s easy to detect your own limit.

It’s also preferable to drink coffee with or after food. If your stomach is empty, the caffeine hits your bloodstream more quickly, leading to heightened stimulatory effects.

3) Step up your magnesium intake

Due to depletion in our soils (and the absence of green, leafy vegetables in the standard Western diet), it’s estimated that around half of us consume a suboptimal amount of this essential mineral [5].

Magnesium has a role in over 300 functions in the body, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters (messengers in the brain) and regulation of the stress response. It’s logical, then, that a suboptimal level of magnesium can cause both anxiety and reduced stress tolerance [6].

Good food sources of magnesium include green, leafy vegetables, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds. However, due to the aforementioned soil depletion, it can also be a good idea to supplement with this mineral. Start by taking 200mg magnesium citrate each evening, building it up if necessary.

4) Cultivate your good gut microbes

Millions of pounds are being poured into research on the gut-brain connection. While there is still much to discover, what we do know is that the types of bacteria in our gut impact our mood.

For example, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium—two strains of ‘good’ bacteria—are known to have anxiety-reducing effects through their influence on the production of certain neurotransmitters [7].

So how can you cultivate more of the good guys in your gut-bacteria population? There are two simple yet powerful steps you can take:

Eat a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. These provide fuel for the good bacteria.

Eat a 1–2 tablespoons of fermented food daily. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi are naturally full of good bacteria. When eaten regularly, they can help crowd out the mood-zapping bad bacteria.

5) Boost your B vitamins

In one study, women with a vitamin B6 deficiency saw resolution of symptoms of anxiety when they took a B6 supplement [8]. Interestingly, it’s known that the oral contraceptive pill can deplete this important vitamin in women’s bodies.

Even if you don’t take the pill, it’s worth considering how many B vitamins you’re getting. There are lots of them (B1, B2, B3 and so on) and they all work in concert. So, even if vitamin B6 is your focus, it’s best to make sure you eat the whole range.

Select whole, natural foods to boost your B vitamin intake. Good sources include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, potatoes and a range of vegetables including broccoli and peas. Aim to eat a wide variety of these foods daily.

Other considerations

If you’ve followed all the advice above and you’re still feeling anxious, it may be worth doing some further investigation. Consider the following:

Food intolerances. Anxiety can be a symptom of undetected food intolerances. A registered nutritional therapist can help you identify possible triggers, either via functional testing or a properly designed elimination diet.

Thyroid function. Your thyroid function impacts all processes in your body, including regulation of your mood. A registered nutritional therapist can order blood tests with comprehensive thyroid panels, or you can also request one from your doctor.

Adrenal function. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is a network of glands in your body that control your stress response. If you have been under chronic stress (from either physical or emotional causes), the function of the axis can sometimes be affected. Again, there are several tests that can investigate this, but a good first step to address any issues is to prioritise relaxation. What gets you into a state of flow? What makes you forget about time? This may be meditation, reading, or simply laughing with friends. Make a list of the activities that work for you, and indulge in one or more of them for at least half an hour daily.

An abridged version of this article first appeared on Hip and Healthy.

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