Sometimes there is just too much noise in your head. Stress places an additional demand on our bodies, in terms of nutrition. In times of (for most of us, constant) stress, there is an increase in adrenal gland activity (stress hormones) and utilization of vitamins and minerals, e.g. vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and micronutrients, which further accelerates our bodies’ metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. This is our body producing quick energy to overcome stress. We need better nutrition when we are stressed or dealing with anxiety, but unfortunately it may be our natural reaction to do just the opposite and eat less or eat junk food as a coping mechanism. Research shows that some foods act as natural calming agents for anxiety, while others can send your mind into overdrive.
If you’re struggling to keep anxiety at bay even though you meet regularly with a therapist, take your medication as prescribed (if you’ve taken that route), attempt meditation and have a good support system, there’s still some work left for you to do !
Effective anxiety management involves one other very significant factor: your diet. If you haven’t tried tweaking what you eat then you may be missing an important opportunity to support your anxiety.
“There is a clear and important connection between the brain and the gut,” Jodi Godfrey, MS, RD, a health and nutrition educator reiterates “Researchers now refer to the gut as the second brain. When essential nutrients are not sufficiently available, there is a direct effect on the production of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry that can increase or lessen anxiety-related behaviors.”
If making changes in your diet to ease your anxiety seems daunting, it doesn’t have to be. The choices you make when it comes to food is a straightforward, positive lifestyle change for your body and brain. Just start somewhere. Literally the two most important dietary changes for anyone who has anxiety to make is to plan meals around whole foods and lowering/eliminating the amount of sugar - sweets and snack foods. It doesn’t have to be huge changes all at once. The modifications you can make to your diet are as simple as swapping out foods that could be spiking your anxiety (sugar, caffeine) for foods that may lessen the severity of your symptoms (whole foods, healthy fats.)
If these are already in your diet, just increase them. If they aren’t yet, try introducing these 7 simple foods (and a couple ideas on where to swap them) into your diet: 1. Asparagus
Many studies going back to the 1960s indicate that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression may have a folate deficiency. Asparagus is one vegetable that contains a valuable amount of this mood-boosting nutrient. One cup alone provides two-thirds of your daily recommended folate value.
Make the Swap: Asparagus Spears Instead of Fries [Restaurants] Ditch the French Fries and ask for asparagus (or any root vegetable) as a side dish. If you tend to snack on fries, consider this great substitute. [Home] Sauté, steam, or even grill yourself up some asparagus as snacks or side dishes with any dinner.
Vitamin B6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influences our happiness and overall mood. The B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have positive effects on the nervous system. Deficiencies of these vitamins have been linked to increased anxiety in some people. Avocados are rich in stress-relieving B vitamins and heart-healthy fat that may help to calm anxiety. Vitamin E is a nutrient that is important for vision, reproduction and maintaining healthy skin. Because vitamin E is fat-soluble it’s only found in foods like nuts and avocados that have a high-fat content.
Food Switch: Avocado is your new banana. Many restaurants are now using avocado’s or have them as a side option. Order these! At home, use it as a snack on the go. Spread it on rice cakes, tortilla chips (minimalist guacamole, anyone?) or on toast instead of butter and jam.
When we’re anxious and stressed, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells, and blueberries are packed full of C. Those innocent looking little blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C. One study examined the effects of oral vitamin C supplements on anxiety in a group of students and found that antioxidants may be useful for both the prevention and reduction of anxiety.
Make the Swap: Blueberries Instead of Sugary Sweets Reaching for (white, refined) sugar from sweets when hunger strikes causes the brain to work at a sub-optimal level and puts you at greater risk for depressive symptoms associated with anxiety. (It also affects your immune system negatively.) “The sweetness from blueberries is a better option acting as a positive immune booster; added sugars throw off the healthy bacterial balance in the gut that may increase anxiety,” Godfrey says. However, it’s easier to crave sweets than blueberries, so check out the blog [Restaurants] Avoid dessert. Make fruit especially blueberries when in season, one of your go-to snacks. Eat them on their own or in a fruit salad, with granola and yogurt or in smoothies.
Ever heard of tryptophan? It’s the nutrient in turkey that puts you to sleep after a big turkey Thanksgiving meal (or the hundreds of turkey sandwiches the days following.) Okay, it’s a little more than that. Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body needs to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate sleep and mood. According to the University of Michigan, tryptophan may help reduce anxious feelings. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that the brain produces that plays a role in our sleep, appetite, and impulse control. We know that increased levels of serotonin can actually help elevate mood, but that our serotonin production is limited by the availability of tryptophan. Supporting our gut health can make an impact too If you don’t like or don’t eat turkey, you can find tryptophan in nuts, salmon, eggs, soy products, and spinach
Food Switch: Lean Turkey Instead of Fried Chicken [Restaurants] Avoid the temptation of picking up fried chicken on your way home from the drive-thru by prepping your meals in advance. This way you can reap the benefits of tryptophan found in real food, not fast food. Fried foods introduce unhealthy fats and counteract the good from the tryptophan that may help calm you when anxiety is looming. If you’re out at a restaurant look for the baked options, not fried. [Home] Planning a meal with turkey diced into quinoa or brown rice and adding veggies will provide a wide range of healthy nutrients and support our brain and sound sleep. 5. Yogurt
You might not be surprised to learn that fermented food like yogurt is good for your brain. After all, we’ve known for a while about the gut-brain connection. But more recently new science about the connections between the two are coming out at an exciting rate. A whole new territory of science! A link has been found between the consumption of fermented, probiotic foods and a reduction in social anxiety. The best yogurts contain “live and active cultures” are guaranteed to have 100 million probiotic cultures per gram or about 25 billion probiotic cultures in a cup. Other probiotic foods: pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso.
Make the Swap: Yogurt and fruit/granola instead of Milk and Cereal Mix up your breakfast by swapping out milk for yogurt with your cereal. If yogurt really isn’t your thing, you can add kombucha to your morning breakfast routine, or try incorporating raw, fermented sauerkraut or a pickle into your daily sandwich. Miso, a traditional Japanese seasoning, can be a quick easy lunch or breakfast (just mix with hot water) or base for soups or noodle dishes!
Omega-3 fatty acids are a necessary addition when it comes to foods that help with anxiety. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon, chia seeds, soybeans, and walnuts as well as cold-pressed olive oil (buy it from an olive oil shop, not the grocery or drug store.) Our brain requires the right dietary fats to function properly and for us to eat enough of the beneficial fats that support a healthy brain-gut microbiome. A big step looks like replacing red meat with seafood.
Food Switch: Salmon Instead of Steak For those non vegans/vegetarians, a juicy steak might be hard to pass up, but a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon helps keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense. Experiment by trying out different spices and flavor combinations when cooking salmon. Start simple. Sprinkle the fish with salt, pepper and garlic and top with some thinly sliced lemon. Salmon at lunch is just as good as salmon at dinner.
7. Brown Rice
A lot of us don’t like it. The texture is weird, or it’s too mushy, or we can’t seem to cook it right. Or it takes too long to cook. The fact is, brown rice simply has more minerals than the white, refined rice. Now, in my ‘good better best’ is white rice better than junk food loaded with additives and sugar? Sure! But we’re talking about the BEST foods for anxiety, and we want as many minerals in our diet to support our brain. So get the rice cooker, or google the ‘best brown rice’ recipe and try it again. Or maybe you like brown rice but only stir-fried the next day with veggies. Experiment. It’s a complex carbohydrate that will help balance your blood sugar (a huge key for anxiety) and load you up with minerals.
Food Switch: Brown rice instead of pasta or white rice. See above.
I know anxiety can be challenging. It isn’t a one-step-fixes-all and there is never going to be ‘one thing’ that works as a cure for you. It’s all about experimenting and taking time to find what combination of therapies (including holistic eating) is going to work for you. In case you want to keep reading, here are some more resources from my blog collection for your anxiety.
-Health Coach K