Sometimes there’s just too much noise in your head. (Sometimes?!?!)
In terms of nutrition, stress places an additional demand on our bodies. In times of stress, there’s an increase in adrenal gland activity (stress hormones) and utilization of vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and micronutrients. This further accelerates our bodies’ metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
We can’t be mad at our bodies, they’re merely trying to produce quick energy to overcome stress. We simply need better nutrition when we’re stressed or dealing with anxiety. Unfortunately, it may be our natural reaction to do just the opposite and eat junk food as a coping mechanism.
Research shows 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 supplements daily, attempt meditation or have a sound support system, there’s still a step you may have missed.
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 a valuable opportunity to diminish your anxiety.
“There is a clear and important connection between the brain and the gut,” Jodi Godfrey, MS, RD. “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 behaviours.”
The two most important dietary changes for anyone who has anxiety to make is to plan meals around whole foods and lowering or eliminating the amount of sugar you consume. It doesn’t have to be massive changes all at once. The modifications 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 (yay more food!). If they aren’t yet, try introducing these 7 simple foods into your diet.
Food Switch: Asparagus Spears Instead of Fries
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.
At restaurants, ditch the French Fries and ask for asparagus (or any root vegetable) as a side dish. At home, steam, grill, or even pickle yourself some asparagus as a snack or side dish with any dinner.
Food Switch: Avocado is Your New Banana
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 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 high-fat content.
Many restaurants are now using avocados or have them as a side option. Order these! At home, use avocado as a snack on the go. Spread it on rice cakes, tortilla chips (minimalist guacamole) or toast instead of butter and jam.
Food Switch: Blueberries Instead of Sugary Sweets
When we’re anxious and stressed, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells. 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.
Reaching for white, refined sugar from sweets when hunger strikes causes the brain to work at a suboptimal level and puts you at higher 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 help overcome your cravings here.
At restaurants, avoid dessert. At home, make these innocent little berries one of your go-to snacks. Eat them on their own or in a fruit salad, with granola and yogurt or in smoothies.
Food Switch: Lean Turkey Instead of Fried Chicken
Ever heard of tryptophan? It’s the nutrient in turkey that puts you to sleep after a big turkey Thanksgiving meal (or the many turkey sandwiches in the days following.) But the story is 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, which plays a role in our sleep, appetite, and impulse control. We know that increased levels of serotonin can actually help elevate mood, but serotonin production is limited by the availability of tryptophan.
If you don’t like or don’t eat turkey, you can find tryptophan in nuts, salmon, eggs, soy products, and spinach.
At restaurants, fried foods introduce unhealthy fats and counteract the good from the tryptophan that may help calm you when anxiety is looming. So look for the baked options, not fried. At 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.
Food Switch: Yogurt & Fruit/Granola Instead of Milk & Cereal
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 relationships 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” that 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.
Mix up your breakfast by swapping out milk for yogurt with your cereal. If yogurt really isn’t your thing, 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, leisurely lunch or breakfast (just mix with hot water) or base for soups or noodle dishes!
Food Switch: Salmon Instead of Steak
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 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 is replacing red meat with seafood.
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 flavour 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.
Food Switch: Brown Rice Instead of Pasta or White Rice
Brown rice has more minerals than white, refined rice. 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 to become a fan. Or maybe you like brown rice 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.
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-all 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.
But if eating more guacamole helps, count me in.