Anxiety is a natural bodily response, but for some people, feeling anxious can morph into a debilitating part of everyday life. Can a diet adjustment help you to take back control?
Heart pounding? Shallow breathing? Tired? If this describes how you feel a lot of the time, it may be that you have anxiety. Anxiety is a normal stress response that can protect us from harm, but when feeling anxious becomes a daily occurrence, it can escalate into a real problem. This level of anxiousness means that you’re constantly ‘primed’ and expecting impending threat, and this can negatively affect your daily life in a number of ways, including difficulty in concentrating, irritability, fatigue and panic attacks.
A variety of factors can increase the risk of anxiety disorder. Anxiety affects puce as many women as men, and age also plays a part, with the greatest risk for those aged 10-25. Research also shows that children who are shy or who have experienced some form of bullying are at a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders later in life. Additionally, anxiety disorders tend to run in families, believed to have both a genetic and learned component. Traumatic events and certain medical conditions are also associated with an increased risk.
Anxiety is a multi-faceted disorder, involving both hormonal and metabolic imbalances. But there are some changes that you can make to your diet to ease your symptoms and feel more in control, which you will find on the next few pages. They do not, of course, replace professional help – so if you are concerned about your anxiety, speak to your GP first.
Skip the alcohol.
When you feel anxious, it may be tempting to reach for a glass of bubbly. But while alcohol is a natural sedative and may initially calm you down, it can also disturb blood sugar levels – once the calming effects wear off, you’re actually more likely to experience even worse anxiety symptoms.
Curb the caffeine.
If you are struggling with anxiety, caffeine is another one to avoid. Caffeine can increase nervousness and may even contribute to panic attacks, so it’s best avoided altogether. Remember that it’s not just found in tea and coffee – you also need to watch chocolate, certain fizzy drinks, energy drinks and some sports supplements.
Up your protein.
Amino acids from protein-rich foods (lean meats, beans, pulses, soy, fish, shellfish, poultry and eggs) are the building blocks of the neurotransmitters that affect how we think and feel. If your diet is low in certain key amino acids this could exacerbate symptoms. For example, insufficient intake of the amino acids L-tryptophan, L-phenylalanine or L-tyrosine have been associated with increased symptoms of anxiety. Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, produces a calming effect on the brain, so while green tea may contain a little caffeine, the effects seem to be mitigated by the presence of theanine.
Increase your magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxiety disorders in several clinical studies. Known as the calming mineral, it is found naturally in foods such as spinach, Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dried figs and yogurt.
Try some selenium.
Another important mineral is selenium. In clinical trials, subjects given 100mg of selenium daily for 5 weeks reported improved mood and less anxiety. Good food sources include include Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, pinto beans, halibut, sardines and wild salmon.
Brew some herbal teas.
Various herbs have been shown to have anti-anxiety or calming-effects. Lemon balm, valerian, chamomile, ashwagandha and rehodiola are all good choices, and available as trash, tinctures and capsules. A study also found that chamomile supplements (220mg up to five time daily) may help relieve generalised anxiety disorder.
Ferment your foods.
Emerging research is highlighting the importance of the relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and its billions of resident organisms – often referred to as the microbiome – and brain. Various studies have shown that supplementing with certain probiotics or fermented foods such as yoghurt and kefir can help ease anxiety. Try and include some fermented foods in your daily diet, which also include sauerkraut, natto, miso, kombucha and kimchi.
Make simple changes.
As well as these diet suggestions, there are lots of day-to-day activities you can try to help ease anxiety. Calming the mind through meditation or prayer is known for relieving stress and anxiety – research from Johns Hopkins university suggests that 30 minutes of daily meditation may alleviate some anxiety symptoms and act as an antidepressant. Some essential oils have also been shown to help with anxiety, boosting mood and calming the mind, including bergamot, lavender, clary sage, grapefruit and ylang ylang. Various clinical trials have demonstrated the benefit of yoga and tai chi for reducing anxiety, while yoga has also been shown to increase more of the neurotransmitter GABA, which is associated with calmness and improved mood. In one study, attending yoga classes for two months reduced stress symptoms in women with anxiety disorder. Anxiousness can also cause shallow breathing, which in turn can increase how anxious we feel. Try some deep breathing strategies if you notice this happening, such as breathing in for six seconds and out for eight.