Many things can trigger anxiety, but what about some of the foods we eat? Diet plays a huge role in mental health maintenance and while there are certain foods that can contribute to feeling anxious, there are also foods that can have a calming effect on the body. Changing what you eat may be an important opportunity to beat your anxiety jitters.
According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with one in four people experiencing it at some stage in their life. Anxiety is a symptom of stress that describes the many demands and pressures we experience every day that we perceive as overwhelming.
We all have anxiety as part of our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to keep us away from physical danger, but in a modern world where there are no immediate threats of physical danger, and yet we still feel stressed and anxious, it might be a sign we need to start taking better care of our nervous system.
There's a clear connection between the gut and the brain called the gut-brain-axis and researchers now refer to the gut as the second brain. When nutrients are not sufficiently available, there is a direct effect on neurotransmitters and brain chemistry, which can increase or decrease anxiety-related symptoms.
Foods to remove from your diet
If you simply can’t function without your morning coffee, this may be taking a toll. Caffeine increases adrenaline in the body, which can cause increased heart rate, shaking and difficulty sleeping and even if you don’t experience any of these side effects straight away, caffeine can still affect your body hours later. Try swapping out your daily coffee for a calming herbal tea like chamomile, lavender, passionflower and lemon balm and see if you notice the difference.
Alcohol is a depressant that can interfere with the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin that helps to regulate mood and sleep, and can also disrupt your metabolism. So that glass of wine before bed to relax could be making your anxiety worse and lead to a restless night's sleep, by upsetting your blood sugar levels and causing dehydration.
Reaching for sweet snacks all the time causes blood sugar levels to yo-yo and can leave you feeling edgy and irritable as the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, which can mimic and also intensify anxious feelings. Simple carbohydrates such as white bread and white pasta can also have this effect on blood sugar levels.
Processed foods are often high in white flour, sugar, salt, inflammatory trans fats and food chemicals. They have little or no nutrition to offer, can wreak havoc on your blood sugar, upset gut bacteria, increase blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life. Some synthetic food preservatives have also been shown to increase anxiety and mood disorders in rats.
To support and nourish an overexcited nervous system, choose foods high in the nutrients that calm your mind and body, increase energy and stabilise mood.
Foods to add to your diet
Complex carbohydrates aid the release of calming serotonin in the brain, balance blood sugar levels and are also an important source of magnesium.
Foods to eat: Sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, beans and legumes
Magnesium is a mineral involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body and inadequate magnesium has been shown to reduce the level of serotonin in the brain. It’s needed for muscle relaxation, a healthy heart and blood vessels and deficiency can cause agitation, anxiety and restlessness.
Foods to eat: Nuts, seeds, legumes, bananas and avocado
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in nervous system development and our brain requires these healthy fats to function properly. Omega-3s can also help keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense.
Foods to eat: Wild-caught salmon, sardines, chia seeds, flaxseeds and nuts
Protein contains amino acids which are essential for the production of the neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, that help to regulate our sleep and mood. Tryptophan is a particularly important amino acid that our body can’t produce and must be supplied through diet, to produce serotonin.
Foods to eat: Turkey, eggs, cheese, beans and dairy
Research has shown that anxiety symptoms are linked with a lower antioxidant state and that increased antioxidant intake can improve mood.
Foods to eat: Berries, pecans, dark chocolate and dark leafy greens
Probiotics can strengthen mental health and brain functioning, thanks to the gut-brain-axis. Studies have found a link between probiotic food intake and lowering social anxiety, as well as improving symptoms of depressive disorders (anxiety may be linked to depression).
Foods to eat: Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and kefir
B vitamins are integral for mental health and play an important role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system. They also help our body relax and recharge. Vitamin B6, in particular, helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
Foods to eat: Dairy, red meat, seafood, eggs and legumes
Not drinking enough water can make symptoms of anxiety worse. When the body is dehydrated, it becomes stressed and can’t function properly. Hormones can’t reach their destined locations due to poor blood flow, muscles tense up and you may even experience mood changes as your brain loses water (it’s made up of 85% water). Staying hydrated is a simple way to help keep your anxiety in check.
Remember a nutritional change is a great way to start to ease your anxiety but please always seek help from a medical professional if it’s not lifting your mood.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any pre-existing conditions. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements.