Anxiety has been an unwanted companion of mine since childhood. From anxiety-induced stomach aches before school swimming lessons, to panic attacks while out shopping, anxiety has a big impact on my life experiences.
Over the years I’ve learned to take a two-pronged approach to anxiety. To manage it I use:
Speedy remedies like chewing on lemon balm leaves, drinking valerian tea, dosing up on Bach Rescue Remedy, and using Ashwagandha tincture each day whenever I’m in a particularly stressful phase.
Long term nutrition support. I regularly include foods that supply the vitamins and minerals my nervous system needs to manage anxiety and support mental wellbeing.
This 5-minute video covers 5 of my favourite foods for nervous system support. Each one is easy to find and easy to prep – there’s no weird ingredients or lengthy recipes here. I recommend including these on a regular basis and noticing how you feel. If you scroll on down past the video you’ll find some more ideas for foods and drinks that can help manage anxiety. All of these foods can be safely consumed alongside anxiety medications.
More Good Foods for Managing Anxiety
Fermented foods: let’s not forget the gut microbiome! Our gut flora produce important molecules that influence the nervous system and the production of mood chemicals.
One of these molecules is GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms the nervous system. Fermented foods contain the probiotic bacteria that produce GABA, and fibres to nourish other gut bacteria. In turn, this support a healthy environment in the gut, and continues the production of GABA.
Including a serving of fermented foods each day is a great way to top up and fertilise your microbiome. Choose from:
Sauerkraut: available from healthfood stores and some supermarkets (avoid the pasteurised versions as the bacteria die off during pasteurisation) or make your own
Kefir: milk kefir, water kefir, coconut water kefir – there’s plenty of different varieties. Again, you can make this at home with some starter granules
Plain live natural yoghurt
Keen to try home fermenting? I can heartily recommend this book. It’s packed with tips and has easy-to-follow instructions – perfect for new fermenters!
Quick and easy to make, a warm mug of tea is a soul-soother in itself. Although for anxious people, it does need to be caffeine free – there’s no wriggle room on that! This is because even decaffeinated versions of tea can contain enough caffeine to stimulate the stress response and aggravate anxiety.
Herbs offer some wonderful infusions for anxiety. Try these teas either as single-herb teas or in combinations. For example, chamomile and lemon balm blend well together:
Depression and anxiety can hit any of us at any time. When it does, taking time to prepare food and eat well can be incredibly difficult.
You can feel overwhelmed by life, paralysed by anxiety, and have little interest in cooking and eating.
The irony is that certain foods and nutrients can support mental wellbeing. Feeding your brain with mood-balancing nutrients is an important step on the path to recovery. The key to making these changes is to keep them practical and manageable.
Take small sustainable steps, one at a time.
Let’s look at some of the important nutrients that support mental wellbeing, and easy ways to incorporate them into your daily routine.
Go with your gut
As always, we need to start with digestion. If you’re not breaking down your food properly and absorbing the nutrients it doesn’t matter how many fancy foods and supplements you take – none of them will work.
The trillions of bacteria living in our digestive system – also known as our microbiome – are the subject of ongoing research. Our gut and brain are communicating constantly via nerve pathways and chemical messengers, many of which are produced or influenced by friendly gut flora (probiotics).
Many of the research studies looking at probiotics and mood balance are small scale but the results are promising and it is now known that certain species, including Bifidobacteria which thrive in the colon, can positively affect mood.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Nourish your microbiome by including fermented foods 3-4 times a week. Try sauerkraut, kefir (dairy or coconut water), natural plain yoghurt, or kimchi. Do not use if you have histamine problems as fermented foods are rich in histamine.
– Swap raw foods for warm, cooked foods that are easy to digest; for example swap your lunchtime salad box for a vegetable soup or reheated leftovers.
– If you have ongoing digestive problems seek help! Food sensitivities, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Coeliac Disease can all contribute to depression and anxiety, so find a BANT Registered nutrition practitioner in your area for personalised support.
Fats are your brain’s best friend
Your brain contains 25% of your body’s cholesterol, and an awful lot of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats. If you’re still buying ‘fat-free’ and ‘low-fat’ foods you are doing your brain a great disservice – please stop!
This is because fats provide structure to our brain cells and help them communicate with each other. Without enough of the right sorts of fats the messages between brain cells are like a bad mobile phone signal, all crackly and broken up, and there’s a knock-on effect on mood balance.
The long-chain omega-3 fats (most commonly found in oily fish) also have anti-inflammatory actions. Increased inflammation is associated with several mental health disorders, including depression. Inflammation is known to alter the balance of mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and affect areas of the brain linked to motivation and perception of threat. Not every person with depression has increased inflammation but it is a key factor for many, making anti-inflammatory foods part of a brain-health food plan.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Include oily fish 2-3 times a week. Think SMASHT – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herrings and trout!
– If you’re not keen on the taste of oily fish, sneak it into a fish pie or mix tinned sardines / mackerel in tomato sauce into a tomato based veggie sauce.
– Vegetarians & vegans: make sure to include pumpkin seeds and oil, flax oil, walnuts, or a blend like Udo’s Oil every day to top up your levels of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). This converts to EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fats found in the brain) but a lot of it is lost in the conversion process hence the daily intake.
Proteins – brain building blocks!
Mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are made from amino acids, the little building blocks that make up proteins. If you’re not eating enough protein you might not have enough amino acids to support the production of mood chemicals in the brain.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Keep a Food & Mood diary for a week and see how often you eat good quality protein rich foods.
– Aim to include a palm-sized serving of protein with every meal: choose from eggs, good quality meat or fish, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.
The sunshine vitamin is a big player for mental health. There are vitamin D receptors throughout our brains, and low levels are thought to play a role in the development of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Vitamin D levels are commonly low here in the UK thanks to the cloudy cool weather. Do get your levels tested before jumping in with a supplement though, so you can get an idea of how much to take. Ask for a test from your GP or use the simple home test kit available from www.vitamindtest.org.uk
Once you know your levels, you can decide whether to supplement or not. Optimum levels (based on cancer research studies) are between 75-100nmol/l.
Magnesium, folate & B6 – mental health teammates
During times of stress we need to eat plenty of foods packed with these nutrients to give our nervous system extra back-up. Magnesium and B-vitamins (particularly B6 and folate) are essential for mood chemical production and function, as well as supporting our energy levels.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Go green. Dark green vegetables are rich in both folate AND magnesium. See if you can include 2 generous handfuls of green leafy veg everyday. Try adding a big handful of baby spinach to a smoothie or omelette. Serve broccoli or peas with your evening meal. If you haven’t got the motivation to prepare fresh veg, buy the ready chopped frozen stuff – at this moment in time it is more important for you to eat the veg than worry about it being fresh.
– Include at least two B6-rich foods everyday: choose from avocado, chicken, turkey, lentils, banana, carrots, brown rice, nuts, and seeds.
– Relax in an Epsom Salt bath. Epsom salts are rich in magnesium sulphate which can be absorbed through your skin. Make sure the water is comfortably warm, add a few drops of essential oil if you fancy, and soak for a good 20 mins. Remember to ban everyone else from the bathroom so you can bathe in peace!
I hope you find these tips inspiring, and feel able to try them out one at a time. Feeding yourself well is one of the kindest things you can do, and you are worth the extra ten minutes it takes to prep something tasty.
Hop over to the Facebook group too – it’s a friendly place to share conversations and challenges all about digestive health and mental wellbeing; find us at Nutrition in York
New sugar limits for sweet foods and snacks have been published today, in a bid to get food manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of products by 20% over the next 3 years.
Public Health England (PHE) announced new targets for the food industry in face of rising levels of childhood obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. NHS figures reported last week show a 24% increase in toddler tooth extractions over the past decade, largely due to children eating more and more sugar.
These proposals are entirely voluntary and whilst some manufacturers are embracing the changes, well aware of the fact that this cannot be avoided and voluntary measures are likely to be more lenient than legislation will be, others are stalling for time and protesting the moves.
Will the proposals work?
Cutting sugar levels across all products is undoubtedly a strong step in the right direction for improving public health. But, when you take something away you have to offer a viable alternative: cue the ‘low sugar’ alternative foods. A potential problem here may be the inclusion of more salt or more processed fats to maintain the texture and satiety of the product.
Sugar, salt and fat are the magic triage of ingredients used in processed foods to achieve maximum levels of taste and ‘feel’ – the ‘bliss effect’ – when eating. Remove one of the triple and you have to add more of the others to maintain the status quo.
What about artificial sweeteners?
Cutting sugar levels almost certainly means an increased reliance on artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and aesculfame. These compounds are 200 times sweeter than regular sugar and are currently widely used in many sugar free products like chewing gums and sugar-free soft drinks.
The safety of these chemicals remains highly controversial. Much of the evidence promoting their safe use is industry funded and frequently conducted on animals – the human digestive process and nervous system differ in many ways to that of animals!
Newer research has shown the negative effect artificial sweeteners have on our beneficial gut bacteria. Our microbiome comes into direct contact with the breakdown products of sweeteners in the digestive tract, and in the case of aspartame, the main breakdown product is formaldehyde – a recognised carcinogen to humans, and most commonly known as embalming fluid!
A healthy, nourished microbiome plays a major role in regulating immunity and inflammation, as well as influencing nutrient absorption and the production of certain vitamins, namely vitamin K and certain B-vitamins. Imbalances in gut bacteria are, ironically, linked to disturbed metabolism and obesity – the very health issues we are trying to combat.
Artificial sweeteners also account for a significant amount of food sensitivity reactions in both adults and children. Pushing more of these chemicals into our food chain puts us at risk of myriad side effects and is certainly not the answer to the obesity problem.
So how do we reduce sugar?
Rather than relying on food manufacturers who have only profits in mind, take your own steps to sugar reduction. Start slowly, and gradually phase out sugar and artificial sweeteners to allow your taste buds to adjust.
Simple swaps include;
– Replace standard breakfast cereals with Overnight Oats or homemade granola sweetened with maple syrup. No time to make your own granola? Marks & Spencer offer a granola base sweetened with a small amount of apple juice and honey.
– Replace fruit juice and fizzy drinks with fruit water: add fruit slices (lemon, pomegranate, lime, orange) to filtered water.
– Replace white bread with wholegrain, or look for bread alternatives such as oatcakes, buckwheat crackers, or nori sheets to make wraps with.
– Dried fruits are a concentrated source of sugar but their high fibre content helps slow down its absorption into your bloodstream. Snack on a palmful of dried fruits and mixed nuts, or keep Nak’d bars in your bag / glove box / desk drawer.
– For an after dinner sweet hit try Pukka Herbs Liquorice & Cinnamon tea: liquorice is up to 50 times sweeter in taste than sugar and the cinnamon supports healthy blood sugar balance.
– Make sure to combine good quality protein with healthy fats and slow releasing carbohydrates at each meal to support steady, sustained energy levels and reduce sweet cravings.
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