Heal Your Anxiety Naturally: Let Food Lift Your Mood
Are you stressed? With our modern lifestyle, little wonder! We wake up at dawn to a screaming alarm clock, throw ourselves into the dreaded morning commute, gulp gallons of coffee to power through mountains of work, rush home while worrying about the bills, spend our weekends running errands. Modern society is incredibly stressful. Expectations are high: we have to perform at our best, look our best, be up to date, have the best of everything—and make it look effortless. It’s no surprise most of us develop anxiety or depression at some time in our lives.
In fact, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health illnesses. And we’re all too quick to seek out medications to treat these conditions. But these drugs are far from efficient. According to one study, only a third of patients prescribed anti-depressants achieve remission. Thankfully there are natural ways you can heal your mental health without risking pharmaceutical side effects. In this article, we’ll look at foods that fight anxiety, and how you can include them in your diet.
Anxiety – What is It?
Everyone experiences anxiety in their own way, but it is essentially defined by a feeling of nervousness and apprehension about the future or general situations. This anxiety, when out of control, can seriously affect your day to day living. When you are stressed, your body releases the stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol into your blood stream to get ready for a fight-or-flight response. This was most helpful when we were cavemen and women on the lookout for potential predators. But our modern way of life triggers a high-stress response to almost anything: a deadline, an upcoming bill, not having the latest handbag, being unable to check social media updates… you see an email from your boss in your inbox and your body reacts as though there’s a bear on the prowl.
These stress hormones affect both our physical and mental health. On a physical level, being in a constant state of fight-or-flight means that the body is on high alert and not sending energy to vital functions like your immune system or your digestion. Emotionally, constantly being stressed leads to increased anxiety and emotional burn-out.
Take a look at the following symptoms. Have you experienced any of them?
• Feeling on edge
• A sense of dread
• Feeling scared or vulnerable about the future
• A strong desire to run away or avoid situations that cause anxiety
• Excessive sweating or cold sweats
• Sweaty palms
• Racing heartbeat
• Shaking or trembling
What about Depression?
Anxiety and depression are often dubbed the fraternal twins of mental illness. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly half the people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety. If you are anxious, you focus on the future, and the likelihood this future will be bad. If you suffer with depression, you know deep inside something bad will happen, feel powerless to stop it. The symptoms of depression include:
• Low self esteem
• Overwhelming sense of guilt
• Lack of motivation
• Not getting any pleasure from life
• Sadness and low mood
• Aches and pains
• Lack of energy
• Disrupted sleeping
• Changes in appetite
Rates of both anxiety and depression have skyrocketed over the last few years, but it isn’t just due to the increased amount of stress we have to deal with in our busy lives. There’s more to mental health than just the mind.
The Causes of Anxiety and Depression
Even though anxiety and depression mostly affect how we feel emotionally and seem to be triggered only by our thoughts, a variety of factors are involved. Genetics can pre-dispose you to anxiety, and traumatic life events can exacerbate or trigger the condition. Irregular and disrupted sleep patterns, high levels of stress, and lack of exercise can all play a part. And our diet plays a key role in the onset and management of both anxiety and depression.
When it comes to things you can do to help heal your anxiety and improve your mood naturally, there’s no easier or better place to begin than with the choices you make at the dinner table: choosing foods that beat stress over foods that cause stress.
The Diet Connection
Our modern lifestyle comes with a modern diet that leaves much to be desired: high in processed foods, chemical additives and refined sugar, grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and devoid of nutrients. Our plate is piled high with substances that our bodies are simply not designed to deal with, and lacking the essential nutrients needed to achieve full vibrant health.
It’s long been understood that body and mind are intrinsically connected—what you feed your body will affect how you feel physically and emotionally. You would be forgiven for believing that all your happy chemicals (specifically serotonin) are manufactured in your brain, being that conventional anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs focus on the brain’s interaction with these hormones. But in truth, it is your gut, and not your brain, that manufactures the majority of your serotonin. So, if you want to improve your mood, it is therefore vitally important to adapt your diet and keep your digestive system healthy. Let’s take a look at the worst offenders when it comes to exacerbating anxiety and depression, before diving into the best anti-stress foods you can eat to calm your nerves.
Foods that Cause Anxiety
No one food can be said to singlehandedly cause mental health issues, but there is a link between food and anxiety. Some foods stress the body and can aggravate these conditions. If you’re worried about your anxiety levels, avoid the following foods:
After a short night’s sleep, as a mid-morning pick-me-up, to power us through that long afternoon at work—most of us turn to caffeine to give us a boost or help us focus. Many of us relate a mug of steaming coffee to taking a break, but its effect on the body and mind is far from relaxing. Not only can caffeine affect blood pressure, research also indicates that both caffeine consumption and caffeine withdrawal can increase anxiety.
Caffeine isn’t just found in coffee, it’s also added to energy drinks. These are often a combination of caffeine and sugar, not to mention artificial colors and flavorings.
So, while you may get the impression these drinks help you to be productive and power through your to-do list, in the long run they can make it harder for you to focus and exacerbate anxiety. (Full article on the effects of caffeine here)
Another stimulant known to increase anxiety and depression is sugar. While ok in small quantities, our modern lifestyles are heavily sprinkled with the stuff. On average we consume over 150 grams of sugar a day, compared to 9 grams a day back in the 1800’s. The body is not designed to cope with so much sweetness, and goes into overdrive trying to process it. On a physical level, eating sugar creates a spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a crash—when this happens you feel tired, hungry, irritable, and stressed out.
Another thing making sugar so potentially dangerous when it comes to our anxiety levels is the fact it is highly addictive. In fact, research indicates sugar’s addictive quality rivals that of cocaine. This is because sugar triggers the release of dopamine and other pleasure chemicals, making us feel good. Little wonder then, that most of us find ourselves mindlessly reaching for yet another biscuit only to discover we’ve eaten the entire packet, and are still not satisfied. Sugar is an increasingly controversial ingredient, and a study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety found a link between increased sugar consumption and rates of depression. One of the reasons for this is that the body has to use up mood-enhancing B vitamins and blood-glucose-stabilizing chromium to digest excess sugar. The white stuff doesn’t seem that sweet after all.
Artificial Sweeteners and Additives
Now before you go rushing to the sugar-free aisle, let me stop you—artificial sweeteners will have just as bad, if not worse, an effect on your general mental health. Research indicates that aspartame can alter the function of neurotransmitters, aggravate depression, and even impair cognition.
Most processed foods contain one or more additives—flavor enhancers like MSG, or artificial colors and preservatives. The regular consumption of these man-made chemicals can result in a decline in your neuro-cognitive functions, and a higher risk of certain illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They’ve also been linked to behavioral issues.
The first step you can take to reduce your anxiety levels is to avoid these foods—while this may look daunting at first, it need not be. The trick is to crowd them out with anti-stress foods that are natural, wholesome and packed with mood-boosting nutrients.
Foods that Reduce Anxiety and Depression
The brain is made up of fat. In fact, 60% of the brain’s dry weight is fat, 30% of which is in the form of Omega 3. But our diets are increasingly lacking this essential nutrient, and this leads to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Omega 3 keeps your brain cells lubricated and helps neurotransmitters, the brain’s messaging chemicals, to work more effectively—it is one of the best foods for anxiety. A study published in the Journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity examined the role of Omega 3 in reducing stress. It found that supplementing Omega 3 led to lower rates of anxiety.
Omega 3-rich anti-stress foods include flaxseed oil, chia seeds, oily fish, Omega 3 enriched eggs and walnuts. There are many ways you can include this brain boosting nutrient in your diet. (Chia recipes here)
• Have one or two portions of fish a week: try mackerel salad for lunch, or add salmon to a stir-fry for dinner.
• Enjoy a handful of walnuts with some fruit for a healthy snack.
• Sprinkle chia seeds into your breakfast smoothie.
• Avoid excesses of Omega 6, as too much of this is associated with increased inflammation, and makes it harder for your body to absorb and use Omega 3. Minimize your consumption of foods that contain vegetable oils like safflower, canola, sunflower and soy.
A deficiency in certain B vitamins has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety, specifically vitamins B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin). The good news is that, according to a study published in the Journal of Human Psychopharmacology, including more B vitamins in your diet can significantly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Give these foods a try:
• B3: Almonds, asparagus, cauliflower, chia seeds, zucchini, tempeh, spinach, squash, mushrooms
• B6: Bananas, broccoli, cashew nuts, dates, hazelnuts, lentils, watercress, red kidney beans
• B12: Eggs, mackerel, salmon, sardines, shellfish, natural yogurt, enriched nutritional yeast, yeast extracts, Swiss cheese. If you are vegan or a strict vegetarian, you may need to take a B-12 supplement.
This essential amino acid is needed for growth and development, as well as the production and absorption of niacin (B3), which as we’ve seen is one of the key nutrients for anxiety reduction. Tryptophan also helps the body produce serotonin, your very own happy chemical.
You’ll find tryptophan in a variety of foods, including pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, soy beans, lean cheeses, oats, beans, lentils and eggs.
• Add a handful of seeds, or a cup of lentils or beans to your salads and soups.
• Have a light dinner of poached egg on a bed of spinach.
• Start your day with a warming bowl of porridge; add fruit and yogurt for an uplifting breakfast.
Refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar) will spark a spike in blood glucose levels. These then drop sharply leaving you feeling hungry, irritable and stressed. Complex carbohydrates have the opposite effect. Complex carbs are so called because they contain fiber and nutrients as well as sugars. This means your body absorbs them more slowly, and can maintain stable blood sugar levels, which in turn equate to a more stable mood.
But that’s not all. Carbohydrates also help the absorption of tryptophan, which as we’ve seen is a key nutrient in the fight against anxiety.
• Drop the refined grains and opt instead for wholegrain alternatives like brown rice, quinoa, wholegrain spelt, amaranth and millet. Add these to your salads for a satisfying lunch that will keep you happy and satiated all afternoon.
• Fill up on vegetables.
• Have a portion of legumes or pulses (lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, black beans, etc) once a day.
Antioxidants and Phytonutrients
The interconnectedness of mind and body is further illustrated by a study published in the Journal of Current Neuropharmacology. Scientists noted that anxiety and depression could be triggered by a low antioxidant status, making the body and brain more vulnerable to free radicals. Oxidative damage of the brain affects the nervous system and can cause mental health issues. A diet packed with free-radical fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients is therefore essential for a healthy brain and a happy mood.
• Include at least one or two portions of fruits or vegetables at every meal.
• Make a breakfast smoothie – it’s a great way of eating lots of veggies in one go. (recipes here)
• Eat a rainbow every day to include as many of Mother Nature’s nutrients as you can.
• Add spices and herbs like ginger, turmeric, garlic, oregano and rosemary to your dishes. They all contain health boosting antioxidants.
And Finally, Cacao
Who hasn’t reached for that bar of chocolate when they’re feeling down? Well, there’s good reason for this: cacao really can boost your mood thanks to its high content of tryptophan. It also contains theobromine, a mild stimulant similar to caffeine but without the side effects. And as if that wasn’t enough, raw cacao contains a healthy dose of antioxidants.
• Not all chocolate is created equal—the trick is to choose the right kind. Choose dark varieties with little added sugar. Or, better still, opt for raw organic chocolate sweetened with coconut sugar.
• Try cacao nibs. These can be added to your recipes instead of chocolate chips, sprinkled on top of muesli or mixed into a home-made trail mix for a healthy chocolatey snack.
• Swap your coffee break for a cup of homemade hot chocolate. Mix up you own blend by combining raw cacao powder with vanilla, cinnamon, maca or a spice of your choice. Mix up a tablespoon of this with a splash of plant-milk (almond, rice, hemp, oat, organic soy), and a little maple syrup, honey or coconut sugar for sweetness, top up with hot water and enjoy a warming drink that will boost your energy and soothe your mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
And that mug of hot chocolate will also help you overcome seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression characterized by low mood, a feeling of hopelessness and social withdrawal, and caused by the lack of light during autumn and winter months. Spending more time outside, for example going for regular walks, can significantly help with this, as can including the foods listed in this article.
Banish Stress with Calming Foods
Anxiety can affect all of us, and our modern lifestyles can make things worse. The good news is that you don’t have to put up with it or rush to the medicine cabinet. Mother Nature’s closet is packed with anti-stress foods that will calm you down and help put a smile on your face! By reducing the amount of processed foods and stimulants in our diet, and opting instead for natural, plant-based foods, you can free yourself from anxiety and depression naturally. Let healthy food lift your mood!