Anxiety — it is a common word used by many to describe feelings of uneasiness and discomfort. Anxiety is also a normal feeling. More than that, anxiety can often be a helpful thing for the body to experience. It is necessary when we need to be vigilant and on our toes because of impending danger, like a wild animal attack.
That said, being in a high anxiety state for long periods of time can bring on symptoms of fatigue both mental and physical, as well as insomnia, muscle tension and/or aches, irritable bowel, diarrhea, nausea, sweating, and headaches. If you experience these symptoms with your anxiety you are not alone, more than 3 million Canadians had reportedly been diagnosed with a mood and/or anxiety disorder in 2013.
There can be many factors that contribute to anxiety disorders and their severity that unfortunately, most individuals who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are not given any education about. For me, discovering ways I could reduce the severity and duration of my anxiety with food and lifestyle practices was a life changer!
The focus of this post is the broad dietary and lifestyle factors that may assist in rebalancing an anxious body and mind. That said, it’s important to remember that anxiety (like any mental or physical health challenge) requires a holistic approach to fully heal. As a Nutritionist, and someone who has struggled with anxiety, I know there is no one size fits all treatment or method. In addition to the food and lifestyle factors I’ll cover below, healing from an anxiety disorder may also require attention through various forms of counselling and emotional support.
So, what can WE, as individuals, incorporate into our diet and lifestyle to help rebalance our bodies and minds? A lot!
Avoid Anxiety Triggers
Stimulants, however mild, can affect your brain in regards to anxiety and mood in general. Some of the stimulants to be mindful of, include:
The Standard American Diet is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (which are easily turned into sugar by the body’s digestive processes). Sugar can affect cognitive capability (brain fog, muscle function, jitters), immune function, and the energy swing from a sugar high to a sugar crash can result in fatigue, irritability and even heart palpitations. These symptoms can be mistaken as the onset of anxiety, and the blood sugar fluctuations can trigger the onset of an anxiety attack, as well as contribute to the duration of anxiety symptoms that may be already present.
Caffeine, like in your morning coffee, can add an extra obstacle to a person’s anxiety. This is because caffeine increases the body’s production of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine, which are our natural stress hormones. While caffeine is increasing stress hormones, it is also inhibiting the neurotransmitter GABA which helps us to calm down and moderate our mentality, as well as slowly depleting the body’s stores of Magnesium, which helps us to relax our muscles and nervous system.
Some supplements that are for energy can contain ephedrine, which increases the heart rate and breathing, which if you have these symptoms in addition to existing anxiety can be a disastrous combination.
Blood Sugar Fluctuations
When the body is under stress, it releases hormones that stimulate the body to increase heart rate, and blood sugar levels to make energy sources available to the cells of the body — equipping us to fight or flee. Blood sugar fluctuations can be a stressor, to an already strained system.
This type of reactive stress response can often be avoided by eating regularly, every 2-3 hours or so. Each time you are eating, aim to consume quality protein and a healthy fat, with your vegetables or fruits. The protein and fat are slower to digest, which can help prolong the energy given to our bodies by food and level out blood sugar fluctuations.
Food sensitivities have varying symptoms, and for many people, can go undetected for years. Evaluating for food sensitivities, and optimizing your digestion and absorption capabilities is another way we can reduce the stress on our bodies.
Medication Side Effects
We all have different medical needs, and prescription drugs may be part of that picture. However, some medications may cause anxiety as a side effect. It is important to speak with your doctor if you feel this may be the case for you.
Examples of medications that may cause anxiety are:
- Asthma medications
- Blood pressure medication
- Hormones, or oral contraceptives (birth control pills, patches, rings, and IUDs)
- Medications that contain amphetamines such as Ritalin or Adderall
- Steroids such as cortisone
- Thyroid medications
- Anti-depressant medications
Other substances that may contribute to anxiety:
Some non-prescription drugs, and substances, may also cause anxiety as a side effect. These include:
- Medicines containing caffeine
- Illegal drugs that increase your heart rate (cocaine or other amphetamines)
Best Foods To Eat
Everyone’s body is different, but the overarching theme here is to eat foods that are naturally dense in nutrients such as:
- Clean Proteins
The body uses proteins in the form of amino acids to build and repair itself on a cellular level. Amino acids are also used by the brain to help with a wide variety of body processes and functions. This is why it is so important to get a variety of protein from different source to ensure you are getting enough of these building blocks. Especially when choosing animal proteins, look for those that have been ethically raised, fed well (free-range, grass-fed, etc.), preferably local, and organic if possible.
- Organ Meats
As an added bonus organ meats are packed full of the nutrients an animal carries, and are considered sacred in many cultures. My personal favourite is liver; as it contains significant amounts of vitamin A, B vitamins like B12 and folic acid, and iron, alongside the protein.
- Healthy Fats
Fats are vital for our hormone production and regulation, nervous systems, and mental health – your brain and its cells are made up mainly of fat.
- Fermented Foods
Making resurgence in popularity are fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, yogurt, and probably most hip and happening right now kombucha. While we still need to be mindful of the sugar content that some of these items may have, or the propensity for dairy to elicit a sensitivity response; fermented foods are of benefit because they contain enzymes and pre/probiotics that help support digestive health.
Our gut is our second brain. Did you know the majority of our serotonin is actually produced there rather than the brain itself? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps us to feel full as well as uplifted. For this reason, and others, having a healthy gut is a must for someone looking to rebalance their anxiety.
We all have coping mechanisms. From my own experience, I know that unhealthy coping mechanisms are as plentiful as their healthy alternatives, though not always as comfortable. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can include seemingly simple habits like watching TV to escape reality or sleeping too much.
Researchers have divided healthy coping mechanisms into 2 broad categories;
- one being a solution-based focus to address a problem and reduce the stress associated with it
- the other is emotion-based which focuses on gathering tools to nurture oneself during a stressful time.
Both of these strategies are addressing the problem, not avoiding it, in order to ease the feelings that may come up or are already present.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
- Meditation – can teach you how to detach from cyclical thought patterns and gain perspective on life events in the present moment
- Relaxation Techniques – can be beneficial to use in high stress situations and when anxiety has set in. These techniques can help us recognize when and which muscles are tense and equip us with ways to release that tension.
- Journaling –sometimes just writing it all down to get it out of our heads can help. It can free up some mental and emotional space when we don’t feel the need to hang on to every thought, feeling, event detail, and deadline within our minds. Journaling can also help us get in touch with our emotions, and find out why certain things make us feel certain ways.
- Breathing Techniques—breathing is a common thing to speed up during times of anxiety, causing poor oxygenation of the brain. In turn, learning to control your breathing and ways to enhance each breath can benefit our everyday stress level.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—this is a type of psychotherapy that can help us to manage our negative thought patterns towards ourselves and the world. As humans we have lots of thoughts, but not all of them are true or valuable. CBT with a qualified counsellor, can help us disconnect from the thoughts that aren’t serving us.
- Exercise can help boost endorphins, which help to improve our mood and help us adapt to stress.
- Positive Reframing – using humour and gratitude are great ways to discover the silver lining of things that may have seemed catastrophic beforehand.
- Talk Therapy –when talking out our problems it can help alleviate the stress of a given situation. Sharing our life experiences, hopes, dreams, fear, apprehensions, and struggles can help us to feel less trapped by our circumstances and closer to finding a solution or building a strategic plan.
- Build a Support Team –sometimes the feeling of going it alone can be the most difficult. Building a community around us of people who will love and support us is critical, not just for anxiety, but for our mental health in general.
- Get Outside –it’s all too easy to get distracted by our technology fuelled world, and we can sometimes forget about the intrinsic benefits of nature. Trees and plants give off oxygen which can help our brains and immune systems. A change of scenery can also help the brain stay flexible, which may assist in problem solving strategies and ideas.
- Sleep — Sleep helps to recharge your brain. Many people with anxiety may struggle to sleep; this was and sometimes still is the case for me. Putting into practice a good bedtime routine is crucial to ensure our brains are in tip-top shape.
- The body and the mind are not separate but rather a working pair
- You are a holistic being, and rebalancing anxiety requires a mutli-faceted approach
- Avoiding anxiety triggers like sugar, caffeine, ephedrine can help prevent anxiety symptoms from being exacerbated
- Eating clean proteins, organ meats, healthy fats, and fermented foods are great way to increase the nutrient quality of our food and help our body to function at its best
- Balancing our blood sugar and avoiding food sensitivities checked are two more ways to lessen the stress on our body
- Working on cultivating healthy coping mechanisms and decreasing unhealthy coping mechanisms can help heal the root causes of anxiety
You are an individual with unique needs, and a unique life. This blog post is merely a snippet of factors that could be causing challenges where they don’t need to be; and a few tips and tricks on how to help ease the burden of stress on the body that may be triggering your anxiety. With this knowledge, keep in mind:
“Every success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision and change.” Richard Branson
Are you making an effort to rebalance an anxiety disorder? Let us know what you’re working on in the comments below.
The Anxiety Food Solution by Trudy Scott, CN, copy write 2011