(Updated July 15, 2021)
As an undergraduate student several years ago, I struggled with terrible insomnia. Every night was the same: racing thoughts and frantic clock-watching until I’d finally fall asleep around four or five o’clock in the morning. The next day would be a heavily caffeinated blur of running from one class to the next and counting down the minutes until I’d be able to get to bed… only to deal with another night of worry and sleeplessness.
Eventually, I sought help from my family doctor. Reluctant to put me on medication, he referred me to a sleep specialist. To say my appointment with this particular specialist was useless is an understatement; I left feeling more hopeless, more confused, and more exhausted than ever.
Years later, I’d discover that the solution to my insomnia was painfully simple: I was extremely sensitive to caffeine, and I’d been guzzling the stuff like it was water. The moment I quit caffeine was also the moment I saw significant reductions in my anxiety levels. Were there other links between food and mood? And why were no health professionals telling me about this?
To make a long story short, I’ve made it my life’s mission as a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and counsellor to examine how the worlds of mental health and nutrition intersect. Today, I bring you my top tips for how to improve anxiety through nutrition.
1. Stabilize blood sugar levels. The symptoms of fluctuating blood sugar levels are eerily similar to anxiety: irritability, nausea, clammy hands, fast heartbeat, and even anxiety itself. The good news is we can easily use food to manipulate our blood sugar levels. Adding lean protein and healthy forms of fat (i.e. cold pressed coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil) into the diet helps reduce the rate at which insulin enters and leaves your bloodstream. Additionally, relying on complex carbohydrates rather than refined ones and upping your fibre intake should lead to improvements in blood sugar stabilization.
2. Avoid caffeine. Caffeine not only stimulates the nervous system, but can decrease the density of GABA receptors in the brain, which are neurotransmitters that promote relaxation. It can also reduce mineral absorption for minerals like iron, calcium, and magnesium, which are especially important during times of stress. Finally, as was the case with my experience, caffeine can interfere with sleep patterns – and not getting enough zzz’s can be especially difficult for anxiety-sufferers.
3. Feed your gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps with mood regulation, and a whopping 90% of it resides in your gut! It’s no wonder, then, that research is showing that one’s gut health can greatly influence mental health, too. Adding more probiotics to the diet through supplementation, and consuming fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and more can help restore the delicate balance of good to bad bacteria in your gut.
Additionally, remove artificial sweeteners and sugar from your diet, as these are like candy for the “bad guys” in your digestive system!
4. Increase your intake of omega-3 saturated fatty acids. Inflammation plays a key role in the onset of diseases, and anxiety is no exception! The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids lie within their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and studies have shown a link between increased brain DHA content and better mood due to these actions. Fish like sardines, salmon, and herring are great sources of DHA, and plant-based sources include chia seeds, flax seed oil, walnuts, and hemp seeds. Note that while upping your intake of omega-3 fatty acids can be helpful, avoiding trans fats is just as important as these are notoriously known to increase inflammation in the body and therefore contribute to the onset of various diseases.
5. Consider using natural supplements. While research on the influence of natural supplementation on anxiety disorders is still in its infancy, some studies have highlighted the efficacy of St. John’s Wort, Ginkgo extract, and ashwagandha on improving symptoms related to anxiety. Whole foods multivitamins can also be useful to replenish the body’s stores of micronutrients, which typically become depleted during times of stress. Note that doctors and/or pharmacists must be consulted when taking supplements, especially to ensure that there are no interactions with any medications you might be taking.
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