How do you cope with anxiety at the start of the school year? Believe it or not, making dietary changes can often ease the symptoms of anxiety. While diet alone cannot cure anxiety, healthy eating is one of the simplest ways to begin controlling anxiety to improve your mood, both inside and outside the classroom.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
The body is made up of 65–70% water, and every cell in the body needs water in order to function properly. The brain, heart, blood, joints, kidneys, and energy systems are most effective when the body is well hydrated. Hydration also flushes our bodies of excess waste and the toxins that can lead to illness.
Adding more water to your diet is one of the simplest things you can do to reduce stress. Many studies have found that dehydration affects as many as 25% of people with persistent stress, and dehydration is known to cause increased anxiety. So drink up—your body and nervous system will thank you!
Crucial Foods to Avoid
Before we look at foods that help ease anxiety, it’s important to minimize foods that contribute to anxiety. Examples of these foods include fried foods, stimulants such as sugar and caffeine, and alcoholic beverages.
Why do these foods cause increased anxiety? According to the Association for Comprehensive Neurotherapy, hypoglycemia has been linked to anxiety, so it is important to keep our blood sugar levels steady to avoid symptoms.
The concept is easy to understand if we look at the body in terms of regulating blood sugar levels. Every day, the main goal of the body is to maintain internal stability (homeostasis). For example, the body consistently and automatically regulates heart rate and body temperature, and eliminates toxins on a daily basis. When we are out of balance, our heart rate may increase or we might develop a fever from illness. The same holds true for blood sugar—it aims to be stable to maintain our energy levels.
When we take in foods that spike our blood sugar levels (caffeine, sugar, chocolate, etc.) or take in drinks that drop our blood sugar levels (alcohol), mood is affected and our ability to cope with stress is greatly impacted. In addition, some of these foods also cause dehydration (coffee, caffeine, alcohol) which affects mood, blood sugar and energy levels. As this happens, it leads to lower blood sugar, further increasing anxiety and impacting the body’s ability to stabilize.
Tryptophan – A Calming Natural Chemical
Tryptophan can produce chemicals in the brain that encourage relaxation and boost mood. Tryptophan is found in bananas, peanut butter, turkey, cheese, nuts, sesame seeds, seaweed, oats, and milk. Adding foods with tryptophan may ease symptoms of anxiety by allowing you to relax.
Healthy Fats for a Healthy Mood
Omega-3s – In the standard American diet, there is a lack of healthy fats due to a societal fear of fats contributing to weight gain. In actuality, healthy fats are essential to a healthy brain, heart, joints, and nervous system. A depletion of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain can be related to anxiety disorders, according to “The Anxiety Book: Developing Strength in the Face of Fear.” Adding sources of omega-3s such as fish, flaxseed, and nuts can help ease symptoms of anxiety.
Almonds – Almonds are rich in vitamins B2 and E, both of which help boost the immune system during times of stress. Just a quarter cup of almonds each day does the trick. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that adding a variety of B vitamins to your diet can help reduce anxiety.
Calming Whole Grains
Whole grains can have a powerful effect on anxiety. Eating whole grains can boost serotonin levels, which leads to relaxation and can help ease feelings of anxiety. Whole grains also work to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Studies have shown that true whole grains have several benefits, because they:
- Are rich in magnesium, protecting the nervous system
- Contain tryptophan, a calming neurotransmitter
- Work to stabilize blood sugar for homeostasis
- Are slower to digest; the body will use them throughout the day for sustainable energy
Examples of gluten-free whole grains include oats, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, and kasha. If you have a gluten sensitivity, read the labels to ensure the grains are milled in a factory that is gluten-free in order to avoid cross-contamination.
Get Your Greens On
Seaweed is a good alternative to whole grains for those who are gluten sensitive. Seaweed is not only rich in nutrients such as iodine, but it is also high in magnesium. Kelp and other seaweeds appear to be very high in tryptophan content as well.
Spinach is packed with magnesium, which helps regulate cortisol levels and promote feelings of well being. A cup of spinach fulfills 40 percent of your daily quota of magnesium. Adding spinach to your morning smoothie or to an egg dish will start your day off right. You can swap spinach for lettuce in a sandwich or add it to a salad. Steamed spinach takes about 3 minutes to prepare and can be used as a side dish. A handful of leaves can also be added to soup or stews.
Fruity Stress Busters
Blueberries are more than a delicious fruit because they are rich in vitamins and antioxidants that are beneficial for relieving stress. Just a handful of blueberries pack a powerful punch with the addition of vitamin C. When stressed, our bodies need vitamin C and antioxidants to repair and protect cells.
Peaches fall into this category as well because they have nutrients that appear to have a sedation (calming) effect.
Oranges – There’s a reason orange juice is said to be part of breakfast because vitamin C is known to lower blood pressure and the stress hormone, cortisol.
Bring on the Protein
Protein Sources. According to the Association for Comprehensive Neurotherapy, increasing protein intake can help alleviate feelings of anxiety. The Association reports that hypoglycemia has been linked to anxiety, and it is important to keep blood sugar steady to avoid symptoms. Individuals suffering from anxiety can add sources of protein to their diet, including chicken, fish, and lean beef, as well as vegan sources such as nuts and legumes or beans.
Herbs to the Rescue
Maca root is not exactly easy to find, but the powder can be added to several foods, smoothies and beverages. Maca be found in many health food stores. It’s believed that this root has more phytonutrients than nearly every type of fruit and vegetable. These phytonutrients include magnesium and iron—two important nutrients for controlling anxiety.
Herbal Teas – There are also herbal teas, such as kava, chamomile, and passionflower that can be valuable for reducing anxiety.
Leslie Edsall loves to work with people to simplify the noise and develop healthier habits through nutrition, yoga and self care. She is a Certified Health Coach, Health Education Specialist and Registered Yoga Teacher. Leslie offers a variety of online and in-person health coaching programs, teaches yoga, runs workshops in the DC area and leads wellness retreats. To learn more about Leslie visit: www.TrifectaWellness.com.