Anxiety is often associated with stress and stressful life events, such as taking exams or moving house, but sometimes occurs for no apparent reason. Either way, anxiety causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, physical tension and mental fatigue. These are unpleasant feelings that we can sometimes feel as if we have no control over, but the good news is that the right nutrition can play a huge part in alleviating anxious feelings.
The first thing I look at when working with clients suffering with anxiety is their intake of stimulants, especially coffee. Coffee has the potential to stimulate our brains and bodies too much and will do nothing to calm us down and relieve anxious feelings. Even a modest one cup of coffee a day can increase anxiety by stimulating adrenaline and other adrenal hormone production. Quitting the coffee will not be the easiest thing to do for many people but it is well worth it to support anxiety and promote a greater sense of calmness and clarity. Even a week or so off the coffee can have a profound effect on your sense of wellbeing, and breaking the habit of your daily coffee fix could well be enough of a trigger to stop habitual coffee drinking. Very recently after a few weeks of anxiety and sleepness nights I took the decision to cut out coffee for a while and, apart from the first day of headaches, I felt so much better in myself. Calmer, more relaxed and able to deal with stresses, as well as sleeping better.
As an alternative, green tea is an excellent choice. It contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been found to reduce anxiety by increasing levels of serotonin and GABA, essential calming neurotransmitters. Green tea does still contain some caffeine but L-theanine is thought to moderate the 'wired' effects of caffeine, enabling most people to consume a moderate two or three cups a day.
Alcohol and sugar are two other addictive food stuffs commonly consumed, both of which having the potential to increase levels of anxiety. Many people can handle sugar and alcohol occasionally and in moderation without having a panic attack, but consuming too much too frequently can lead to a decrease in the number of neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. This increases the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and withdrawal symptoms when you do not get your 'fix'. Reducing alcohol and sugar, gradually, can help balance brain chemistry and reduce episodes of anxiety.
Protein foods are so important for managing anxiety because they contain essential amino acids, the raw materials required for supporting brain chemistry by making neurotransmitters. Ensuring that you eat a variety of protein foods, such as eggs, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, every day will mean that you are consuming the complete range of amino acids, therefore helping to support balanced brain function.
One other area of nutrition that is important to address when supporting anxiety is fats. Essential polyunsaturated fats (also known as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) are required for optimal brain function and a lack of these fats can play a part in many mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Most people naturally consume sufficient omega-6 fats through vegetable oils and meat, however consuming sufficient omega-3 essential fats requires more thought. Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines) is the richest source of omega-3, while seeds such as flax, chia and pumpkin are good vegan options.
Finally, as with most health issues, exercise and lifestyle factors can play a huge part in anxiety levels. Aerobic exercise increases feel-good endorphins, while yoga is well-proven to promote a sense of calmness. Other activities than can help to reduce anxiety include listening to music or singing, aromatherapy baths, meditation and mindfulness, or watching a comedy film. Give them a try and see what works best for you.
If you need help with cutting back on coffee or would like a personalised nutrition plan to help you deal with anxiety then please get in touch.
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Helen Morton, runner and food lover, sharing latest nutrition research and recipes.