We are all affected by stress and anxiety at some point in our lives, whether due to work challenges, health concerns, family issues, financial responsibilities, relationship difficulties, etc.
Unfortunately, as the leading causes of stress and anxiety are part of everyday life, we can’t just avoid them or limit our exposure as we would, perhaps, with other triggers. For example, if the thought of flying makes a person stressed and/or anxious, they can probably just avoid flying for the foreseeable future!
Instead, we have to learn ways to improve how we deal with our daily stressors and alleviate anxiety symptoms – if we want to enjoy healthier, happier lives.
Thankfully, there are many ways we can help ourselves to maintain a sense of peace, calm, and control in an otherwise chaotic world. Healthy coping strategies include engaging in activities that support our self-care, learning relaxation techniques, and talking about our stress or anxiety with a friend, family member, or health professional.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the key role nutrition can play as part of our strategy to manage stress and anxiety. And how what we eat can dramatically affect not just our physical health but also our mental and emotional wellbeing.
The gut-brain connection
The gut-brain connection links our central nervous system (CNS) – which includes the brain – to our enteric nervous system (ENS) in our gut. It is a two-way communication system involving a complex network of nerve cells, microbes, and chemicals.
An important player in this connection is the vagus nerve. This physically connects our brain to our gut and plays a crucial role in carrying signals between the two.
It’s now understood that the ENS, often called the ‘second brain,’ plays a vital role not only in our digestive health but also our mental health.
Growing evidence suggests that what we eat can directly affect our mental health.
By improving the health of our gut microbiome through good nutrition, we can help alleviate symptoms of many mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression.
“Seratonin, a key hormone that regulates our mood, feelings, and well-being and happiness, is primarily made in our guts. Therefore, having a healthy gut microbiome can help reduce stress and anxiety”. (Karen Hemmes, registered dietician at Banner University Medical Center.)
Eating well for mental health
While family genetics, environment, and medications can all play a part in determining the health of our microbiome, what we eat plays the most significant role.
Making healthier food choices can dramatically improve our physical and mental health, giving us more energy, more stable moods, improved ability to focus, and much more.
While there is still an ongoing debate about what a healthy diet should consist of, there is general agreement that an abundance of nutrients from a good variety of foods each day will positively impact gut health, enable the body to function effectively and improve mental wellbeing.
Here are nine types of food (and supplements) currently boasting the most significant gut health benefits that can help alleviate stress and anxiety:
These are fiber-rich, unprocessed foods shown to be anti-inflammatory, promote a healthy microbiome, and improve brain health. Whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, and eggs.
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Leafy greens include kale, spinach, lettuce, and cabbage, which contain folate (folic acid) to maintain brain health.
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, and Bok choy. They contain sulforaphane, which nourishes the microbiome and acts as a powerful antibiotic.
Both types of vegetables have been shown to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve focus.
Eating good sources of protein has been associated with numerous health benefits, which include stabilizing blood sugar, providing tryptophan for mood support, and regulating sleep cycles.
High-quality proteins include fish, seafood, lean meats (chicken, turkey, pork), eggs and egg whites, dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk), legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans), nuts and seeds, soy products (tofu, tempeh) and quinoa.
While many diets encourage limiting fat consumption, not all fats are created equal!
Healthier fats are essential for gut health and help the brain to function more efficiently. Omega 3 fatty acids are especially important, as they are the building blocks of our brains.
Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseeds, almonds, chia seeds), oily fish (herring, salmon, tuna, trout, sardines), olive oil, and avocados.
Prebiotics help to keep our digestive system healthy, reduce inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and have a positive impact on anxiety levels.
Good sources of prebiotics include raw garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, and seaweed. Many vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains are also good sources of prebiotic fiber.
Scientific research has shown connections between probiotic foods and reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.
Probiotics can be found in fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, pickled vegetables, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Probiotic supplements are also widely available.
Foods high in Vitamins A, C, and E
It is now widely accepted that certain vitamins can affect mood, and the combination of these three powerful antioxidants can complement other stress management strategies.
Top sources of vitamins A, C, and E include fresh vegetables (bell peppers, asparagus, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, dark leafy greens), fresh fruits (strawberries, citrus fruits, cantaloupe melon, apricots, papaya), nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, almonds).
Magnesium-rich foods can help with brain functions that reduce stress and anxiety and include fresh fruits (bananas, avocados), vegetables (spinach, broccoli), legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas), nut and seeds, and dark chocolate. Magnesium can also be taken as a supplement.
Mood-boosting herbs and spices
There are many herbs and spices that you can easily add to meals to help fight stress, anxiety, and inflammation in the body and brain. The top eight are turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, thyme, nutmeg, saffron, and ashwagandha.
Introducing new foods and supplements safely
It’s essential to introduce any new foods, especially prebiotics and probiotics, in small amounts at first to access tolerance and then gradually increase over time.
It’s also vital to check with your doctor or a registered dietician or nutritionist before making any significant changes to your current diet, particularly if you have food sensitivities or allergies or are on any medications.
Foods to avoid if you’re trying to alleviate stress and anxiety
For many of us, it’s a natural instinct to reach for foods or drinks that we find comforting when we’re feeling stressed or anxious. Whether you favor chips, cookies, coffee, or alcohol, they not only provide very little nutritional value but can actually increase your cortisol levels – the primary hormone responsible for stress.
Unfortunately, while these comfort foods and drinks may offer us some temporary relief, they cause inflammation in our guts and brains, increasing our stress, anxiety, and depression in the long run.
If you’re trying to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, there are foods you should aim to avoid – or at least significantly reduce. These include:
- Highly processed or packaged foods, including fast foods, sugary drinks, processed meats, and snacks like crisps, cookies, and cakes.
- Refined grains, especially wheat, including white rice, white bread, white pasta, cakes, cookies, and snack foods.
- Refined sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Many pre-packaged foods contain added sugars, so be sure to check the labels.
- Refined oils and trans fats, including canola oil, corn oils, margarine, and products that contain trans fats like fried foods, crackers, and many breakfast products.
- Coffee and alcohol – use in moderation if you can’t totally kick the habit, as these both disrupt the microbiome, increase anxiety, and reduce sleep quality!
- Antibiotic drugs, except when absolutely necessary.
As with most things in life, moderation is the key when it comes to these less-beneficial foods! Why not try out the 80/20 method – where you make 80% healthy choices with 20% flexibility factored in for less-healthy options.
Most of us pay little attention to our eating patterns and are unaware of our habits around eating. For example, we may overeat when we’re stressed, skip meals, eat too quickly, or opt for unhealthy food options to give us a temporary boost in mood and/or energy.
Paying attention to what we eat – and how we feel when we’re eating – is a vital part of ensuring we get well-balanced, healthy meals, snacks, and drinks throughout the day to keep our microbiome healthy and our mood balanced.
Learn more about mindful and emotional eating.
Other lifestyle changes that can help to alleviate stress and anxiety
Knowing what we do about the gut-brain connection and how it can directly affect our mental health, eating a well-balanced, healthy diet is one of the most important (and easiest) ways to improve our mental health and physical wellbeing naturally.
However, while maintaining a healthy diet is a key factor in managing stress and anxiety, we cannot rely solely on food to de-stress and bring our life back into balance.
Other lifestyle changes will need to be incorporated into our daily habits for optimum results. These can include:
- Taking regular exercise
- Learning relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation
- Practicing meditation and mindfulness
- Getting plenty of quality sleep
- Keeping a journal
- Getting regular massage, acupuncture, or hypnotherapy treatments
- Spending time outdoors observing nature, including forest bathing
- Cutting back on caffeine, and alcohol
- Limiting or stopping smoking
- Speaking to a mental health professional to resolve any underlying mental health issues.
When to seek professional help for stress and anxiety
If stress and anxiety are impacting your health on a regular basis, or you think you may have a mental health disorder, it’s important to seek professional help to get your life back in balance.
Awareness of the need for support is the first step to restoring and maintaining your mental health so you can feel better and live the full and active life you deserve.
It’s important to know that you are not alone and mental health services are available to get you back on track.
How Tikvah Lake Recovery can help
If you recognize the signs of anxiety, chronic stress, or depression in yourself or someone you care about, get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help.
At Tikvah Lake Recovery, our expert team is here to help and support anyone struggling with their mental health to ensure they receive the care and healing they need for lasting recovery.
We specialize in treating various mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, stress, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anger issues, grief, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and substance addictions.
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