What to Eat and What to Avoid for a Less Anxious Mind
Food is everywhere in America today. It has become more than just a means of nourishment and creating community, as it was throughout human history. Food is now a means of comfort and a cure for loneliness and boredom; it is a source of entertainment and excitement; it is increasingly an indicator of status. Modern technologies have made available a greater variety of foods from around the world, year-round. And dining out has never been more popular – from on-the-go fast-food meals to high-end restaurants owned by celebrity chefs. But despite this great abundance, as a society, we have conflicted feelings toward nourishing our bodies. Food is often our No.1 enemy, and as well as one of our greatest addictions.
And it’s no secret that our health is suffering. The “obesity epidemic” and related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes have been well covered by the news media. But depression, mood disorders and anxiety are also being diagnosed in shocking numbers. Pills to ease our emotional and physical pain have become a staple in the average American diet.
But pills cannot offer a complete answer, for physical or emotional issues. Exercise and proper nutrition have been promoted as the solution to many health conditions, but the link between diet and anxiety and depression is often overlooked.
The Connection Between Anxiety and Your Diet
Our diet plays a critical role in how we feel each day – and this goes far beyond our preoccupation with weight.
Though the average American’s diet is influenced more by factors of convenience, flavor and cravings, our bodies call to us to eat foods based on actual nutritional needs. In order for our bodies to run optimally, an array of important vitamins and minerals are required. When those needs are not met, we see the consequences in our energy and anxiety levels, and in a spectrum of health problems that can arise over time.
When examining the diet-anxiety link, in addition to ensuring we get enough healthy food to meet our nutritional needs, it’s important to understand how certain foods can actually increase anxiety, especially if they have become a regular part of your diet.
Let’s take a look at some of the foods that can raise your anxiety levels.
Anxiety-Inducing Foods to Avoid:
Alcohol. Anxiety sufferers may be inclined to self-medicate with alcohol, but this decision can actually worsen one’s anxiety. Alcohol affects the amount of serotonin produced by your brain. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, helps regulate mood and sleep, and is known to play a role in anxiety. Alcohol can also increase heart rate, cause dehydration, stimulate the nervous system, and lower blood sugar, all of which can cause anxiety-like symptoms. If you suffer from anxiety and consume alcohol regularly, consider cutting back on how much you drink or eliminating alcohol entirely.
Artificial sweeteners. Aspartame (a known excitotoxin, or excitatory neurotoxin), sucralose, saccharine, and other artificial sweeteners can cause irritability, problems with digestion, depression, and insomnia, among other issues. Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can alter the brain’s neurotransmitters, significantly reducing serotonin levels. Moreover, they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and increase cravings for sugar – another food known to affect anxiety levels. Even if you are watching your weight, when it comes to sweeteners, you are better off with the real thing. Agave nectar, honey, and raw sugar are safe and all-natural – just use them in moderation.
Caffeinated food and beverages. Coffee is not actually the best way to energize before you start your day. Your morning cup jolts your body awake before it has a chance to wake up naturally. Caffeine, which is found not just in coffee but also in chocolate, soda and certain teas, stimulates the nervous system, causing increased heart rate, agitation and nervousness. Try weaning yourself off caffeine and stick to herbal tea for two weeks. Record your energy and anxiety levels from start to finish and note whether you see a positive change.
MSG. Like aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an excitotoxin. The culprit in the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG is used to enhance the taste of foods. Although MSG and other excitotoxins have been approved for use in our foods, these substances affect cellular calcium channels and cause accelerated brain cell death. They are known to cause cancer in animals and have been linked to a multitude of health problems, including migraines, panic attacks, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Disorder, to name only a few. The best way to avoid MSG is to eliminate processed foods from your diet and check with restaurants to see if they use MSG in their food. But keep in mind that there are over 40 ingredients commonly used in foods that contain MSG, and the FDA only requires food manufacturers to include MSG on the label if the ingredient is 99% pure MSG. (Check out this article for an in-depth look at MSG and what to look out for on labels.)
Processed sugar. Processed sugars cause glucose levels to spike, forcing the pancreas to produce insulin much faster than it normally would. This process results in what has been dubbed the “sugar crash.” Those who have eaten a large amount of sugar and “crashed” also commonly experience a subsequent sugar withdrawal, which can exacerbate already-present anxiety symptoms such as nervousness and shaking.
An Anxiety-Curbing Diet
When you consume nutritious foods, you supply your body with what it needs to run efficiently and detoxify itself. Proper hydration is critical. Replace soda and sugary juice drinks with water and unsweetened tea (preferably green and herbal). Next, you’ll want to move away from processed convenience foods and takeout, which are high in sugar, fat and salt, and return to wholesome, home-cooked meals. Aim to eat a balanced diet based around fresh fruits and vegetables, with moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates, natural protein sources, and healthy fats. Focus on a variety of different foods of all colors – an all-beige plate is bland and often deficient in nutrients; the deep greens, purples, reds and oranges found in foods such as spinach, eggplant, and peppers ensure that you will take in a broad spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants.
Include as many of the following foods in your diet as you can – they contain nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are known for their strong anxiety-fighting properties.
- Chamomile tea
- Citrus fruit such as oranges or grapefruit
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, arctic char or mackerel
- Whole grains
Of course, you may not be able to cure your anxiety entirely with dietary changes, but it is an excellent place to start. Ideally, you should create an anxiety treatment plan that factors in proper diet, regular exercise, calming/meditative techniques, lifestyle changes and an appropriate supplement regimen.
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