By Laurentia Laura Campbell
The 2023 Mental health week theme is anxiety. There’s no shame in getting anxious sometimes. Anxiety is a strength as it helps you detect threats first. Try to learn to harness it to your advantage and you can be the strongest in the tribe. With the right food, sleep, and coping mechanisms you can learn to manage anxiety.
All people are born with built-in stress mechanisms, involving cortisol, the stress hormone. Stress is an inevitable and essential part of life, necessary for providing us with the Adrenaline which gets us up in the morning and makes us eat and motivates us towards activity. Short-term stress “flight, flight or freeze” biological mechanisms help to protect us from threats, such as someone coming at us with a dagger. This helps us to defend ourselves and stay alive. However, when stress is chronic, and we persistently activate our stress mechanisms with long-term worries or ruminating anxious thought patterns or persistent work stress, this anxiety can be harmful. When our bodies are persistently pumped full of Cortisol, it causes inflammation, which impacts memory and attention, sleep patterns (worsening sleep) and reduces the production of sex hormones and impacts fertility. It also lowers our immunity and defences against disease, alters our gut microbiota and nutrient absorption and can cause gastrointestinal intolerances and malnutrition and changes our appetite. Our diet impacts anxiety, with too high and low blood sugar and certain key vitamins and minerals impacting our anxiety.
What are the best 5 foods for anxiety?
1) Complex carbohydrates
Low blood sugar can trigger anxiety. This is because when we are hungry our brains go into stress mode, pumping us with Cortisol and Adrenaline to make us actively go and find food. This is why restrictive diets, especially those extremely low in carbohydrate, and fat, can cause anxiety and is why people get irritable, angry and less resilient to stress when they are “hangry” or “hungry-angry.” However, foods high in simple refined sugars, such as high sugar foods like honey, sweets, chocolates, and high-fructose-corn-syrup processed sugar-sweetened beverages and foods, also trigger hanger and anxiety. This is because they cause quick-acting, short-lasting blood sugar spikes which our bodies respond to by producing Insulin, our blood sugar regulating hormone. This in turn lowers blood sugar, so despite eating, we quickly become hungry and anxious. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, such as those in cereals and wholegrains, quinoa, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, squash, broccoli, courgette, cauliflower, chickpeas, seeds and nuts, provide a slow but long-lasting energy source, helping to balance our blood sugar and appetite for longer. Adding fibre, fat, and protein to complex carbohydrates in (savoury over sweet) meals can help to regulate blood sugar for even longer and prevent blood sugar dips and anxiety.
2) B vitamins
B vitamins such as B12 (found in meat and fish and seaweed and yeast extract) and B5 (found in green leafy vegetables, meat and fish) and B6 (found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy and green leafy vegetables), as well as B9 (found in vegetables, eggs, meat, fish and dairy), are essential for helping us increase our vitality. This is because they are vitamins needed to help enhance the energy we get from carbohydrates and fats. They work as cofactors and coenzymes in the beta-oxidation and glycolysis pathways which helps us to feel less fatigued. As when fatigued we are less resilient to stressful things and are more likely to think negatively and ruminate, this can help protect us against anxiety.
Omega-3 has been shown in scientific research (Dyall, 2015; Kelaiditis et al., 2023; Kidd, 2007) to help protect against anxiety. We do not make these omega-3 essential fatty acids ourselves and so must get them from our food such as in fish and flaxseeds and brussel sprouts. They play a vital role in regulating the blood-brain barrier and as an energy source. They also help reduce inflammation (via mechanisms involving prostaglandin anti-inflammatories and resolvins and maresins anti-inflammatories) and to regulate blood sugar (Brown et al., 2019; Guan & Miao, 2020; Keeley et al., 2022), and therefore play an essential role in the protection against anxiety (Deane et al., 2021).
4) The gut-brain axis
The Gut-Brain-Axis is the pathway between the gut and the brain that is controlled by the micro-organisms in our guts and plays a beneficial role in the protection against anxiety. The gut-microbiota are bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa micro-organisms that are non-pathogenic (they do not cause disease) but instead have a protective role as a barrier, preventing harmful bacteria from entering our gut tissue and causing inflammation and irritable bowel syndrome and gastroenteritis (stomach bugs like vomiting and diarrhoea). Some (it depends on the strain) also help strengthen our immune systems, help enhance the nutrients we get from food, help regulate our blood sugar and help regulate the production of Serotonin and Dopamine happiness and pleasure brain chemicals. Therefore, the gut microbiota plays an essential role in anxiety. To help strengthen your gut microbiota, try to eat lots of fermentable fibre (in most wholegrains, vegetables, nuts and seeds) as these are prebiotic and feed the gut microbiota, helping them grow, and try probiotics (especially after a dose of antibiotics which can kill many gut microbes) such as sugar-free natural yoghurts (rich in lactobacillus microbe), and kimchi, kombucha, sourdough, sauerkraut and fermented soya products (miso soups) as these will directly put microbes into your gut.
5) Phytochemicals and polyphenols
Polyphenols are bioactive parts of plants that have benefits. This includes polyphenols such as in cinnamon which help to regulate and balance blood sugar (try some cinnamon on natural yoghurt) or capsaicin in chilli which is a pain killer and curcumin in turmeric which is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Although once believed to be herbal medicine and full of anecdotal evidence, emerging science has provided considerable credible evidence based on randomized controlled, peer-reviewed trials in humans, that these phytochemicals have benefits in the protection against disease, including anxiety. Great sources of polyphenols include green tea (epigallocatechin gallate), berries such as blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries (ellagic acid and anthocyanin), red wine (resveratrol), cocoa, nuts, olives and olive oil, herbs and spices (especially peppermint, garlic, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, chilli flakes, paprika, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme). There is considerable evidence that these polyphenols help protect against anxiety (Kontogianni et al., 2020; Lane, 2023; Lin et al., 2021; Pizarro Meléndez et al., 2022).
Anxiety is not a weakness; it is a strength. It is not a sign you cannot cope with stress, more that you are better at detecting stress and preventing risk. Overthinking is a sign of a curious, active, and intelligent brain that is working hard to find problems and solutions and innovate. Highly active, intelligent, anxious brains are more likely to be creative, empathetic, and entrepreneurial. You simply learn ways to manage it to your advantage, and food and diet can be an effective and sustainable way to do this.
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