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Can Diet Calm an Anxious Mind?

Anxiety. It's a common ailment. When my clients list their medical history, anxiety is often on the list. It seems to be more precalent than ever. Perhaps we are now recognizing and diagnosing it more often, but it is not uncommon for a person of any age, even children, to report various levels of anxiety.

What is anxiety? Many confuse it with stress, but it's actually more than that. Whereas stress is the body's physical response in the moment to a situation, anxiety differs in that the physical response continues beyond after the situation is over. It is almost as if there is no switch to turn “off.” These physical responses can include increased blood pressure, excessive trembling or sweating, chest pains, insomnia, headaches, nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, constipation and / or diarrhea, indigestion, and even rashes or what feels like allergic reactions. The physical manifestations clearly can be many and may cause harm to one's body over the long term.

The levels of anxiety can be varied as well. I am not a psychiatrist so I will not get too far into this, but it can range from general anxiety all the way to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

The first step to take if you feel you have anxiety is to talk with a mental health professional. That way you can find out where you are on the spectrum and hopefully even find out where the anxiety is stemming from.

Second, which is where I come in, is supporting your body through this process with proper diet. Studies have shown that specific foods can play a huge part in reducing overall anxiety and improving the body's ability to cope and recover.

While a healthy, balanced diet is what we typically recommend, let's break it down into specific foods you can choose to support your brain and mental health.

Foods to Calm Your Nerves

1. Foods high in B Vitamins: Many of the B vitamins are known to help with anxiety and mood. Some great choices include:

  • Green leafy vegetables (at least one large handful of raw greens daily is ideal!) Spinach, kale, chard, collard greens
  • Avocado
  • Citrus fruits
  • Beans, peas, lentils
  • Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts
  • Beets
  • Bananas

2. Foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids: The Omega 3's (DHA and EPA) we know are very beneficial for the brain and may do wonders for your mood. These are foods such as …

  • Seafood including wild caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and anchovies
  • Plant sources with pre-cursors to DHA and EPA include flax seed, hemp hearts, chia seeds, walnuts
  • High quality fish oil supplement

3. Fermented foods: Numerous studies have shown that our gut microbes talk to our brain. Crazy, is not it? Supporting a healthy gut environment, therefore, is an important consideration for our mental health. Fermented foods include:

  • Cultured dairy products, such as high quality yogurt (few ingredients, low sugar), kefir, buttermilk, cultured butter
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Pickles and other pickled veggies
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Natto

4. Foods high in antioxidants: Inflammation can definitely put stress on our brains. Fight inflammation with antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory foods. Antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, can also help increase the body's production of dopamine.

  • Anthocyanins: blueberries, cherries, grapes, blackberries, pomegranates, red cabbage, purple asparagus
  • Vitamin C foods: Oranges, kiwis, strawberries, pineapple, mango
  • Others: goji berries, dark chocolate, herbs and spices (especially turmeric)!

5. Hydrate! : While not a food, keeping up good fluid intake is so important! Dehydration increases stress on the body which can only exacerbate anxiety. While straight up water is a great choice, teas can also have a very calming effect on the body. Aim for 8 cups per day and even more if sweating excessively.

Foods That May Stress an Already Anxious Mind

While eating more of certain foods can be helpful, we also need to cut out those foods that are increasing stress on your body. These are probably nothing new to you, but they are good reminders!

1. Caffeine

Not everyone reacts adversely to caffeine, but if you are one of those who do, caffeine can definitely raise your anxiety level. Try cutting it out for awhile to see how you respond. On a personal note, someone in my own family did this recently and it did wonders for their mood and overall stress level!

2. Sugar

No surprise here, but sugar increases inflammation, rises blood sugar, and overall is harmful for your brain. Dial it back and choose naturally sweetened foods like fruit instead.

3. Gluten

For some, gluten can be very inflammatory and there before impact your mood and well-being. Try taking a gluten vacation for a couple of weeks and see how you feel.

4. Processed foods, especially fast food

Another no-brainer, but fast food and other highly processed foods are very low in actual nutrition and high in refined carbs, sugars and additives. Ditch the drive through and seek out healthier alternatives.

5. Artificial sweeteners

A component of many processed foods, I single these out because they may be harmful to our guts and there before impact brain health. Some of my clients have even reported headaches and other reactions from these sweet additives. Go for the natural sugar if forced to choose but in very small amounts.

6. Avoid any foods you are allergic or sensitive to

Some of you, knowingly or unknowingly, may be suffering from food sensitivity reactions. These reactions cause inflammation which can exacerbate stress and anxiety. If you are not sure which foods are causing you problems, an elimination diet can be a good first step. Seek guidance from an RD like myself to help tailor such a plan or dig deeper if the offending foods are elusive. For difficult cases, I like using MRT food sensitivity by Oxford Biomedical for decisive answers http://www.nowleap.com .

Hopefully this gives you a few specific food ideas to get started! Again I will reiterate that if you are struggling with anxiety, seek professional help . Do not do this on your own. Along with expert advice, change up your diet to give your brain the support it needs!