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Can Diet Calm an Anxious Mind?

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Fear. It’s a common disease. When my clients list their medical history, fear is often on the list. It seems to be more common than ever. Perhaps we now recognize and diagnose it more often, but it’s not uncommon for a person of any age, even children, to report various types of anxiety.

what is fear Many confuse it with stress, but it’s actually more than that. While stress is the body’s momentary physical response to a situation, anxiety differs in that the physical response lasts well after the situation has ended. It’s almost like there’s no switch to turn it off. These physical reactions can include increased blood pressure, excessive shaking or sweating, chest pain, insomnia, headache, nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, constipation and/or diarrhea, indigestion, and even a rash or allergic reaction. The physical manifestations can clearly be varied and cause long-term damage to the body.

The states of anxiety can also be varied. I’m not a psychiatrist so I won’t get too deep into it, but it can range from general anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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The first step you need to take when you start feeling scared is to talk to a mental health professional. This can help you figure out where you are on the spectrum, and hopefully even figure out where the fear is coming from.

Second, where I come in, is to support your body through this process with proper nutrition. Studies have shown that certain foods can play a huge role in reducing overall anxiety and improving the body’s ability to cope and recover.

While we typically recommend eating a healthy, balanced diet, 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 options are:

  • Leafy greens (at least a large handful of raw vegetables daily is ideal!) Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens

  • avocado

  • citrus fruits

  • Beans, Peas, Lentils

  • Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts

  • beets

  • bananas

2. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids: The omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), which we know are very beneficial for the brain and can do wonders for your mood. These are foods like…

  • Seafood including wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and anchovies

  • Plant sources of DHA and EPA precursors include flaxseed, hemp hearts, chia seeds and walnuts

  • High quality fish oil supplement

3. Fermented Foods: Numerous studies have shown that our gut microbes talk to our brains. Crazy, right? Supporting a healthy gut environment is therefore an important aspect of our mental health. Fermented foods include:

  • Cultured dairy products such as high-quality yoghurt (few ingredients, little sugar), kefir, buttermilk, cultured butter

  • sauerkraut

  • kimchi

  • kombucha

  • Pickles and other pickled vegetables

  • miso

  • tempeh

  • natto

4. Foods High in Antioxidants: Inflammation can definitely take a toll on our brains. Fight inflammation with antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory foods. Antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, may 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

  • Other: goji berries, dark chocolate, herbs and spices (especially turmeric)!

5. Hydrate!: Despite not being a food, maintaining a good fluid intake is so important! Dehydration increases stress on the body, which can only make anxiety worse. While plain water is a good choice, teas can also have a very calming effect on the body. Aim for 8 cups a day, and even more if you sweat profusely.

Foods that can burden an already anxious mind

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

1. caffeine

Not everyone reacts negatively to caffeine, but if you’re one of those who do, caffeine can definitely increase your anxiety levels. Try turning it off for a while to see how you react. Personally, someone in my own family has done this recently and it has done wonders for their mood and overall stress levels!

2. sugar

No wonder, but sugar increases inflammation, raises blood sugar, and is overall bad for your brain. Dial it back and choose naturally sweetened foods like fruit instead.

3. gluten

For some, gluten can be highly inflammatory and therefore impact your mood and well-being. Try taking a gluten holiday for a few 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 nutrients and high in refined carbs, sugar, and additives. Leave the drive-thru behind and look for healthier alternatives.

5. artificial sweeteners

As a component of many processed foods, I eliminate these because they can damage our gut and therefore affect brain health. Some of my customers have even reported headaches and other reactions to these sweet additives. Opt for the natural sugars if you have to choose, but in very small amounts.

6. Avoid foods to which you are allergic or sensitive

Some of you may knowingly or unknowingly suffer from food sensitivity reactions. These reactions cause inflammation, which can worsen stress and anxiety. If you’re not sure which foods are causing you trouble, an elimination diet can be a good first step. Take the advice of an RD like me to create such a plan, or dig deeper if the offending foods are elusive. For difficult cases, I like to use MRI Food Sensitivity from Oxford Biomedical to get crucial answers

Hopefully this gives you some concrete meal ideas to get you started! I will repeat that again If you are struggling with anxiety, seek professional help. Don’t do this alone. Along with expert advice, change your diet to give your brain the support it needs!

Thanks to Danielle VenHuizen

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