Diet Tips to Reduce and Manage Anxiety | Natural Anxiety Tips
If you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re not alone. Anxiety is a growing epidemic in the Western world, with 1 in 4 people experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point in their life (1). That’s a huge statistic – especially considering the impact that anxiety can have on our everyday lives.
So why are we so anxious? There are a number of factors that can contribute to anxiety: our fast paced modern lifestyle, chronic stress, past trauma and family history to name a few. Diet also plays a very important role, and should also be considered within a holistic approach towards anxiety that addresses not only the mind, but the whole body.
Remember that the mind and body are not separate – and what affects one, affects the other. This works both ways, in the sense that we can literally ‘worry ourselves sick’. Chronic stress and negative emotions cause a hormonal cascade in the body which, if left unchecked, can contribute to burnout and disease long term. Similarly, raging blood sugar dysregulation and chronic inflammation in the body (say, from eating a diet including pro-inflammatory oils and refined, franken-foods) can also influence our mental state.
In the interest of taking a whole body approach, it’s vital that we consider the impact of diet on our mood. Creating a strong basis for our health and mental wellbeing starts with our diet, and the foods that we choose to eat can either promote or help to lower our anxiety levels.
Read on for our diet tips for managing + reducing anxiety:
#1 Correct Blood Sugar Imbalances
Feel weak, shaky or anxious in between meals? If you’re experiencing anxiety, blood sugar swings can often be a contributing factor – with low blood sugar episodes mimicking or triggering feelings of anxiety and driving up levels of stress hormones.
To break it down, when we consume a meal that is high in sugar or refined carbohydrates and grains (think: bread, cookies, cakes, pasta, even high sugar fruits) we experience a quick blood sugar spike followed by a blood sugar crash shortly after. As our blood sugar starts to drop, we suddenly start to feel shaky, uneasy and even a little panic-y as the body starts seeking out alternative energy sources.
Essentially, our body is faced with an internal stressor (low blood sugar – oh no, we’re going to die!) and we enter into a state of “fight-or-flight” as the body tries to restore balance and overcome the threat.
In an attempt to drive up our blood sugar (and create more available energy), the body activates the HPA-axis (our stress response system) and sympathetic nervous system to release catabolic stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol (1). These hormones help to restore blood sugar balance by facilitating the breakdown of glycogen stores and the conversion of muscle tissue, proteins and fat into energy (glucose). At the same time, you may also feel the dual effects of these stress hormones such as a racing heart, shakiness and feeling on-edge.
So what do we do? Correcting blood sugar imbalance starts with what you’re putting on your plate. If you are under a great deal of stress and experiencing blood sugar imbalances, it may be best to opt for 4-5 smaller meals per day with a moderate carbohydrate intake for the time being. The quality of the carbohydrates that we choose is also important, and it would be advisable to avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates and instead opt for good quality starches and low sugar fruits such as berries. Including a source of protein and healthy fat with each of your meals is also helps to stabilise blood sugar throughout the day.
There is also a great deal of interest in the ketogenic diet lately – which may be beneficial in several mood disorders. When carefully constructed and done correctly, this diet has the ability to stabilise blood sugar levels and provide long-lasting, even energy levels. This is best considered under practitioner guidance, since severely dropping carbohydrate intake or jumping onto ketogenic diet may worsen anxiety at first, and may not be suitable in every case.
#2 Stop Skipping Meals and Eat Regularly (Avoid Intermittent Fasting)
Now don’t get me wrong – if you’ve been following us for some time you’ll know that we’re very much proponents of intermittent fasting. In fact, fasting has been shown to benefit our health in several ways by improving metabolic markers, improving mitochondrial function, and protecting against age-related disorders including Alzheimer’s (2, 3, 4). From an evolutionary perspective, fasting also makes sense considering our ancestors probably didn’t have access to food 24/7.
With that said, there are some situations in which fasting and skipping meals should be avoided. This is often the case in the context of anxiety or a high stress lifestyle.
This is because fasting places an additional stress on the body and can increase levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) (5, 6). High cortisol levels drive blood sugar dysregulation and further contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety… quite the negative cycle!
Instead, support your body through stressful periods by ensuring that you eat regularly – including 3 main meals or even 5 smaller meals throughout the day.
#3 Consume Adequate Protein
Are you consuming enough protein each day? Especially if you have been following a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to review your daily intake.
Protein is comprised of amino acids which are essential for neurotransmitter synthesis. Several amino acids act as precursors for neurotransmitters that regulate mood and anxiety. For example, tryptophan is needed for serotonin and melatonin synthesis, glutamine is needed to form GABA, tyrosine is needed for dopamine, and much more. As you can see, consuming adequate protein each day is vital for supplying the basic building blocks required for our mood and wellbeing.
On average for a woman, aim to include at least 20g of protein at each main meal. Consume complete proteins from animal protein or animal products (which are considered complete proteins, containing all essential amino acids). Select high quality from ethically + naturally raised animals. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you could consider supplementing your protein requirements by adding in protein shakes.
Does eating turkey to boost our tryptophan?
It’s possible that you’ve heard that turkey can boost serotonin levels – however, this is most likely a myth. Unfortunately, tryptophan must compete with many other amino acids for absorption and to cross the blood brain barrier (where it can be utilised for serotonin synthesis) (7). Rather than trying to selectively increase tryptophan intake through diet, isolated amino acids such as glycine and L-theanine can be used in supplemental form to provide calming effects (post coming on this soon!).
#4 Cut the Stimulants + Caffeine (Opt for Calming Herbal Teas Instead)
If you’re struggling with anxiety, this may also be a time to cut back on your coffee habit. As we all know, coffee contains caffeine – a potent stimulant that can worsen feelings of anxiety.
This is largely related to caffeines ability to acutely activate our SNS (fight-or-flight) branch of the nervous system (8). Similarly, caffeine acts on our adrenals to increase cortisol levels (9). Taken in the context of someone dealing with anxiety or living a high-stress lifestyle – adding coffee to the mix can create the perfect storm.
Related: Is Coffee Bad for You?
So you’ve decided to curb your coffee intake – what now? Consider replacing coffee with a calming herbal tea instead. Many herbs demonstrate anxiety-reducing effects and can help to instil feelings of calm. Purchase a herbal tea blend including the following:
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)
- Chamomile (Chamomilla recutita)
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
#5 Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
This one may seem annoyingly simple, but even so, hydration shouldn’t be overlooked. Especially if you’re dealing with stress, coming back to basics like hydration is a #easywin and can be easily corrected.
Much like blood sugar dysregulation, symptoms of dehydration can mimic and trigger feelings of anxiety or nervousness in the body. Even mild dehydration can alter cognitive function, cause poor concentration, affect our mood and make us more prone to anxiety (10, 11, 12).
So make it your new aim to drink a minimum of 2L high quality, filtered water daily (no plastic bottles!) and keep a glass water bottle with you at all times. Also note that drinking excessive amounts of water can also be detrimental, causing electrolyte and mineral imbalances – no need to go overboard!
#6 Support your Gut Health
Did you know that the state of your gut may influence anxiety levels?
The gut-brain axis is a hot topic right now, and describes the two-way communication between the brain and our gut microbiome. The trillions of bacteria that reside within our gut are thought to influence our mental state in several ways. For one, certain strains of bacteria are known to produce neurotransmitters involved in mood including dopamine, serotonin and GABA (13). Compromised gut health (think: dysbiosis, ‘leaky gut’, SIBO, IBD + more) can also cause systemic inflammation and circulation of cytokines that are thought to play a role in the development of depression and anxiety (14). These cytokines can also contribute to HPA-axis dysregulation and excessive cortisol release (15).
There are several steps that we can take to support our gut health day-to-day. Eliminating inflammatory foods and gluten (which promotes ‘leaky gut’), incorporating gut-healing foods such as bone broth, fermented foods and prebiotic foods are just a few ways that we can encourage a healthy microbiome. In fact, in one study, intake of fermented foods daily was associated with a decrease in social anxiety symptoms – go figure (16)!
#7 Follow an Anti-inflammatory Diet or Paleo Template
Creating a strong-basis for health starts with the foods your eating (and sometimes more importantly: not eating!).
Following a paleo template is often a good starting place, which focuses on eliminating refined and processed foods and incorporating nutrient-dense, whole foods in their natural form. This dietary template also eliminates several foods such as wheat/ gluten and dairy products which may provoke an inflammatory immune response (especially in the context of increased intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’). Inflammation is one mechanism thought to play a key role in the development of depression and anxiety (17) – so eliminating foods which fan the flames of inflammation is super important!
What’s more, gluten may also be a trigger for anxiety in susceptible individuals. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been linked to a host of symptoms including brain fog, depression and anxiety (18). This means that even if you’re not a celiac, you may benefit from removing gluten from your diet!
Related: 5 Reasons to Live Gluten Free
See below for foods that form the basis of a paleo diet, and which are not included!
Foods to include:
- Pastured meats (e.g. grass-fed beef)
- High quality eggs
- All vegetables
- All fruits
- Healthy oils and traditional fats (e.g. olive oil, ghee)
Foods to avoid:
- Processed and refined foods (e.g. cakes, biscuits, pasta)
- Wheat and gluten-containing products (e.g. pasta, bread)
- Refined sugar
- Omega-6 oils (e.g. vegetable oil, sunflower oil)
- Conventional dairy products (although for those who tolerate dairy, this can be included)
- Legumes (e.g. beans, soy)
- Grains (e.g. corn, rice)
#8 Supportive Nutrients
There are also several foods + specific nutrients that we can incorporate to support our mood and mental health. By starting with a nutrient dense diet that prioritises these specific foods, we can lay a strong foundation for our health and mental wellbeing.
So where does supplementation sit in all of this? Targeted supplementation can also be extremely beneficial (especially where dietary intake is lacking, nutrients are being depleted quickly or in the case of deficiency/ insufficiency) and can be considered in collaboration with your naturopath or functional medicine practitioner. There are also several herbs, amino acids and targeted nutrients that can be utilised in a holistic approach to treating anxiety.
Start by incorporating foods that are rich in the following nutrients:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You’ve probably heard all about the health benefits of omega-3 – but could these fatty acids also improve mood disorders?
This has been a topic of recent research, with several studies demonstrating the beneficial effects of omega-3 in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety (19, 20). In particular, low levels of omega-3 have been identified in patients with anxiety – suggesting that boosting levels of these fatty acids may be helpful (21).
So how do they work? It is thought that omega-3s improve mood through their potent anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation has been proposed as an underlying mechanism in the development of depression, and circulating inflammatory cytokines are also heightened during anxiety and acute stress (22). By dampening down inflammation, omega-3s may help to reduce symptoms and create a more balanced mood.
Bump up your intake of omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA by incorporating cold-water fatty fish (such as salmon + sardines) into your diet at least 3x per week. To optimise your omega-3: omega-6 ratio, it is also important to reduce intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids (such as vegetable oils).
Magnesium is involved in a wide variety of cellular processes, with over 325 enzymes considered magnesium-dependant. Many of these enzymes are involved in function of the nervous system, and magnesium is also thought to influence the HPA-axis involved in anxiety (23). In addition, magnesium inhibits release of excitatory neurotransmitters (24).
Magnesium is also used up during period of stress, with increased excretion often leading to magnesium depletion. This suggests that magnesium may be a key mineral in anxiety (where levels are likely to be low). Magnesium also helps to calm the nervous system and to reduce muscular tension.
Looking to increase your magnesium intake? Foods that are particularly high in magnesium include nuts, dark green leafy vegetables, chocolate and cacao. With that said, many of us (anxious or not!) tend to be low in magnesium due to poor soil quality and low magnesium availability in foods. For this reason, supplementing with a chelated form of magnesium is often beneficial to boost levels.
When it comes to supporting mood, it may be worth bumping up your intake of zinc-rich foods.
Zinc is a trace element that is required for over 200 enzymatic reactions within the body. Aside from playing a key role in regulating immune function, cellular integrity and gene expression – zinc is also essential for the synthesis of neurotransmitters that reduce anxiety including serotonin and GABA. What’s more, zinc helps to boost our antioxidant defences as a component of superoxide dismutase (one of our key endogenous antioxidants alongside glutathione!). We’ll talk about why antioxidants are important in anxiety shortly!
It’s no surprise then, that low zinc and high copper levels have been identified in patients with anxiety (25). Zinc and copper exist in a delicate balancing act – and ensuring that you are getting sufficient zinc (and not too much copper!) is vital. Focus on including foods that are especially rich in zinc including red meat, organ meats, seafood (especially oysters), chicken and high quality dairy. Although zinc can also be obtained from plant sources such as pumpkin seeds, nuts and grains – these plant sources are often poorly absorbed and less bioavailable (and should be considered secondary to more bioavailable animal sources).
It’s also important to mention phytates and oxalates, which can reduce zinc absorption. These substances are considered ‘anti-nutrients’ that bind to and prevent absorption of minerals including zinc. Avoiding consumption of phytates (found in legumes, grains, nuts + seeds) and oxalates (found in spinach, chard etc.) can help improve zinc status. Several methods such as soaking and activating nuts can also reduce phytate content.
B Vitamins, Especially B6
Together with zinc, vitamin B6 is also an important cofactor required for synthesis of neurotransmitters including serotonin, GABA, dopamine and histamine (26, 27). In particular, B6 modulates GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that can lower anxiety. Low levels of B6 and iron were associated with panic and anxiety in one study (28).
Vitamin B6 in its most stable form (pyridoxine) can be obtained form a variety of plant foods including banana, nuts, vegetables including broccoli and zucchini. include a variety of plant foods
Iron is found in high concentrations in the brain, where it is thought to influence serotonin and GABA function. Low iron levels have been associated with anxiety symptoms, and iron-deficiency anaemia increases the risk of psychiatric disorders (29, 30).
Improving iron stores and correcting iron-deficiency is important in the holistic treatment of anxiety. Iron is available within foods as heme-iron (from animal products) an anon-heme iron (from plants). It’s important to highlight that heme iron is more readily absorbed and bioavailable, and should take priority over plant-sources when looking to boost your levels. The best sources of heme-iron include red meat, liver and seafood (oysters and clams). Sources of non-heme iron include black beans, navy beans and green leafy vegetables. Also note that while spinach is often touted as a good source of iron – this iron has poor bioavailability due to high levels of oxalic acid present in spinach (which inhibits absorption).
As mentioned previously, avoiding or limiting consumption of anti-nutrients (i.e. from grains, legumes, nuts + seeds) is also important in optimising iron absorption. On the flip side, increasing intake of vitamin C alongside iron rich foods can enhance absorption.
Antioxidants: Vitamin A, C, E, Carotenoids + Polyphenols
Antioxidants have been shown to provide a vast array of health benefits – with recent research suggesting that they may also help in anxiety (31).
Interestingly, oxidative stress is currently being explored as one mechanism involved in anxiety and mood disorders. Low levels of antioxidant nutrients including vitamin A, C and E have been identified in patients with generalised anxiety and depression, and improving these levels significantly reduced anxious symptoms (32). Whether or not oxidative stress is a cause or consequence of anxiety is still up for debate – however, increasing your intake of antioxidant rich foods doesn’t hurt!
Antioxidants protect against oxidative damage and can be found in an abundance of plant foods. Several vitamins and phytochemicals exhibit antioxidant activity, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids and polyphenols. Focus on antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, dark leafy greens, tubers, citrus fruits and green tea (if you can tolerate a small amount of caffeine). Vitamin A levels can also be boosted through sources such as liver, eggs, dairy products and cod liver oil.
Ready to Take a Holistic Approach?
If you would like to learn more about holistic + natural approaches to managing anxiety, Amy is currently available for naturopathy consultations in Brisbane, Australia. As a naturopath, Amy takes a holistic approach towards your health considering the impact of diet, lifestyle, environmental and emotional factors.
Naturopathy can support you in the prevention and management of a variety of complex health conditions, including stress, anxiety + mood disorders. Amy can create a personalised treatment plan for you – which may include herbal medicine, nutritional supplementation, diet and lifestyle changes.
To learn more or book an appointment with Amy, click here.