Food and Lifestyle Medicine Strategies for Anxiety
In the last couple weeks it seems the word "anxiety" has come up in nearly everyone conversation I've had with family, friends, and clients. Even those who don't consider themselves anxious people, feel their nerves shot and unfamiliar panic. We have been dealing with a pandemic for nearly 5 months and let's face it, most of us feel over it, but it's not over and it looks like it won't be for awhile.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, about 18% of the population suffer with anxiety. There are many reasons why people experience anxiety. Whatever the root cause of anxiety, the role of food and lifestyle medicine can help manage it. Here are some of my top strategies.
A plant-based diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds should be part of an anti-anxiety diet. Simple carbohydrates and processed foods will only contribute to blood sugar spikes which can worsen anxiety.
Much of the serotonin receptors, the happy chemical, has been found in the intestinal lining, therefore it's important to think of feeding the gut-brain axis with probiotic foods.
Here is a list of nutrients to consider including every week:
Magnesium found in spinach and Swiss chard, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds
Zinc found in oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks
Omega 3's from fatty fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring
Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir
B vitamins found in avocados, dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, meat, and fish
Best sources of antioxidants found in:
A diet higher in antioxidant consumption may be correlated with lesser symptoms of anxiety. These are some of the foods richest in antioxidant content:
Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
Nuts: Walnuts, pecans
Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
Teas: white, black and green
Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric and ginger.
*Don't forget you can also get a lot of these nutrients through fluids as well. Try steeping fruits and vegetables in filtered water and keep in the fridge. Make hot or cold teas. One of my go-to anti-anxiety teas is a Golden Mylk tea, especially nice as a post dinner drink.
Exercise may be as effective as medication for reducing symptoms of depression, a condition that often goes hand in hand with anxiety. Regular exercise, including aerobic, anaerobic, and more meditative exercises (Tai chi, chi gong, yoga) can all have an effect on the flight or fight response by making it less reactive. Regular exercise may also elevate mood by increasing the brain protein BDNF, which helps nerve fibers grow. Run, cycle, dance, move your body!
3. Stress Management
There are many ways to practice stress reduction. Meditation has been found to be one of the most effective ways to do this. Learning and practicing mediation puts you in direct relationship with your body, breath, and awareness of the stress response. There are many styles of meditation. The important thing is to find your preferred approach and practice regularly.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation is another powerful technique to combat stress and potential inflammation in the body due to the stress response. The vagus nerve, known as the "wandering nerve", travels from the brain stem to the lower abdomen. Simple ways to improve vagal tone are deep belly breathing, singing, gargling or even activating the gag reflex (I do this daily when brushing my teeth).
4. Meaningful Connections
I saved the most important for last. Research shows that those low in social connections are the most vulnerable to anxiety, depression and even suicide. It is essential to build in what I call "social-care". Zoom calls, safe walks, socially distant get-togethers, virtual family reunions are ways we can feel connected to others in these isolating times.
There are many ways to manage anxiety. These are just some of the natural approaches I've found to be helpful. It's important to talk to a healthcare provider if you continue to struggle with anxiety. There is hope.
Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(9):CD004366.Published 2013 Sep 12.doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6