Stress, anxiety and depression happens to all of us at some time in our adult life and is the most common mental disorder in the UK (according to the Office of National Statistics). When we are stressed or anxious, we often find it hard to concentrate and work as efficiently as we should be. Our brain can become foggy and we feel tired and drained. To make matters worse, no matter how tired we are, we may also experience insomnia and an inability to relax. Anxiety can leave us with a feeling of ‘What if?’ accompanied by panic, fear, poor concentration, loss of appetite, sweats, aches and pains and can even be the root cause of migraines and IBS.
To counteract the feeling of low energy, lack of concentration and foggy head, we may reach for caffeine and sugary foods, but this can simply perpetuate the problem. Cortisol (produced by the adrenal glands) is often raised when we are stressed and anxious and this increases when we consume too much caffeine and sugary foods. Long-term stress and anxiety can cause our adrenal glands to become exhausted, leading to adrenal fatigue, which increases symptoms of fatigue, lack of concentration, mood swings, weight issues, fear, depression, muscle aches, cravings, memory loss, anxiety and insomnia. Lack of sleep increases ghrelin, a hormone that tells us to eat more, switches off Leptin (a hormone that tells us when we are full) and causes in insulin and blood sugar imbalance. Hormone imbalances caused by oestrogen, progesterone or testosterone can also leave us feeling under par and drained. Anxiety and stress can also have a negative effect on our whole health, lower our immune system and is also seen as a contributor to many diseases such as heart disease, digestive problems and inflammatory conditions. Before we know it, we are in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Change your diet
We consume more salt or sugary foods when stressed and anxious, as well as caffeine. When we consume high sugar, high carbohydrate, processed foods, we are continually spiking our blood sugars, causing insulin production and in the long term, insulin resistance which can lead to type 2 diabetes. We are also causing a fluctuation in other hormones, especially cortisol. A poor diet can be devoid of essential nutrients, which lowers your immune system and creates nutrient deficiencies which can impact our health.
Foods to Increase
When we look at foods to help combat anxiety, we really have to pop these into food groups. For example, foods rich in certain B vitamins actively help reduce our stress and anxiety and can support our adrenals. Some foods help to create more serotonin, helping us relax, such as foods rich in Tryptophan (turkey, bananas and oats), others help to create the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin, such as very dark chocolate. Below is my list of ‘must-haves’ in our daily diet.
Omega 3 fish oils are known to both relieve stress and anxiety and to regulate inflammation. Fish oil can help to reduce the production of adrenal hormones. These include the catecholamine hormones epinephrine (or adrenaline) and norepinephrine, which increase heartbeat rate and direct energy and resources away from activities such as digestion and reproduction, and towards your heart and the muscles in your limbs. The adrenals also release cortisol as part of your stress response, which is involved in blood sugar regulation, blood pressure regulation, immune responses and inflammation processes. Overstimulation of the adrenals can lead to chronic fatigue.
Foods to Increase: Fill up on salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, tuna. I would highly recommended a good quality fish oil.
Boost your B Vitamins
A range of B Vitamins recommended in times of stress and anxiety, low energy or depression. Folic acid has been shown to help with dopamine and serotonin production, B6, which helps convert tryptophan to serotonin, alongside B3 and magnesium, Biotin is needed for essential fatty acid metabolism, B1 is needed for utilisation of glucose by the nervous system, and B5 is vital for adrenal support and the conversion of serotonin to melatonin. They are also vital to support the adrenal glands.
Foods to Increase: Fill up on meat, nuts, whole grains, yeast extract, eggs, wheat germ, brown rice and fortified cereals.
Grab some Vitamin D
Whether it’s going for a short walk in your lunch break or a run in your local park before or after work, getting outside and moving can help to boost your mood and reduce stress. Getting outside will also help to top up your Vitamin D from sunlight exposure. However, it is difficult to get enough Vitamin D from sun exposure in the winter months so a daily D3 supplement is recommended. High levels of cortisol and other glucocorticoids prevent vitamin D receptors on our cells from taking up vitamin D3. When you are stressed and anxious you produce more cortisol and other glucocorticoids which can prevent Vitamin D receptors from taking up vitamin D, meaning we can be depleted. Vitamin D deficiency affects many functions without our body but is also linked to seasonal affective disorder and mild depression – chronic.
Foods to Increase: Fill up on fish, eggs and mushrooms, but you can also get foods fortified with vitamin D. As stated above, a good quality vitamin D3 supplement is recommended especially during the winter months.
Swap Your Cuppa
We need to be careful not to consume too much caffeine when we are suffering from stress and anxiety. We can switch to low caffeine alternatives such as green tea, chamomile tea, Matcha tea and peppermint tea all of which have amazing properties to help calm us down in times of stress. Peppermint is also good if you have any stress/anxiety-related stomach problems or anxiety headaches. Chamomile tea is good in the evening as it can also help aid a good night’s sleep. Green Tea contains ECGC and L-theanine, both help with anxiety and stress, helping to calm and can even improve our brain health. Studies have shown drinking green tea can actually decrease our levels of cortisol, helping to balance our adrenals to create less anxiety and stress.
Foods to Increase: Peppermint tea, Green Tea, Matcha Tea & Chamomile Tea.
Fill up On Magnesium
Magnesium is required for neuron activation and the synthesis of neurotransmitters (for example, serotonin). Those who suffer from anxiety, depression and migraines are usually shown to be deficient in magnesium. Magnesium is known as the anti-stress mineral due to its amazing effects on the nervous system. We are becoming increasingly deficient in this nutrient due to our highly processed western diet as well as our over-farmed soils. It can also be depleted when we have high alcohol or caffeine consumption, displaced by some medications such as antibiotics, antacids and the contraceptive pill when we consume too much calcium and can also be affected by our age and ill health. Cooking, such as boiling vegetables, can cause magnesium to leach out, so I would recommend steaming or stir-frying which has a less detrimental impact on the mineral and nutrient content of the food. As magnesium is so vital to our overall health and energy, I would recommend taking a high-quality magnesium supplement daily. Opt for magnesium citrate for best bioavailability.
Foods to Increase: Fill up on kelp, wheat bran, almonds, brewer’s yeast, buckwheat, brazil nuts, cashews and molasses, but you will also find lower levels in green leafy vegetables, peanuts, millet, rye, tofu, walnuts, pecan nuts, coconut, brown rice, figs, dried fruit, avocado and hard cheese.
Add Some Spice
Turmeric contains Curcumin and this active component has amazing health properties, most commonly known for being an anti-inflammatory, but it can also help to relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress. The best way to take turmeric is to add it to your food alongside black pepper to help the body utilise the curcumin effectively, but you can also make your own turmeric tea using the fresh root. This looks a little like ginger. Simply grate this and add hot water. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before straining.
Foods to Increase: Fill up on turmeric powder in your cooking, drink turmeric tea and you can also take turmeric/curcumin capsules daily but again, opt for the best quality. I can provide more information on this.
Repair the Gut
Stress and anxiety can have a huge effect on our gut health, resulting in poor digestion and lowered immune response, which in turn also causes us more stress and anxiety. Looking at gut health is vital when dealing with any mental health issue, especially stress and anxiety. Switching to a nourishing, real food diet, low in sugar and free from processed foods, allergens and inflammatory oils is key, whilst also encouraging more prebiotic foods and restoring good gut flora. Be aware of our environment and things that can destroy our gut flora – medication (especially antibiotics, steroids and NSAIDs), antibacterial products, chlorinated water, agrochemicals, serialised and pasteurised foods, chemicals in our environment.
Foods to Increase: Restore good gut health by adding foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, natural yoghurt and prebiotic foods such as leeks, onions, garlic, artichoke, tempeh. Look for a very good quality probiotic – speak to me for more information on this.
Sarah Flower is a leading UK Nutritionist and Author. For more information, visit my website www.sarahflower.co.uk