Whilst it would be wrong to say that your diet alone can cause anxiety or depression, it can certainly make your situation better or worse. In the last few decades the relationship between diet, stress and anxiety has been well documented. An American Journal of Psychiatry research study published in 2010 concluded that:
…a “traditional” dietary pattern characterized by vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains was associated with lower odds for major depression or dysthymia and for anxiety disorders. A “western” diet of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer was associated with a higher GHQ-12 (depression anxiety) score.”
A separate 2010 University of Melbourne Australia study of over 1,000 women, found that participants who ate a whole food diet were 30% less likely to experience depression and anxiety. While participants who ate a “western” diet were 50% more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Your diet therefore does matter. Certain foods do have the effect of creating additional stress on your body and contributing to anxiety, whilst others have been shown to create a calmer and steadier mood.
Foods to Avoid or Consume in Moderation
Research shows that the following foods and substances are likely to contribute to your symptoms. Therefore avoiding them all together or consuming them in lower quantities can help.
Caffeine: Of all the substances that are known to aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks, caffeine is the most notorious. Caffeine has a directly stimulating effect on several different systems in your body. It increases the level of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in your brain, causing you to feel alert and awake. It also produces the very same physiological response that is triggered when you are stressed; increased sympathetic nervous system activity and adrenaline. Too much caffeine keeps you in a chronically tense and alert condition. Furthermore, it causes the depletion of vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is one of the anti-stress vitamins that support a healthy nervous system.
Caffeine is found in most common beverages: coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate. Reducing your caffeine intake can significantly help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and low mood.
Nicotine: Nicotine is as strong a stimulant as caffeine. It stimulates increased alertness, vasoconstriction and makes your heart work harder. So, if you smoke, giving up may be a way for you to lead a healthier, calmer life.
Alcohol: Consuming any quantity of alcohol puts a strain on your body. It dehydrates you, it throws off your hormone and nutritional balance, and it can cause physical symptoms from toxins, which in turn can trigger anxiety attacks.
Refined Sugars: Sugar, like caffeine, stimulates your body in a way that can create a jitteriness that exacerbates anxiety symptoms. Common foods high in sugar include soft drinks, fruit juices, syrups, products made of white flour (cakes, biscuits, pastries, white bread, white pasta) and sweets. These foods are broken down by the body quickly and flood the blood stream with glucose. This in turn triggers off a hormonal response in which your body tries to regulate your blood sugar levels. Our bodies are not designed to process large quantities of sugar over a short period of time and this self-regulating process starts to break down leading to conditions like Type 2 diabetes and hypoglycemia. The most common symptoms of hypoglycemia, for example, are: light-headedness, anxiety, trembling, feelings of unsteadiness or weakness, irritability and palpitations. Sound familiar?
Salt: Excessive salt stresses the body in two ways: it can deplete your body of potassium, a mineral that is important for the proper functioning of the nervous system; and, it raises blood pressure, putting extra strain on your heart and arteries. Cutting down your salt intake will help by reducing this stress.
Preservatives: There are currently 5000+ chemical additives used in commercial food processing. Our bodies are simply not designed to handle these artificial substances. Over time many of these chemicals have been found to be carcinogenic and been removed from the approved lists. Others that are currently in use have been known to cause allergic reactions, symptoms of which can be physiological and/or psychosomatic; anxiety/panic, depression, mood swings, dizziness, irritability, insomnia, headaches, confusion, disorientation and fatigue. Eliminating as much processed food from your diet can only be a good thing.
Fried Foods: Fried foods are difficult to digest, have little nutritional content, and contribute to heart related issues. It’s very difficult to reduce your anxiety if your body is poorly processing the food that you consume.
Dairy Products: Dairy products aren’t inherently bad for you, but in excess they may heighten your adrenaline levels and contribute to a more anxious state. Moderation is the key here, and if you find after consuming dairy products you feel more anxious, then cut back.
Acid Forming Foods: Meat, poultry, dairy and cheese products and eggs, along with sugar and refined flour products all create acidity in the body. They are not acidic in composition but they leave an acidic residue in the body after they are metabolised, making the body more acidic. This in turn creates two problems: it increases the transit time of food passing through the digestive system to the point where nutrients are not absorbed properly; and, acid-forming foods, especially meats, can create metabolic breakdown products that are congestive to the body, resulting in a body that is under stress and not functioning optimally. Cutting down on these foods can help ease this stress.
Foods to Eat
So what are you meant to eat? I’m sure you know all about the healthy eating message. Here are the foods that support healthy hormonal functioning, which in turn means lower levels of anxiety and a better mood.
Fresh Fruit: Your body does need carbohydrates and sugar for energy; it just doesn’t need refined sugars. Fresh fruit has sugar that can be converted to energy, and provides necessary nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals as well.
Vegetables: Vegetables are rich in fibre and contain many of the vitamins that those with anxiety deplete regularly. Vegetables are also alkaline forming foods and will normalise the acid/alkaline balance of the body.
Water: A large percentage of the population is regularly dehydrated because they do not drink enough water. Water plays a vital role in most of the bodies processes and when there is not enough, the body cannot function at an optimal level. Increased blood pressure, fatigue, dry mouth/skin, migraines are just some of the symptoms of dehydration. It is essential to drink at least six glasses of water throughout the day to stay feeling balanced, energised and well.
Tryptophan Rich Foods: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid required in the human diet. Foods rich in tryptophan are known to be effective at reducing anxiety. They have a natural relaxation component. Oats, soy, poultry, sesame seeds and spinach all contain tryptophan.
Magnesium Rich Foods: Magnesium plays a role in over 300 different processes within the body. It’s an essential mineral for maintaining normal nerve and muscle function, keeping a healthy immune system and maintaining a regular heart rhythm. Many people are deficient in magnesium without knowing it. One of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency is anxiety related disorders. Foods rich in magnesium are dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish such as mackerel, whole grains, beans and lentils, avocados and bananas.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Research has shown that diets lacking in Omega 3 fatty acids can lead to anxiety amongst other things. Omega-3 can be found in fish and flax seed.
In a 2008 Nutrition Journal Study titled “Nutritional Therapies for Depression“, the authors wrote that:
“…a lack of certain dietary nutrients contribute(s) to the development of mental disorders. Notably, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population of.….developed countries; and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders.Studies have shown that daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms.”
Here are some supplements that can help if you are suffering from anxiety or depression.
‘B’ Vitamins: During times of stress the body rapidly depletes stores of B vitamins. These are necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Deficiencies can lead to anxiety, irritability, restlessness, fatigue and emotional instability. The B vitamins are best taken together in a B-complex supplement. Edmund Bourne in his book “The Phobia and Anxiety Workbook” recommends taking a 50 to 100mg daily B-complex supplement.
Vitamin C: Like the B vitamins, when your body is under stress it uses up a lot of Vitamin C. We all know that Vitamin C enhances the immune system but it also supports the adrenal glands. These need to be functioning properly if you are to effectively cope with stress. A daily 1000mg taken in a time-release form can significantly help someone struggling with stress, according to Edmund Bourne.
Calcium: Calcium acts as a tranquilizer, having a calming effect on the nervous system. It is involved in the process of transmitting nerve signals across the synapse between nerve cells. Depletion of calcium can result in nerve cell over-activity, which may be one of the underlying physiological causes of anxiety. It’s important to get at least 1000mg of calcium from your diet everyday, either through your food or a supplement.
Eating the foods listed above is not going to cure your anxiety, but it can reduce your anxiety symptoms, make it easier for an effective anxiety treatment to work and have a real and direct effect on your ability to handle anxiety. Making some changes to your diet can help improve your overall situation and prevent relapses.
It is important to consult your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet. S/he can also test you for vitamin, mineral and essential fatty acid deficiencies. A qualified nutritionist can also help by advising you on how to improve your overall health by looking at what your body needs in terms of food and nutrients. S/he will do an analysis of your diet, lifestyle and general state of health.
Supplements, along with a healthy diet, exercise and stress management can have a profoundly positive effect on your recovery from anxiety and depression.