An expected rush of energy or tension that manifests from a future or potentially looming situation can be a good thing—your body is telling you to focus and pay attention. But it can also be extremely stressful for people who are prone to regular anxiety problems. (1) When the proportion of anxiety for a situation is distorted or magnified, or your symptoms overrun your life, it’s time to find better ways to address it instead of just passing it off as temporary or a form of excitement.
What Causes Anxiety?
The symptoms of nervousness, anxiety, and excitement can all be quite similar:
- Racing heart and increased pulse
- Cold sweats
- Stomach upset or “flip-flops”
- Dry mouth
The causes for anxiety disorders are not pinned down officially but are most likely caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, physiological, and developmental factors. (2)
Can Anxiety Be Naturally Improved?
If you are privy to this special high-anxiety club, you know where I am coming from when I say that I will try just about anything to alleviate stress when and where I can. High anxiety is terrible.
As an instant gratification nation, we are always up for the quickest fix when it comes to losing weight, avoiding colds, and yes, even alleviating symptoms of anxiety and stress. A pill, a fad diet, a shot: often time these are very necessary, but like most things, when you are diligent, disciplined, researched, intentional, and thorough in your daily choices, you can have a healthy trickle-down effect throughout all of your bodily functions, systems, and even your psyche.
If you are already maintaining a clean diet, you may notice less of these ailments surfacing in your life. Eating clean means more than just keeping fit and physically in shape, it also means keeping your mood sound and stable as well! You may not see the quick-fix effects of the shortcuts, but when healthy practices become your lifestyle, the perks keep coming and have longer lasting results.
Not only is it important to avoid foods that may spike contributing symptoms of anxiety, but to also eat foods that promote well-being and mental fitness. Below are some mood supporting methods and tips for happy-mind boosting meals and preparations, as well as some things to avoid in your diet when it comes to irritability and stress. You may just need a few tweaks here and there to see massive results in the mind, mood, and mental health arena.
Please note: we aren’t saying that all anxiety can be eaten away. Anxiety and other mental health disorders can be serious, so if you’re struggling, make sure that you seek out help from a qualified professional immediately.
Cravings and Overeating
Cravings are like deficient little soldiers screaming, “You want crunchy, salty, sweets NOW, or this plane is going down!” It is easy to cave and grab processed and refined snacks when we are already feeling bad.
Anxiety and depression can be like parasites. They feed on refined empty carbs, growing and growing, taking over and developing more cravings and addictions. We crave processed foods and quick fixes like sugary snacks and caffeine because they falsify happiness feelings by spiking blood sugar and energy levels. The crash is hard and fast, causing your system to go into overdrive. Now your organs and your brain are both stressed out.
The habits of giving in to cravings associated with moods can quickly lead to binges or completely falling off the wagon. The guilt of eating processed foods alone is enough to give you feelings of anxiety. A too-full tummy disrupts healthy digestion and sleep, not to mention shame and discomfort.
Overeating can also be triggered by stress. Even if you are eating healthy foods, overeating is not good for your physical or mental health. Eating consistently and thoughtfully is the best way to avoid a two-hour binge marathon on either junky or healthy foods. Too much is too much.
6 Ways to Naturally Combat Anxiety
When you’re tired of the cycle of anxiety, over-eating, stress-eating, or falling into junk food cravings, there are some simple ways to start a pattern of healthiness. These six tips can not only lead to more balanced eating, but they can help to curb anxiety patterns or to help lead to better mental wellness.
1. Cut Out the Sugar
Break the blood sugar crashing cycle and eat regularly. This helps to avoid junk food cravings. Incorporating foods into your diet with natural sweetness like carrots and apples can help train your taste buds into appreciating natural flavors over caustic and artificial ones.
Avoid processed foods and pay attention to food additives that create spikes and affect your mood. If you are already maintaining a Paleo lifestyle, you may notice that cutting out sugar (even Paleo forms) and starchier carbohydrates can decrease your cravings even more. Sticking with very minimally processed and whole foods is the easiest way to be sure you aren’t eating refined sugars on a daily basis.
2. Eat Regularly
Most people are familiar with being ‘hangry,’ which is the more adorable way of communicating that you are so hungry that you are actually angry. You may have low blood sugar, which is causing this irritability, anxiety, and even panic.
Keeping your blood sugar steady means maintaining your serotonin production, which is a chemical that is naturally occurring in the human body that is said to contribute to mood stabilization. (3) Eating regularly, especially meals that are balanced by healthy fats and proteins, can provide balance.
3. Go Caffeine Free
Being over-caffeinated can cause dehydration, which can be linked with depression and other anxiety symptoms. (4) Coffee promotes alertness and awakeness, but can also cause irritability and major jitters as well as being disruptive of restful sleep patterns.
Quitting java cold turkey has similar effects so if you are interested in giving caffeination the boot, phase it out slowly by drinking bone broth or golden milk, or use bulletproof coffee for a more gentle and time-released caffeine fix.
If you’re like me and you love the ritual of hot coffee in the morning, you may need to find something else to replace it. Consider waking up and going into an immediate 10-minute meditation or morning stretch session, or switch your hot cup of morning brew to herbal tea.
4. Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated can help with a plethora of anxiety-prompted ruts. (5) Your body runs more smoothly when it has plenty of water, not just from drinking it, but also from eating water-packed foods, like fruits and leafy greens.
Start your day, before you do anything else, by drinking a large glass of water. If you want to follow with a hot beverage of some kind afterward, that’s fine, too. But water is irreplaceable when it comes to being a healthy person, mentally and physically.
5. Manage Your PMS
If you are already maintaining a clean diet void of all the common triggers, take your eating a few steps further by focusing on hormone balancing. Menstrual irregularities, as well as reproductive hormones in general, can contribute to food cravings, anxiety, and mood imbalances.
Herbal tea preparations like red raspberry and supplements like chaste tree berry can help to naturally temper problematic cycles. Magnesium citrate can also aid in reducing cramping and other muscular discomforts, while promoting a calm nervous system and mind. (6,7,8)
Additionally, using a tracking method for your cycle can help to identify anxiety patterns related to hormones, which can better equip you to address them.
6. Avoid Junk foods
Foods that are riddled with sugar and additives, or are deep fried, packaged, and highly processed are void of nutrients and can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. This is because they interfere with the normal bacterial balance in the gut. Your gut is important for not only your physical health but your mental health as well. (9)
The psychological and physical connection between the brain and the gut is a two-way street. Your brain sends signals to your gut, but your gut also sends signals to your brain. Anxiety or nervousness can be either a cause of or a product of poor digestion, or both.
Fried and processed foods are typically low in fiber and saturated with denatured and often rancid, low quality cooking oil. Foods like these will either move through your gastrointestinal tract quickly, causing diarrhea, or sit there too long, causing constipation or other digestive problems. If you want to keep your anxiety in check, avoid foods that do not nourish you and which also mess up your gut.
7 Best Nutrients to Eat for Anxiety
While you can improve anxiety by following the six tips above, there are also specific nutrients and foods that can effectively reduce anxiety and work toward bringing more balance and calm to the body.
1. Amino Acids
Amino acids are building blocks within the body. They are core components of proteins, but they also fulfill duties of creating neurotransmitters and producing hormones. Nine out of 20 amino acids are essential, eight of which we need to live and function. The only way to get these essential amino acids is from outside sources, like diet.
Amino acids like tyrosine and tryptophan make the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which regulate mood and ease symptoms of aggression. (10) Getting these essential amino acids is important for many reasons, some of which have everything to do with mental health and neurological development.
Foods that are naturally rich in essential amino acids include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Leafy greens
Eating high quality protein will also supply your body with essential amino acids that are necessary for neurological health. (11) Not only will you feel fuller longer, but your body will be able to effectively build and repair muscle tissue, as well as maintain a steady production of neurotransmitters to combat anxiety.
Foods that are the best sources of clean protein include:
- Grass-fed beef
- Pastured pork
- Free range chicken
- Wild caught tuna
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, best known for its sleep-inducing effects after gorging on Thanksgiving turkey. Eating foods rich in tryptophan can increase your production of serotonin, which can make you feel calm. (12)
Serotonin is a chemical produced by the brain to regulate mood, and tryptophan is key for the body’s production. Your body does not produce tryptophan on its own, so eating foods rich in this amino acid is essential.
Foods rich in tryptophan include:
- Red meat
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their effect on alleviating symptoms of depression as well as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (13)
Oily fish contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are the two primary amino acids found in omega-3s. Certain plants, seeds, and nuts are sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which converts into both DHA and EPA in the body.
A diet rich in omega-3s can alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, improve cognition, and even temper aggression. (14)
Foods rich in omega-3s include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sea vegetables
Folate refers to tetrahydrofolate derivatives, which are naturally found in foods, as opposed to folic acid which is a synthetic compound that is fully oxidized. Folic acid is a manmade nutrient usually found in fortified foods and supplements. The two terms used interchangeable quite often when it comes to talking about nutrients, but they aren’t at all the same thing.
Folate is required for numerous body processes, including mood balance and neurological development. Folate coenzymes are required for the metabolism of several important amino acids as well as other essential body processes and conversions. Because some people lack the ability to convert folic acid into usable folate, eating foods that have naturally occurring folate is essential for brain and body health.
Foods rich in natural folate include:
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Citrus fruits
- Sunflower seeds
6. Vitamin B
The B family of vitamins is broad, but most notably B6 and B12 have extensive benefits for energy metabolism and nervous system function. Research shows that B12 has a major impact on depression and neurotransmitters and that even a slight deficiency can produce significant symptoms. (15) B6, along with folate, help B12 to be properly absorbed and utilized, and a deficiency in one can result in symptoms of deficiency in others.
Foods naturally rich in B vitamins include:
- Poultry products
- Beef and other red meats
7. Vitamin D
Lack of vitamin D, particularly in the winter months, is a major contributor to the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder. Sunshine is the most potent source of vitamin D, thanks to the liver’s ability to use cholesterol to convert skin exposure into this usable nutrient, so in those gloomy months when there is next to none, it’s important to increase vitamin D in other ways. There aren’t many dietary sources that are high in vitamin D, so consulting a practitioner and using a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement may be beneficial.
Foods that contain some vitamin D include:
- Egg yolks
- Fish eggs
Anxiety can range from being an irritation to a debilitating problem. When it impacts your personal and professional life, and natural wellness aids don’t seem to help, make sure that you consult a qualified practitioner to find answers for your health needs.