The link between nutrition and anxiety
Anxiety, for many of us, can be a regular daily occurrence triggered by life’s daily pressures, which can lead to spiralling thoughts or physical symptoms and leave you feeling isolated and exhausted. If you feel like this and have done for a while, it is important to know there are lots of ways to get help, and the first port of call should always be your GP or a mental health professional. Once you have received the important diagnosis and support you need, the next step can be to look at how your lifestyle, diet choices, and environment can be influencing your anxiety.
Working as a nutritionist, clients come to see me and they often are surprised at how certain food choices and their daily habits could be making them feel worse. This is not to say the cure is to overhaul their diet, but sometimes having the knowledge of what can help or hinder is enough to make people more aware and more mindful of certain things. But before we get into a few nutritional tips, we need to explore what anxiety is and what it feels like.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us, at least once or twice a year, may experience normal feelings of anxiety. The feelings and biological responses of anxiety are completely natural and a biological response to a perceived, unknown threat/dangerous situation which was a learned behaviour as mankind evolved. From this biological reaction, our bodies react to such stimuli in a 'fight or flight' response. This response kick-starts our bodies to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which makes our heart race and gives us feelings of unease. As these responses are hard-wired, our bodies will react the same way by stimulating these hormones and subsequent symptoms regardless of if the threat was an exam deadline or being chased by a wild animal The good news is that once the threatening situation has stopped, your body will usually return to normal.
Some common example physical symptoms of anxiety;
- heavy and fast breathing
- hot flushes or blushing
- dry mouth
- hair loss
- fast heartbeat
- extreme tiredness or lack of energy
- dizziness and fainting, and
- stomach aches and sickness
However, it’s often the mental symptoms of anxiety which can sometimes be more distressing and can include the following;
- racing thoughts
- uncontrollable overthinking
- difficulties concentrating
- feelings of dread, panic or 'impending doom'
- feeling irritable
- heightened alertness
- problems with sleep
- changes in appetite
- wanting to escape from the situation you are in, and dissociation
What is the difference between being anxious a few times a year, and anxiety affecting your life?
Having symptoms of anxiety a few times a year is normal. However, for a lot of us, we may experience anxiety more often than most. It is believed some of us are more sensitive to triggers of anxiety, which is partly found to be genetic. Your GP and health professional will be able to diagnose you if you feel anxious more often than most people.
How can my diet help?
When my clients come to see me about their health and overall diet, they may briefly explain their anxiety symptoms to me in passing, as they probably feel this is irrelevant to their eating habits. However, once I ask a few more questions, it can actually start to help them unravel the puzzle of their low energy or mood swings. As part of the consultation, I first ask them to keep a food and thought diary on how often how their thoughts may influence what they eat or don’t eat which, if we let it spiral, can get out of control.
It is not a widely known fact, but certain foods can actually exacerbate anxiety symptoms. I think most people would understand that caffeine may be a trigger mechanism, as it heightens your senses and heart rate. However, despite being aware of this, we may not want to admit it to ourselves, simply because it helps us during work and our busy lives. Coffee has become our go to staple at work to allow us to function and perform, and asking someone to cut down on coffee can often be an uphill battle. However, trailing out how you feel when you gradually cut back on coffee might be enough of an incentive to make you cut the habit out completely.
The second trigger mechanism for anxiety and diet is alcohol, as this acts as a stimulant that will quicken our heartbeat and can make us feel more anxious, both immediately but also in the day’s after. Alcohol can also deplete us of much-needed vitamin B if consumed too often, and B vitamins are essential for energy metabolism and stabilising our mood.
Cutting out coffee and alcohol may be a hard sell for many of us who enjoy the odd coffee or glass of wine. I advocate slowly reducing your intake; in my experience going 'cold turkey' often doesn’t work or has the opposite effect further down the line. The good news is that, on the food front, the foods we choose to eat can actually help us feel calmer and happier.
For example, choosing foods that release tryptophan such as bananas, turkey, and cashew nuts can boost serotonin, aka the happy hormone, in our bodies. Also, when we are stressed or anxious, our bodies can become depleted of certain vitamins and other micronutrients that may need to be rebalanced.
In reality everyone’s diet revolves around their lifestyles. The only way I have seen effective change working is by making changes to your current lifestyle. Making radical changes often doesn’t work, or leads to relapses in the future. If you want to learn a few tips and tricks to give your body a real boost to fight back against your anxiety, then speaking to a nutritionist who can help you understand and advise you on foods to consume based on your lifestyle may give you the biggest chance of success.