Covid, Christmas and coping with the unknown has led to heightened stress and anxiety for many people. It feels like every other day we’re faced with ever changing restrictions and advice on what we should be doing and it’s difficult to keep on top of what’s best. Throw Christmas into the mix and the usual Winter bugs, the stress feels never ending. We all have days where we feel that we have too much on our plates, personally I’ve been feeling that a lot more than usual.
But anxiety and stress are an everyday part of life. Who hasn't felt stage fright before a presentation, hyper ventilated before an exam or a driving test or spent a sleepless night worrying about something. Under normal circumstances, you get through the situation in question unscathed, and life goes on. However, it is a very different story for people who suffer from anxiety disorders.
Palpitations, a dry mouth, sweating, insomnia are just some of the unmistakable signs of anxiety. Patients with this condition experience virtually no relief or respite because their anxiety is unrelated to a specific situation or event and is – objectively –unfounded. There is no single challenge to get through and move on. Their anxiety goes on constantly, from one situation to the next, and the next, and the next! Although anxiety disorders were common even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the stress of lockdowns and worry about our own health and that of loved ones, our jobs and our financial security has sent numbers surging. There is already lots of research demonstrating the increase in stress, depression and anxiety due to the Covid pandemic and they predict that mental health problems will continue to be affected by the pandemic for years to come.
Ok, but what has any of this to do with food?
At first glance, it may seem silly to say that diet influences how we feel; but think about it: In the cold, hard light of science, feelings are chemistry! Of course, in the first instance, it is our environment, our experiences, and to an extent, our personality that makes us feel the way we feel.
But our feelings of fear, anger, overwhelm or love and confidence trigger the release of hormones in our body, which is where chemistry kicks in. Cool or what! We need the happy hormone serotonin and the pleasure hormone dopamine to feel good, the sleep hormone melatonin to sleep, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol for our get-up-and-go and to fight or flee when we’re under threat.
Hormones work in unison with each other
Some hormones suppress others; some trigger the release of others. But for these feedback mechanisms to work, for our body to even be able to manufacture the chemicals that we need, we must supply them with the required raw materials.
Those raw materials are fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients – nutrients. What’s more, even our friendly gut bacteria contribute to how we feel by extracting more nutrients from our food, manufacturing some e.g. short-chain fatty acids, from scratch and even providing some ready-made serotonin!
So, if you think of feelings that way, what we eat is bound to have a massive impact on how we feel and how we cope with the challenges life throws at us and let’s face it, there have been a hell of a lot of challenges this past 18 months.
Don't get me wrong; I’m not saying that diet is a cure for anxiety disorders. However, if we try and fuel our body with poor quality food that does not provide the building blocks of the hormones and catalysts our brain chemistry requires, we’ll have a much harder time overcoming mental health issues, low mood and stress.
So, what are these nutrients our body needs, particularly when we are anxious and stressed?
Magnesium is often referred to as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ – which hints at just how crucial this mineral is for supporting balanced mood, relaxation and deep sleep. One reason why magnesium helps us cope with anxiety might be that it plays a role in nerve transmission. The mineral is not even hard to find. There’s some in most foods, particularly in green leafy vegetables – think broccoli, spinach, kale, and watercress – but also in grains, such as brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa, nuts and seeds, or fish and seafood. Despite this, deficiency is quite common, which may have something to do with our penchant for convenience and junk foods that are just not as nutritious as real food. Some people don’t absorb magnesium from foods very well and those with chronic health conditions such as IBD, coeliac and Type 2 diabetes are often magnesium deficient.
The authors of a 2020 research review agree that the role of nutrition in the management of mental health disorders is underestimated. They reviewed the existing research into omega-3 fats in connection with anxiety and found that this type of fat is critical for brain health and has been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms.
A 2019 study found that the amino acid L-theanine might help manage anxiety and support a balanced stress response. L-theanine is found in green tea and also in concentrated supplement form. It increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has calming, anti-anxiety effects. The amino acid also raises dopamine and the creation of alpha waves in the brain. This is because theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects our brain from unwanted and harmful substances. The high intake of green tea by Buddhist monks may contribute to their famously calm demeanour and intense focus during meditation. Do give green tea a try, not only for its theanine content, it has so many other health benefits including lowering inflammation as well as the risk of some cancers.
The authors of a 2020 research review agree that the role of nutrition in the management of mental health disorders is underestimated. They reviewed the existing research into omega-3 fats in connection with anxiety and found that this type of fat is critical for brain health and has been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms. As vegan diets are becoming more popular, it is important to note that omega-3 fats from plant sources, such as flaxseed oil or walnuts for example, does not cover our daily requirements, let alone achieve therapeutic levels. The omega-3s these foods contain are inferior to the ones we need which are EPA and DHA. Although the body can make these from plant-source omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid or ALA), the conversion is sluggish and easily disrupted. Only about 5 per cent get converted. If you are vegan or do not eat fish, or are allergic to it, your diet alone will not cover your needs. I recommend finding a good-quality supplement with omega-3 from marine sources (i.e. algae), which is the only vegan source of DHA.
The Gut Brain Link
When talking about anxiety and nutrition, we must not neglect the role of the microbiota, the friendly bacteria in our gut. The majority of available research studies in 2019 showed that it is beneficial to give our gut bacteria some TLC. Interestingly, “non-probiotic interventions were more effective than the probiotic” ones.
What that suggests that just popping a probiotic capsule may not be enough – and that’s no surprise really. Don't get me wrong; probiotics are beneficial; there is no doubt about that. However, their contents – live bacteria, e. g. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species – are not going to settle in the gut. They are only travelling through, and while doing so, they help create a bacteria-friendly climate and temporarily crowd out undesirable microbes. But really, they are only lending a helping hand to our own, indigenous bacteria. Those are the ones that are at home there, and those are the ones that can protect our gut, feed our brain, improve our mood, and keep us healthy.
You can look after your friendly bacteria by giving them real food, especially fibre-rich plant foods, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses such as beans and lentils, whole grains, herbs and spices. Variety is key here.
For more info on this wonderful gut/brain topic check out the work of John Cryan and Ted Dinan from University College Cork and their book ‘The Psychobiotic Revolution’, they have done fab research on this topic.
While probiotics – especially in the form of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt, kefir and kombucha – are great, prebiotics (that’s fibre) – are even better.
You can look after your friendly bacteria by giving them real food, especially fibre-rich plant foods, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses such as beans and lentils, whole grains, herbs and spices. Variety is key here. While probiotics – especially in the form of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt, kefir and kombucha – are great, prebiotics (that’s fibre) – are even better. We still need to learn much more about all the different microbes living in our guts, but what we do know is that the more different species we have, the healthier we are.
How do we cultivate a variety of species? By keeping our diets interesting and varied! Different microbes have different preferences. By varying what we eat, we are creating a lovely, thriving, healthy and desirable place for them to live.
To keep everyone happy, it is also essential to avoid what harms the microbiota. Alcohol acts like a weed killer on your internal garden. Food additives found in processed foods reduce levels of a protective type of antibody called secretory immunoglobulin A (or sIgA for short), and emulsifiers, again found in processed foods are particularly damaging for the gut. Sugar promotes yeast overgrowth, which can overwhelm the beneficial bacteria and make it difficult for them to adhere to the gut wall. For tips on how to include more plant based foods check on my blog post 16 ways to get more fruit and veg in your diet.
Of course, although hugely important, diet is not everything and with my clients I always cover lifestyle factors when we talk about health. These too play a crucial role in mental health.
It will come as no surprise that it is worth reducing stress as much possible if you suffer from anxiety. Interestingly, stress also damages the microbiota and interferes with the conversion of omega-3 fatty acids – among many other things, so just getting on top of stress will do you a whole lot of good. Sleep also is a very important factor as is exercise.
I know that addressing diet, exercise and overall mental health challenges can be easier said than done, but now more than ever there is an abundance of free resources available online. I believe it’s worth taking time to research and understand what may be causing stress and anxiety so we can begin to take small steps towards improving our health. My advice is to begin by looking into relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises, self-care and me-time tips. And of course start to look at your diet – keep a food diary and take note of how you feel and how your body reacts to certain foods. I am currently working on a mini e-book filled with healthy Christmas recipes that will help you to feed your good gut-bacteria and feel great! Make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter, to get your copy, if not do that right now!
Also one of my favourite podcasts to listen to is Dr Chatterjee, check out this snippet which demonstrates just how powerful food is in term of mental wellbeing.
So, as you can see, there is a lot you can do to help manage anxiety and to cope with stress in your life. Please don't underestimate the impact your food and diet plays in maintaining balance within your body's chemistry. The next time you're feeling that it's all getting a little too much, stop and take a breath. Then refer back to this post to see if perhaps there's something lacking (or overloaded) within your diet that can make a difference.
So this year is almost done, let's hope 2022 brings better times for us all.
Wishing you all a peaceful, safe and happy Christmas.