The Role of Nutrition in Overcoming Anxiety
When it comes to addressing the physical aspects of overcoming anxiety, nutrition may be our greatest ally. Copious amounts of research are confirming what we have intuitively known: that macro and micro nutrients greatly impact the body’s ability to properly regulate our stress response systems and operate optimally. As growing numbers of people look for alternatives to pharmaceutical treatment, psychologists and nutritionists alike are answering the request for sound alternatives. I offer this information as an overview of nutritional considerations and have highlighted additional resources at the bottom of the page.
What We Eat
The foundation of any nutritional approach to health is a whole-food diet rich with fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains and lean, organic meats. As the focus of overcoming anxiety is calming an over-stimulated nervous system, it’s important to eliminate stimulants such as refined sugar and caffeine – and all of the products that contain them. Most people are amazed at all of the hidden sugar they consume when they start reading labels. In addition to refined sugar, it is helpful to avoid the “white” foods that easily become sugar in the body; i.e. white rice, white potatoes and white flour.
It is also important to strictly avoid food additives, dyes, preservatives, pesticides and artificial sweeteners. This pretty much eliminates most processed foods and supports a whole-foods diet. Many of the chemicals added to our food are toxic in nature and stressful to the body, especially to those with chemical sensitivities.
It is recommended to reduce or eliminate grains, and to strive for gluten-free grains when possible. Avoid foods that you’re sensitive to or that commonly cause problems like wheat or dairy. If you’ve wondered but you’re not sure, it may be helpful to be tested for food allergies and sensitivities.
Be sure to include protein with all of your meals and snacks. Protein will slow the metabolism of sugars and help keep blood sugar levels stable.
How We Eat
In addition to eating protein with every meal, it is important to eat in a way that stabilizes blood sugar. For most people this means eating 5-6 meals or snacks a day, or something every 2-3 hours. When we don’t eat breakfast or skip meals, blood sugar drops to a level that engages the stress response system, sending out adrenaline and cortisol – stimulants – that trigger feelings of anxiety and/or irritability. Some people have eating patterns that actually repeat this process several times a day.
Avoid eating on the run! Plan to have good food with you if you need to be out. Schedule time to stop what you’re doing, think about what you’re eating and make your meal a conscious act of self-care. What we put in our bodies has a direct correlation to how we feel; don’t do it on autopilot.
We know that the body’s ability to repair and function optimally is dependent on the availability of all the necessary building blocks: vitamins, minerals, enzymes and co-factors. While much of these can be obtained through a quality whole-foods diet, additional nutritional supplements are recommended for supporting anxiety recovery. Some variation can be found in the literature but I have highlighted the most common recommendations below.
- Complete multivitamin and mineral supplement with optimal levels of nutrients. This insures that the body has all the raw materials in optimal amounts (not RDA levels).
- Fish or flax oil (Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids). The anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3s has been show to ease anxiety and support a healthy brain and nervous system.
- Calcium-Magnesium: with a 2-1 or 1-1 ration of calcium to magnesium. Calcium and magnesium are known to reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation.
- Vitamin D
- B-Complex with additional folate, B6 and B12
In addition to a whole-foods diet and nutritional supplementation, some people benefit from specific amino-acids. Amino acids are the protein building-blocks of our neurotransmitters. Those who deal with anxiety are often low in the neurotransmitter GABA (or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). GABA can be supplemented directly, or as the amino acids it is built from, theanine and taurine. Professional consultation with a nutritionist, a physician specializing in nutrition or an integrative mental health practitioner can help determine the right approach for you.
For more detailed information on anxiety and nutrition I recommend the following reading: The UltraMind Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman; The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution by Trudy Scott, Certified Nutritionist; Is Your Lifestyle Killing You? by Dr. Karen Wolfe and The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D.
May you feel wonderfully nourished,
Featured image by Army Medicine