A Real-Food Approach to Anxiety
Anxiety and mood disorders are huge topics when it comes to health and wellness. In fact, millions of people are currently on prescription anti-anxiety medication and struggle with the effects of their condition daily. As someone who battled chronic anxiety and panic attacks for over 20 years, I understand just how crippling and mind-numbing it can be. Not only does anxiety play a large role in our emotional wellbeing, but more and more research is pointing to the physical effects stress has on our bodies as well. While there are several factors to consider when it comes to managing your anxiety, one of the most influential and foundational facets is nutrition. Generally speaking, our nutrition has either the ability to bring us closer to wellness or closer to disease, depending on how we incorporate it into our lives. My aim in this series is to discuss the ways in which food can restore health and vitality and to give you some simple tips for nutritionally calming down your nervous system.
Simply put, your nervous system is directly affected by what you eat. When we eat food, it gets broken down by our digestive system into small nutrients like sugars, amino acids or fatty acids which can then be used by our body for various functions. For example: Amino acids are needed to make neurotransmitters that help our brain to feel happy, alert and energetic, and we get them from protein-containing foods such as meat, fish and eggs. Certain foods are higher in nutrients than others, which is what makes them part of a healthy diet. These nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, which we’ll refer to from here on out as The Gut.
One of the ways we can increase levels of anxiety is by not getting enough of these nutrient building-blocks in our diet. Like we mentioned above, many of the neurotransmitters and hormones that our brain needs to work optimally are made out of nutrients such as amino acids and essential fatty acids. Before we digest them, these are known as proteins and fats, but what we don’t realize it that not all nutrients are created equal. When we eat processed, synthetic foods (mostly found on the shelves of grocery stores), many of the nutrients have been destroyed through the manufacturing line, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates. This means we are left with a lifeless food that our bodies aren’t quite sure how to use. As we become more and more deficient in these essential building blocks, we become less and less able to manufacture our feel-good brain chemicals which leads to all kinds of imbalances, including anxiety. While it might seem over-generalized, the statement, “you are what you eat,” couldn’t be more true.
Tips for Nutrient Density
Eating a nutrient-dense diet means that our food is coming from real sources which have been minimally processed to retain the most nutrients possible. It also means avoiding foods we call pseudo-foods, or in other words, foods which have been made with ingredients that disrupt our health such as high amounts of sugar, synthetic vitamins and minerals, chemical preservatives and fillers, artificial flavors and colors, sugar substitutes and other hard-to-pronounce items. But, you may be wondering at this point how to determine which foods fall into this category and which foods you should be avoiding? Below, I’ve outlined three easy principles to get you started on the path to real-food living and towards greater health and less anxiety.
1. Shop the perimeter. This advice has been used a lot, but that’s because it still rings true. Most of the foods you should be eating (meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, etc.) are found on the outside aisles of the grocery store rather than down the middle lanes. There are definitely exceptions to this rule such as with nuts, seeds and some healthy snacks, but as a general rule of thumb, you will do well with shopping the perimeter. To further nourish your body, look for pasture-raised meats and eggs, organic vegetables and fruits and minimally-processed condiments and snacks. If you are eating foods with labels, make sure you check the ingredient list for items you can recognize. If it sounds like a chemical, it probably is, and you’ll be better off looking for another brand or alternative option to drop in your cart. Shopping at local farmer’s markets is also a great way to ensure you’re getting fresh, vibrant and whole foods into your diet.
2. Don’t Fear Fat. Sadly, we’ve spent many years fearing healthy fats and thus created the low-fat/no-fat fad that’s just now starting to get debunked. Healthy fats do many things for our body, but they are particularly nourishing and soothing to our nervous systems because of how they interact with our blood sugar. If you’re currently experiencing anxiety, adding in one source of fat into every meal can greatly reduce low blood sugar episodes which tend to look and feel a lot like anxiety. Healthy sources include: fattier cuts of meat including beef, fish (especially salmon), seafood, whole eggs, organ meats, butter and ghee from grass-fed cows, olive and olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, sprouted or soaked nuts and seeds, nut butters and raw cheeses and milks.
3. Limit Sugar Intake. In part 3 of this series, we’ll dive even deeper into sugar’s effects on the body and brain, but for now, realize that sugar can significantly impact your mood, and usually for the worse. While sugar gives us an instant “high” and makes us feel good temporarily, it’s usually followed by a crash and burn where we feel terrible. This usually shows up as jitteriness, headaches, shakiness, extreme hunger, irritability or racing thoughts, which are eerily similar to anxiety attacks. For the best results, aim to eat no more than 25-30 grams of sugar a day, mostly coming from natural sources or sweeteners like fruit, raw honey or dark chocolate. At first this can be difficult, but as your blood sugar begins to even out and cravings are diminished, you’ll see energy levels increase and anxiety levels decrease.
Navigating the waters of anxiety can be tough, but with a compassionate, curious approach, you can dramatically shift the way you interact with the world and learn to live free from fear, worry and panic. Stay tuned for part two of this series where we’ll talk about how food sensitivities could be triggering an immune response in your body and revving up stress and anxiety. Now go enjoy some yummy, healthy food!