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Feeling anxious and stressed? Experts reveal which foods could make anxiety worse and what foods can help to boost your mood and relieve stress
At times, it’s normal to be feeling anxious and stressed. Life has a habit of throwing curveballs and you’d have to be pretty thick skinned to never feel any pangs of anxiety about work, health, finances, relationships, loved ones – or, the state of the world, unpredictable as it is right now.
Anxiety can range from mild to severe and latest figures from the mental health charity Mind (mind.org.uk) show that Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the most common type, characterised by having regular uncontrollable worries about many different things, affects 6 in 100 people in the UK.
‘When you’re feeling anxious you go into fight or flight mode,’ says Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan Medical Director.
‘This is an automatic physiological response to a real or perceived threat of danger which causes your body to produce an excess of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
Ongoing anxiety can also increase the risk of developing health problems
‘Typical symptoms may include sweating, shaking, shallow, a faster heart rate and breathing, racing thoughts, feelings of dread and panic, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems and changes in appetite’.
If you’re someone who is constantly feeling anxious, this affects the quality of your daily life. Ongoing anxiety can also increase the risk of developing health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
So, if you want to stay emotionally and physically healthy, it’s important to recognise what makes you vulnerable to anxiety and how best to manage it.
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Eating to beat anxiety
‘There are many psychological self-help tactics you can try, but one strategy that’s often overlooked is to make better food choices,’ says Dr Brewer.
‘Just as eating the right foods can reduce the risk of physical illness, eating the right foods can also help to enhance your mental health’.
‘If you suffer from anxiety there are usually underlying factors at play that may need to be addressed’.
‘For example, perhaps, you’re stressed at work, not getting enough sleep, or having problems with a relationship. But, making changes to your diet is an easy way to start managing your anxiety straight away’.
Have you noticed how certain foods and drinks can leave you feeling anxious more than you were before? No, it’s not your imagination.
Latest research shows that consuming anxiogenic foods (that induce anxiety) can have a negative effect on psychological wellbeing.
A recent Iranian study (published in the European Journal of Nutrition, 2019), shows that eating refined carbohydrates such as, white bread, flour and grains can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression.
In another large Canadian study (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020) it was found that high, sugar, highly processed diets lead to more anxiety.
white bread, flour and grains can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression
‘One way to see how certain foods affect your mood is to keep a food and mood diary,’ says Nutritionist Rob Hobson.
‘Note how eating different food makes you feel both physically and emotionally. Keeping a journal will help you to identify your relationship with food and highlight which foods have a negative effect on your mood.
‘Making changes to your diet may help to improve your mental health in a number of key areas such as anxiety, mood swings, food cravings, irritability, improved concentration and reduced fatigue.’
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#1 Refined sugars
White and brown sugar, corn syrup, sucrose and fructose. The typical western diet is packed with sugars.
But, it’s not just the obvious foods you need to look out for. Many products contain hidden sugars, found in sauces, soups, ready meals, yoghurts, smoothies, juices.
While sugar is found naturally in foods such as milk, fruit and vegetables, this type of sugar isn’t the problem, it’s the added, or ‘free sugars’ added to food and drinks that you need to avoid.
So, always check the label for hidden sugars. Several studies suggest that an increased sugar intake is linked to a greater anxiety.
always check the label for hidden sugars
In one study (Diabetolgia, 2007) it was shown that high glucose levels cause a decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF – the protein that encourages the growth of neurons).
Low levels of BDNF are linked to depression, anxiety, dementia and Type 2 diabetes.
While alcohol may temporarily boost your mood for a few hours, this is a short term effect.
‘Ultimately, alcohol is a depressant that has a detrimental effect on mood,’ says Dr Brewer.
‘Drinking too much alcohol depletes GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) a brain chemical that normally has a relaxing effect. When GABA levels are low this can cause anxiety and even panic attacks.’
The recommended daily intake for caffeine is 400mg, that’s about three small cups a day. But, be aware of foods and drinks that contain caffeine such as dark chocolate or energy drinks, as that could increase your intake.
‘Too much caffeine can cause anxiety, rapid heartbeat, headaches and sleep issues,’ says Rob.
‘Caffeine may also deplete you of vitamins and minerals, including calming magnesium, calcium and B6 (important for maintaining a healthy mood).’
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#4 Refined Carbohydrates
Found in cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pizza and pastries.
‘Eating refined carbohydrates may give you an initial surge of energy,’ says Nutritionist Liana Werner-Gray, author of Anxiety Free With Food.
‘But, this is followed by an insulin rush, which rapidly drops blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling lethargic. Substantial fluctuations in blood sugar can cause an immediate anxiety response in the body.’
avoid refined carbs and eat complex carbohydrates
Not all carbs are bad though. The key is to avoid refined carbs and eat complex carbohydrates –such as, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains including oats, brown rice and quinoa.
Serve with protein, healthy fats and fibre to keep blood sugar levels balanced.’
#5 Artificial Sweeteners, Additives and Flavourings
‘Avoid foods that include artificial sweeteners (eg: aspartame) additives and flavourings,’ says Liana.
‘These are neurotoxic which means they have an adverse effect on brain cells and nerves. They may also cause oxidative stress and inflammation, weaken the immune system and disrupt hormonal balance which may contribute to anxiety.’
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#1 Dark, leafy greens
Leafy green are rich in magnesium, also known as nature’s tranquiliser which is a wonderful mineral if you’re feeling anxious and tense.
Magnesium relaxes the muscles, calms nervous tension and relaxes the mind. Good choices include: kale, chard, parsley, spinach, watercress, broccoli, green beans.
#2 Essential fatty acids
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout, and also plant sources, including walnuts, dark leafy vegetables, chia and flaxseeds contain essential fatty acids. These are essential for healthy brain function and and low levels are associated with anxiety and depression.
Try eating at least two servings of oily fish a week
The fatty acids eiconsapentanoic (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) play an important role and low levels have been associated with an increased incidence of depression and anxiety.
So, if you suffer from anxiety increasing your intake of oily fish and plant sources may be useful. Try eating at least two servings of oily fish a week. Or, consider taking a supplement.
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#3 Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are packed with healthy fats and other nutrients that help to boost production of the feel good ‘pleasure’ chemical dopamine.
Brazil nuts, for example, are high in selenium, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans contain tyrosine (needed to make dopamine), and seeds contain B6, folate and zinc (vital for healthy brain function).
Chocolate contains a substance called phenythlethamine, or PEA. This is the same substance we release when in love. Even small amounts can act as a mild mood enhancer.
the same substance we release when in love
Chocolate also contains anandamide that has a feel-good opiate like effect. The healthiest option is dark (at least 70%), cacao or raw chocolate which is also high in calming magnesium.
#6 Whole Grains
Whole grains such as brown rice, whole meal bread, rye, bulgar wheat, oatmeal etc. are good sources of B vitamins. You need B vitamins to keep the nervous system healthy.
If you’re already stressed and feeling anxious, it’s easier to become depleted in B vitamins. So, making sure you keep topped up can help you to manage your mood and anxiety better.
Oats are high in magnesium and vitamin B and are traditionally known to have a calming effect on the mind.
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#7 Eat Your Five A Day
In one Australian study (University of Queensland, 2016) it was shown that eating more nutrient packed fruit and vegetables can improve mood, reduce anxiety and make you feel happier. Participants in the study ate up to eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
But, in another Australian study it was shown that women who ate at least two servings a day were feeling anxious far less than those who ate hardly any fruit and vegetables.
#8 Phytoestrogen Foods
Many women find that anxiety becomes a big problem when they go through menopause due to the fall in oestrogen levels.
‘The drop in oestrogen levels during menopause can trigger depression and anxiety, or make existing symptoms worse, says Psychologist, Dr Megan Arroll.
Foods that are high in phytoestrogens can help minimise menopause symptoms
‘Oestrogen helps to increase and maintain the balance of feel good chemicals in the brain, and also acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that enhances memory and alertness. So, a dip in oestrogen can lead to mood swings, anxiety and even panic attacks.’
Foods that are high in phytoestrogens can help minimise menopause symptoms, including anxiety. Eg: lentils, millet, sprouted seeds (alfalfa, mung), chickpeas, beans, rye, linseed, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds.
Try: Perfectly Me 4 Menopause, £6.99 – a specially formulated blend of calcium, zinc, vitamin D, B vitamins and sage extract in a cranberry and raspberry drink.
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Supplements help too…
The sunshine vitamin, research shows that low levels of vitamin D have been associated with seasonal depression (SAD) and anxiety.
The best source of vitamin D is from the sun which is in short supply during the winter months. You can also get some vitamin D from eggs, oily fish and mushrooms.
Try: Healthspan Vegan Blackcurrant Vitamin D3 Gummies, £8.95 – also available to buy on Amazon.
‘CBD is particularly useful for reducing anxiety, promoting relaxation and restful sleep,’ says Dr Brewer.
CBD works directly on the endocannabinoid system in the brain, enhancing the effects of other brain chemicals, such as serotonin and anandamide, to reduce pain perception, relieve anxiety and stress, improve sleep and lift mood.
It is also a powerful antioxidant which suppresses inflammation.