Eat to Beat Anxiety

Some people are lucky enough to be naturally calm and well-grounded.  Some can just shrug their shoulders in the face of life's difficulties and say "cest la vie", or "qué será, será", or "whatevs" and then move on with their day.  

I wish that were me.  But it's just not.  Instead of going with the flow, I'm more likely to feel my pulse skyrocket when I can't find my keys, realize I forgot to buy that crucial ingredient at the store, or when unexpected traffic threatens to make me late.  My mind doesn't like to relax much.  It prefers to ride the merry-go-round of thoughts related to schedules, to-do lists, bills, and budgets. 

There are some positives here.  Low levels of anxiety probably helped me to succeed in school and to eventually land my nursing job.  The same sense of unease may continue to propel me forward on new and exciting projects.  But given what I know about health, I have to admit that my tendency towards anxiety could have a very real, negative impact on my well-being.

You see, when you're feeling anxious, your body's sympathetic nervous system (often called the "fight or flight" response) is activated.  Adrenaline pumps through your body, your muscles tense and get ready for action, and other bodily functions like digestion are inhibited.  Not such a bad thing if you need to deliver a roundhouse kick a scary stranger in an alleyway but not super-helpful if you're just trying to get through a normal day of work or play.  Too much sympathetic nervous system activity over a long period of time can lead to decreased immune response, digestive disorders, difficulty learning and remembering, and even coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

DON'T PANIC!  If you're a worrywart like me, there are many ways to support your body through tense situations.  Eating grounding and nourishing foods will not only lessen the negative impact of daily stress, it can also make you feel better.

Here are a few of my favorite foods for when I realize my nerves are getting the best of me.  They are common enough that you may even have some in your pantry right now!

Almonds: Almonds are one of my go-to snacks when I'm feeling a little peckish.  They are a healthy source of fat and protein and they won't spike your blood sugar.  Almonds are a good source of calcium and magnesium, both of which are calming and may even help with sleep.  In addition, almonds are an excellent source of zinc, which can help counteract some of the negative effects of stress on the immune system.  So the next time your stress make you want to reach for a snack, try a handful of almonds or some almond butter on an apple.

Roasted Rosemary Almonds from JChong Studio

Roasted Rosemary Almonds from JChong Studio

Kefir: Have you ever tried kefir?  It's like a drinkable yogurt full of tasty probiotics, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin K2.  One of the benefits of vitamin K2 is that it allows your body to properly utilize the calcium in your food.  Kefir is also a wonderful source of tryptophan, an amino acid with documented calming effects.  Try buying plain kefir instead of flavored to avoid added sugar.  Use it in a smoothie!

Mango Lassi from The Healthy Chef

Mango Lassi from The Healthy Chef

Spinach: Yep, we couldn't get through this post without some kind of green, leafy vegetable.  We all know by now that spinach is a superfood but it might come as a surprise that it can help regulate mood and anxiety.  The effect comes from spinach's ample amount of magnesium and its GABA-boosting effects.  Blended into a smoothie or tossed in a salad, spinach is a powerful vegetable to add to your arsenal in the battle against tension.

Apple Spinach Salad from STL Cooks

Apple Spinach Salad from STL Cooks

Green Tea: Ok, you might be wondering why I am recommending a caffeine-containing beverage for anxiety reduction.  Wouldn't downing green tea cause the jitters instead of curing them?  I was also surprised to find this recommendation in my research but the science behind it won me over.  Green tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine.  L-theanine, unlike most other things, is actually able to cross the blood brain barrier in order to have direct, calming effects in the brain.  It's also been shown to increase dopamine (aka the "feel good" neurotransmitter).  So, who would like a cup of tea?

Oats:  I love oatmeal.  I went through a phase where I believed that I needed to avoid it (and all other grains) to achieve optimum health.  Since I've chosen to do away with self-imposed dietary restrictions, I've been enjoying oatmeal for breakfast a few times a week.  Old-fashioned rolled oats or steel-cut oats (not instant or quick-cooking) take a bit of time to digest, leaving me feeling satisfied and grounded for several hours afterward.  The carbohydrates in oats help to raise your serotonin level but are digested slowly enough that you won't crash.  Try adding healthy fat, like coconut oil or grass fed butter, to achieve even better satiety.

Toasted Coconut Oatmeal from Macheesmo

Salmon: It seems like salmon is good for everything and anxiety is no exception.  People who consume more omega-3 fatty acids are likely to have lower anxiety (bonus: same goes for omega-3s and depression).  Salmon is also packed with protein, which will help avoid feelings of anxiety associated with hunger.  Try eating wild alaskan salmon twice per week.  If you want to get really adventurous, you could also try sardines!

While I generally like to focus on "do's" instead of "don'ts" when it comes to food, I can't write this post without mentioning the main things you might want to steer clear of when you are struggling with stress and anxiety.  Yup, sugar and white flour.  Eating large quantities of food containing these ingredients can make stress worse by putting you into the cycle of sugar rush followed by sugar crash followed by cravings for another sugar rush.  I'm not going to harp on this because, like I said, I'm more about focusing on diet do's.  But, if you feel like your emotional health could use some extra love, maybe you could focus on some more nourishing choices and fewer cookies, donuts, and the like.

So next time you're feeling anxious or your stress levels are getting out of hand, try adding some of these delicious and easy-to-find foods to your day.  Tell me how it works for you!