For many physical illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, most doctors will talk about how diet and lifestyle changes are imperative to making a positive difference in your health. But little is written or known about how and whether diet makes a difference in our mental health. One study, completed at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2010 showed that a “traditional or whole diet characterized by vegetables, fruit, whole grains and high-quality meat and fish may help prevent mental illness - specifically, depression and anxiety.”
In the study, two types of diets were compared, a traditional diet and a Western diet, consisting of refined or processed foods and saturated fats. The study did not look at individual foods or nutrients but rather the overall eating habits and diet of participants. Women who consistently ate a traditional diet were found to have a 30 percent less chance of developing depression, dysthymia and anxiety disorders. Those who regularly ate a Western diet were found to have an increased risk, by 50 percent, of developing depression.
Health Central expert, Jerry Kennard, in a post How Diet Relates to Stress, explain that, when stressed, our body produces the hormone cortisol, which can help to increase the effect of the immune system and lower sensitivity to pain. But, when under chronic stress, we get an overload of cortisol which can have the opposite effect, lowering the effect of our immune system. When cortisol levels are high, we often seek out high-energy foods, those high in sugar and fat, to increase our energy levels. Even though these types of foods may make you feel better in the short-term, over time they take a toll on your health, and therefore your stress levels.
While there is no specific “anxiety diet” which will relieve your symptoms, the following are suggestions for changing your eating habits which may, in turn, reduce feelings of nervousness and anxiety:
Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Going for extended periods of time without eating can cause a drop in blood sugar, causing you to be more anxious. Eating frequently helps keep your blood sugar, and your mood, stabilized.
Avoid caffeine. Many of us find caffeine a “must have” each morning to wake us up and then use it throughout the day to help keep us alert. Caffeine does help with alertness and focus in small amounts but excessive caffeine may give you the opposite effect: nervousness, irritability, loss of focus. Green tea is a good alternative to coffee or black tea.
Limit your consumption of white sugar and white flour. These types of foods decrease the amount of “B” vitamins, which have been linked to depression, and can cause irritability, irregular heartbeat, diarrhea and decrease your ability to concentrate. Instead, eat whole grains and limit how much sugar you use.
Have healthy foods to snack on throughout the day. Instead of reaching for cookies or cake, have plenty of fruit and raw vegetables on hand. Nuts, trail mix or protein bars are good ideas for snacks on-the-go.
Use carbohydrates combined with protein. Carbohydrates can make you feel calm but can also cause a blood sugar spike, which can cause you to feel moody and irritable an hour or two later when your blood sugar drops. To help avoid this, limit carbohydrates and when you do eat them, combine with protein (Meat, fish peanut butter, yogurt).
Eating healthy is always a good idea and can make you feel better overall, both physically and mentally. Begin to adopt a healthier diet and you may be able to reduce some of your feelings of anxiousness.
For more information:
“Anxiety,” Date Unknown, A.D.A.M. Health Encylclopedia
“Whole Diet May Ward Off Depression and Anxiety,” 2010, Jan 15, Caroline Cassels, Medscape Medical News
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.