Palpitations, a dry mouth, sweating, insomnia are just some of the unmistakable signs of our stress hormone cortisol having taken over and causing us anxiety. Everyone has experienced these symptoms at some point in their life. Who hasn’t felt stage fright before a presentation, hyperventilated before an exam or spent a sleepless night before their dental appointment?
Under normal circumstances, you get through the situation in question unscathed, and life goes on. However, it is very different for people for whom stress has become chronic and turned into an anxiety disorder. Patients with this condition experience virtually no relief or respite because their anxiety is unrelated to a specific situation or event and is – objectively – unfounded. Their anxiety goes on constantly, from one situation to the next, and the next, and the next …
Although anxiety disorders were common even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the stress of lockdown and worry about our own health and that of loved ones, our jobs and our financial security has sent numbers surging. A team of researchers at the University of Manchester predict that mental health problems will continue to be affected by the pandemic for years to come.[i]
So, where does nutrition come into it?
At first glance, it may seem preposterous to say that diet influences how we feel but feelings are related to our body chemistry! Of course, our environment, our experiences, and to an extent, our personality also influence our feelings. But our feelings of fear, anger, overwhelm or love and confidence trigger the release of hormones in our body, which is where chemistry kicks in. We need the happy hormone serotonin and the pleasure hormone dopamine to feel good, the sleep hormone melatonin to sleep, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to “get up and go”. Hormones work in unison with each other. Some hormones suppress others; some trigger the release of others. But for these feedback mechanisms to work, for our body to even be able to manufacture the chemicals that we need, we must supply the raw materials they are made of.
Those raw materials are fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. What’s more, even our friendly gut bacteria contribute to how we feel by extracting more nutrients from our food for us, manufacturing some, such as short-chain fatty acids, from scratch and even providing some ready-made serotonin! So, if you think about how feelings can be influenced in that way, what we eat is bound to have a massive impact on how we feel and how we cope with the challenges life throws at us.
So, what are these nutrients our body needs, particularly when we are anxious?
Magnesium is often referred to as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ – which hints at just how crucial this mineral is for supporting balanced mood, relaxation and deep sleep. One reason why magnesium helps us cope with anxiety might be that it plays a role in nerve transmission.[ii] The mineral is not even hard to find. There’s some in most foods, particularly in green leafy vegetables – think broccoli, spinach, kale, and watercress – but also in grains, such as brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa, nuts and seeds, or fish and seafood.
A 2019 study found that the amino acid L-theanine might help manage anxiety and support a balanced stress response. L-theanine is found in green tea.[iii] It increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has calming, anti-anxiety effects. The amino acid also raises dopamine and the creation of alpha waves in the brain. This is because l-theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects our brain from unwanted and harmful substances. The high intake of green tea by Buddhist monks may contribute to their famously calm demeanour and intense focus during meditation. If you want to give green tea a try, be sure to choose an organic one to reduce your exposure to pesticides and other toxins, which have been found to disrupt the brain’s stress circuitry.[iv]
The authors of a 2020 research review agree that the role of nutrition in the management of mental health disorders is underestimated.[v] They reviewed the existing research into omega-3 fats in connection with anxiety and found that this type of fat is critical for brain health and has been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms. As vegan diets are becoming more popular, it is important to note that omega-3 fats from plant sources, such as flaxseed oil or walnut oil, rarely cover our daily requirements, let alone achieve therapeutic levels. The omega-3s we need are EPA and DHA. Although the body can make those long-chain fatty acids can from plant-source omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid or ALA), the conversion is sluggish and easily disrupted. Only about 5 per cent get converted. If you are vegan, do not like fish, or are allergic to it, your diet alone may not cover your needs. I recommend finding a good-quality supplement with omega-3 from marine sources (i. e., algae), which is the only vegan source of DHA.
When talking about anxiety and nutrition, we must not neglect the role of the gut microbiota, the friendly bacteria in our gut.
Research suggests that it is beneficial to give our gut bacteria regular TLC. Interestingly, “non-probiotic interventions appear to be more effective than the probiotic” ones.[vi]
That suggests that just popping a probiotic capsule may not be enough. Probiotics are beneficial; there is no doubt about that. However, their contents – live bacteria, e. g. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species – don’t settle in the gut. They are only travelling through, and while doing so, they help create a bacteria-friendly climate and temporarily crowd out undesirable microbes. But really, they are only lending a helping hand to our own, indigenous bacteria. Those are the ones that are at home there, and those are the ones that can protect our gut, feed our brain, improve our mood, and keep us healthy.
The best way to look after your friendly bacteria is by giving them real food, especially fibre-rich plant foods, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses, whole grains, herbs, and spices. Variety is key here. While probiotics – especially in the form of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt, kefir and kombucha – are great, prebiotics – fibre – are even better. We still need to learn much more about all the different microbes living in our guts, but what we do know is that the higher variety of species we have, the healthier we are. How do we cultivate a variety of species? By keeping our diets interesting! Different microbes have different preferences. By varying what we eat, we are creating a desirable place for them to live.
To keep everyone happy, it is also essential to avoid what harms the microbiota. Alcohol acts like a weedkiller on your internal garden. Food additives may reduce a protective type of antibody called secretory immunoglobulin A (or SIgA, for short), and emulsifiers can be particularly damaging for the gut. Sugar promotes yeast overgrowth, which can overwhelm the beneficial bacteria and make it difficult for them to adhere to the gut wall.
Lifestyle factors, too, play a crucial role in maintaining hormonal balance.
It will come as no surprise that it is worth reducing stress as much possible if you suffer from anxiety. Interestingly, stress also damages the microbiota and interferes with the conversion of omega-3 fatty acids – among many other things, so just getting on top of stress will do you a whole lot of good.
Meditation in the form of mindfulness can massively contribute to our health. A University of Wisconsin study showed that people who practised mindfulness – a type of meditation or mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while accepting feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations – noted 13 fewer illnesses and took 51 fewer sick days. Researchers concluded that this reduced the physical effects of stress, which is known to weaken the immune system.
My friend and meditation teacher, Joanne Churchill, says:
Meditation or Mindfulness has exploded in the last few decades from being a fringe practice to becoming quite mainstream. The benefits are now very well researched and numerous. It can help with stress by regulating the nervous system, and there is increasing evidence that nervous system dis-regulation is a key factor in ‘dis-ease’ as well as disease. Research shows that just 10 minutes of daily practice for 8 weeks rewires the brain, making it less reactive. Longer-term mediators report more happiness and less anxiety and depression. In fact, research shows meditation is as good as or better than medication for mild to moderate anxiety and depression. It can also help with attention, focus and impulse control, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve sleep. It is an invaluable tool for meeting the challenges of ageing and illness, as well as coping with the normal stresses of life. And, it is SO much more than that; it is also a way of knowing yourself deeply. As we learn to make space for and bring compassion to our sensations, thoughts and feelings, we begin to see and accept ourselves as we are. Resting in the present moment with acceptance teaches us to relate differently to our experiences. We also grow a stronger sense of embodied presence and resilience.
So, as you can see, you don’t have to take hormonal imbalances and anxiety attacks lying down. There is a lot that you can do to avoid them or to aid your recovery. Please contact me to book your free 30-min health check by clicking here…
[ii] Kirkland AE, Sarlo GL, Holton KF (2018): The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients. 2018 Jun 6;10(6):730.
[iii] Lopes Sakamoto F, Metzker Pereira Ribeiro R, Amador Bueno A, Oliveira Santos H (2019): Psychotropic effects of L-theanine and its clinical properties: From the management of anxiety and stress to a potential use in schizophrenia. Pharmacol Res. 2019 Sep;147:104395.
[iv] Caudle MW (2016): This can’t be stressed enough: The contribution of select environmental toxicants to disruption of the stress circuitry and response. Physiol Behav. 2016 Nov 1;166:65-75.
[v] Polokowski AR, Shakil H, Carmichael CL, et al (2020): Omega-3 fatty acids and anxiety: A systematic review of the possible mechanisms at play. Nutr Neurosci. 2020 Jul;23(7):494-504.
[vi] Yang B, Wei J, Ju P, Chen J (2019): Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. Gen Psychiatr. 2019 May 17;32(2):e100056.