How what you eat can help you feel less anxiety and more calm in your life
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in Australia. Did you know that 1 in 3 women will experience it in their lifetime?
Not only is anxiety more common in women than men, but business owners and entrepreneurs are at even higher risk of mental health illness.
For women, business can be very personal – and though we read about it everywhere, achieving the ‘idealised’ work-life balance often just isn’t realistic. Feelings of overwhelm, guilt, stress and anxiety can creep up and they can hugely impact our quality of life, our family, relationships and our work.
But really, our mood and wellbeing are vital foundations of a thriving business and career.
It may be hard to believe, but what we eat can make a huge impact on our mood. There is growing evidence of a link between poor diet and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. The good news is that you can use the power of food to support your mental health too, and improve how you feel.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety is more than just worry and while everyone feels anxious from time to time, it’s when these feelings persist (even after the stressful even has passed), or make it hard to cope with daily life that it may be the sign of an anxiety condition.
There are lots of different ways a person can experience anxiety. Here are some common symptoms:
- Physical: trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, excess sweating or dizziness, persistent tiredness, digestive troubles (for example, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating), irregular or delayed periods
- Psychological: irritability, frequent worry, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, anger, panic attacks
- Behavioural: social withdrawal, procrastination, avoidance, indecisiveness
What does Food have to do with Anxiety?
Can food really make a difference to your anxiety and overall moods? You bet it can!
First of all, the nutrients which are in the food we eat act as building blocks for our brain.
Did you know that 60% of our brain is made up from fats?
Fat is essential for proper brain function, including production of hormones and essential messengers (called neurotransmitters) which directly influence our sleep, stress and mood (e.g., serotonin and GABA).
Equally, a diet high in the wrong kind of fats (e.g., saturated fats) promotes a chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body and the brain and has been linked to greater incidence of mood disorders.
There are also many other nutrients needed to help the body produce these neurotransmitters, so a diet rich in these will help support better moods (read on to find out more).
On the other hand, nutrient deficiencies can actually worsen or increase your risk of developing anxiety.
Another important factor is how well our blood sugar levels are balanced across the day.
Each time we eat something containing carbohydrates or glucose (sweets, bread, pasta, legumes, as well as fruits and vegetables all contain glucose), there is a natural rise (spike) in our blood glucose levels. Some foods make the levels spike higher and drop faster (causing hunger, irritability and even anxiety) while others result in a much more gentle rise and fall (which equals more balanced moods). This is why the actual make up of each meal and the timing of meals is important.
The Link Between Gut Health & Anxiety
Digestive health and mental health are closely connected. As strange as this might sound, the microbes in your gut (aka your gut microbiota) directly communicate with your brain. This happens via the gut-brain axis (and the vagus nerve) and these microbes are responsible for many functions in the body – including regulation of hormones, modulating inflammation and production of those neurotransmitters which regulate our moods.
This is why the composition of your individual gut microbiome is so important. Ultimately, an unhealthy digestive system (or microbiome dysbiosis) can contribute to anxiety (and depression). So, if you are experiencing anxiety, depression or significant stress, you need to be looking at your gut health, because there’s a good chance it’s contributing to your symptoms.
So, how can we improve our mood and support anxiety symptoms through food?
5 Ways to Better Moods with Food
- Boost your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are well known for their anti-inflammatory effects in the body, but they can also support the gut microbiome and improve symptoms of anxiety. Our brain membranes have a high proportion of these fats, and research has shown that a lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain may contribute to various behavioural and psychiatric disorders.
Try to include at least three serves of omega 3s per week – this can include oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and tuna. Plant-based forms of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
- Eat more leafy greens
Greens such as spinach, silver beet, kale, chard and rocket are all high in folate, zinc and magnesium, which are needed for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (a mood boosting hormone). Many of these foods are also prebiotics, which will help support your gut microbiome and mood.
- Feed your good gut bugs
Not only can our gut microbes impact our emotion and behaviour, but including certain probiotic bacteria in your diet can actually alleviate symptoms of anxiety. So, try adding some foods such as yoghurt (natural or Greek is best), kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh into your diet on a regular basis.
However, if you’re experiencing digestive issues, for example bloating, altered bowel habits, pain or reflux, then it would be beneficial to address the underlying causes of your gut issues (for example, IBS, SIBO, parasites) which will help your gut and your moods in the long term.
Supplementing with probiotics containing specific bacterial strains may also be beneficial, however it’s recommended to consult a qualified practitioner who can recommend a strain specific for your case.
- Cut back on sugar
I know this might be the last thing you want to hear. And I totally get that those 3pm (or 11pm) cravings are real, and that eating something sweet might make you feel good – in the short term. But the fact is that sugar ultimately has a negative effect on our mood, and biochemically – sugar is pro-inflammatory. A low grade, chronic inflammation results from frequent consumption of sugary foods and this contributes to hormonal imbalances and is directly linked to anxiety and depression.
Sugar also affects our good gut microbes, leading to dysbiosis (imbalance between beneficial and harmful microbes in the gut) which further worsens anxiety and low moods.
- Hydrate your brain
Other than fat, the brain is made up mainly of water. Not only does being dehydrated affects judgement and decision making, but a recent study found that for women, dehydration worsens mood. Furthermore, dehydration may also increase cortisol, our stress hormone.
Aim for approximately 2-2.5 litres per day (more if you are physically active, pregnant or breastfeeding). So, buy a large water bottle and keep it at your desk at work. Set yourself reminders, try some different herbal teas – whatever works for you!
What about coffee?
Well, while coffee certainly has some health (and energy) benefits, the reality is that too much coffee can worsen anxiety symptoms.
A daily intake of 400mg or more of caffeine has been linked to a higher risk of anxiety. Also, caffeine has a half-life of approximately 3–7 hours, which means that 3-7 hours after having a coffee, half of the caffeine will still be present in the body. This also means that caffeine can affect sleep quality, so try to avoid that afternoon cup if you do have any sleep troubles.
A few final words…
Food, nutrients and our gut microbes are just one piece of the puzzle – ultimately addressing all contributing factors, such as identifying nutritional deficiencies, sorting out underlying digestive issues, addressing sleep habits, managing stress, accessing social support and getting regular exercise can all help.
Considering the whole body and mind, and having a supportive team around you is so important when thinking about your mental health.
Anxiety affects everybody differently, and though it can feel like you are alone in this, you aren’t.
If your anxiety is severe or interferes with your day-to-day activities or enjoyment of life, it could be helpful to reach out to someone. Counselling or even medication could be helpful. If you are in Australia, for immediate support, you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 (24 hours, 7 days a week).
Marina Vuckov, BHSc. Clinical Nutritionist
Marina is a degree-qualified, holistic nutritionist and physiotherapist, with more than 10 years in the health field. She works with women, 1:1 specialising in fatigue, hormonal health, mental health, digestive health and perimenopause. She considers the whole individual and provides personalised, nutrition and lifestyle support and strives to empower her clients so they can thrive again and live their best life.
Marina is based in Adelaide, South Australia but consults online and sees women from all over Australia and New Zealand.
Aucoin, M., LaChance, L., Naidoo, U., Remy, D., Shekdar, T., Sayar, N., … & Cooley, K. (2021). Diet and Anxiety: A Scoping Review. Nutrients 2021, 13, 4418. The Role of Nutrition in ADHD, Psychiatric, and Mental Disorders Treatment, 83.
Food and Mood Centre. (2020). Lactobacillus and anxiety – what’s the link?
Suh, H., Lieberman, H., Jansen, L., Colburn, A., Adams, J., Seal, A., . . . Kavouras, S. (2021). Cellular dehydration acutely degrades mood mainly in women: A counterbalanced, crossover trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 125(10), 1092-1100. doi:10.1017/S0007114520003475