What foods should I eat to ease anxiety and stress?
Charlotte Watts, author of Good Mood Food, explains what to eat to reduce feelings of anxiety.
There are lots of key nutrients which can help to calm an anxious mind.
Reducing and avoiding sugar and stimulants is best done in a progressive way that still allows you to cope with life, because in this way you will be able to make long-term changes that can stick:
How to reduce stimulants in your diet
- Balance blood sugar in the morning to support naturally energising cortisol levels, rather than turning to stress, caffeine and adrenaline to get yourself out of the door. Making space to eat a supportive breakfast in a calm way can make all the difference to the quality of your day.
- Avoid all stimulants past 4pm, including caffeine, alcohol, sugar and even TV and stimulating factors like screens when you are home from work. Aim for a maximum of two cups of coffee or three cups of tea a day, although for some this might still make you feel agitated. Try to drink these with food to temper their stimulatory effect. Chocolate, cola and some medications also contain caffeine.
- Reduce and then cut out sugar before cutting out caffeine. is is because if you tend to be low on energy and use coffee or tea and sugar to keep going, reducing caffeine will likely increase the sugar cravings. Look at your breakfast and decide if it is helping or hindering you to regulate blood sugar levels, then work towards a gradual decrease in sugar as your tastes adapt to less sweetness.
- Make sure that you have sufficient fats and proteins in your diet to enable the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that get utilised at much higher rates when we are in the heightened mind-body state of stress.
What can you eat to calm anxiety?
Certain foods and drinks can have a directly soothing effect on the nervous system, taking you out of sympathetic fight-or- flight mode and into a relaxing parasympathetic mode, where we heal, digest and recover but also can begin to quiet a racing mind:
- Drinking relaxing herbal teas has a calming effect as holding mugs or bowls of warm liquids (so soups and stews also work well) have a soothing effect and have even been shown to alleviate feelings of loneliness.
- Chamomile tea is particularly calming as it raises levels of the soothing neurotransmitter glycine long after it has been drunk and even builds this up when taken regularly. If you don’t like the taste, try it in a calm or sleep tea formula or add some fresh mint leaves; there are many herb mixes available, too.
- Celery and lettuce contain the chemical apigenin (to a lesser extent) that activates the soothing parasympathetic tone of the nervous system. Celery also contains high levels of the mineral potassium that is needed to bring us down from the stress response, so add it to soups and stews to make particularly reassuring comfort food.
- Liquorice tea is a great alternative to coffee or caffeinated black tea as it lifts energy levels but also supports the adrenal glands as an adaptogenic herb. Liquorice can keep cortisol circulating, though, so don’t drink it after 4pm if you have very sensitive sleep and avoid it completely if you have high blood pressure.
Why magnesium is important when you're stressed
There is no more important nutrient to mention in the face of modern stress than magnesium. We need to consume this in large amounts and we use it up quickly in the stress response as it works to create energy (ATP) and get the heart pumping faster and the muscles tightening ready for action.
However, it is also needed by the calming parasympathetic nervous system, so if stress depletes our stores, calming down can be difficult and thus we get caught in a state of constant alert.
Magnesium deficiency can show up as any symptom relating to nervous system agitation, including anxiety, insomnia, headaches, muscle cramps, PMS, depression, fatigue, fibromyalgia, panic attacks, IBS and blood sugar issues. It is also needed to produce insulin, so during blood sugar highs and lows, we use up more.
In some literature, one molecule of sugar is said to need 56 molecules of magnesium for its metabolism, so eating sugar in excess of our energy needs robs us of this calming mineral.
Optimal magnesium levels are vital if nerve cells (neurones) are to communicate effectively with one another. In the absence of sufficient magnesium, the messages passed between nerve cells using neurotransmitters become excessively ‘loud’ and can cause more extreme emotional reactions, including moodiness and agitation.
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Magnesium may be low in those with mood issues, but also those with digestive, respiratory and muscular conditions. It tends to be poorly ingested in the modern diet, as it is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish.
High-stress lifestyles, emotional stress or personal loss within the last few years may leave us with depleted levels. Magnesium can be depleted by some medications, alcohol use above moderate drinking and exercise over several hours daily.
The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (last published, 2016) shows that an average diet provides below 250mg of magnesium per day and the optimal daily intake (food plus supplements) is estimated to be just over 800mg; this is possibly contributing to the rise in mood issues.
We tend to get more calcium and less magnesium than our Stone Age counterparts, due to more dairy and fewer green leaves. As these two ‘calming minerals’ work together (the optimal balance between 2:1 and 1:1 is much discussed), many people benefit from extra magnesium to be able to use both.
Good magnesium food sources in balance with calcium are: green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, cauliflower, tahini, parsley, soy, whole grains, lentils. Even if you are having plenty of these foods, but have high stress in your life, feel highly reactive or are suffering from the symptoms mentioned above, it is safe to supplement with extra magnesium.
- Normal magnesium supplementation range: 300–700mg, which can be taken as 300–400mg in the evening to promote sleep, and extra in the morning to help prevent anxiety where needed.
- Best supplement forms are magnesium ascorbate, magnesium citrate or magnesium amino acid chelate.
- Glycine and taurine supplements can help produce sleep neurotransmitters in the evening .
- Only take calcium or bone-health supplements with magnesium included, ideally with twice as much magnesium as calcium, especially if you eat calcium-rich dairy foods. Adaptogenic herbs these herbs work like ‘good stress’, encouraging resistance and appropriate response to stressors via the brain. They are called adrenal adaptogens as they regulate responses to stress; raising stress hormones when depleted and lowering them when the adrenals are overworking. These herbs include licorice, ginseng, rhodiola, gingko biloba, rhemmania, schisandra and astragalus. Rather than taking each of these substances individually, it is best to find a nutrient-herbal blend that is specifically synergised to have maximum effect. Buy quality herbal supplements and follow the instructions on the label, building up from the lowest dose. Your healthfood-shop adviser or healthcare practitioner will be able to help you with this, or you can consult a qualified medical herbalist for specific advice.
Why a cup of tea could calm you down
L-theanine is a constituent of tea, known to have calming effects on body and mind. Taken in concentrated form in supplements, it may help reduce mental and physical stress and increase mental focus. It is often found in sleep formulas, but can also be taken to help promote a calm attitude and body responses throughout the day.
They will not make you sleepy, but simply allow your nervous system to come down again after feeling on ‘constant alert’, where you can feel more clarity, safety and perspective.
Supporting the self-soothing capacity of the nervous system helps us to come back down to a calm baseline when we have become reactive or anxious. Many foods provide the nutrients we need to reach both energised and relaxed states, and move between them.
When you are choosing your food, ask yourself how close to its natural state it is. The more processed or re ned it is, the less likely it is to be rich in the nutrients that nature intended us to have.
Seeds for stress
Stress can have us feeling less able to nourish ourselves and more likely to snack on sugar or junk fats, so having a quick and satisfying alternative handy when cravings take over can rewire our brains to help us turn to food that supports our resources, rather than depleting them.
Seeds and nuts contain all of the nutrients that satisfy hunger and help us produce energy (except vitamin C), and they can be added to any favourite food, such as a healthy nutty topping for yoghurt, cereal, soups and casseroles. The seeds listed below provide you with a good daily intake of essential fats, as well as calming magnesium, and all in a tasty, versatile form.
You will need to mix together roughly equal amounts of flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and hemp seeds, all of which are available at healthfood shops. These seeds are best eaten well ground, as our teeth can struggle to fully break down such small items.
You could use a herb or coffee grinder (kept solely for this purpose, of course, as you won’t be able to use it for coffee beans, because of the strong flavours).
Seeds contain a high percentage of volatile fats, which are easily damaged by heat and light, so it is important to store the ground mixture in a sealable, airtight jar in the fridge.
Good Mood Food by Charlotte Watts and Natalie Savona © 2018 published by Nourish Books, London, Paperback, £10.99. It goes on sale on 20 December 2018. Order your copy online here.
Listen to the In The Moment Magazine podcast
We interviewed Charlotte about her book on the In The Moment Magazine podcast. Listen to the episode online above, or on Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Stitcher and most major podcast providers.
Photos by Brooke Lark, Taylor Kiser, Juan José Valencia Antía, Chuttersnap, Joanna Kosinska and Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash.
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