One way to nourish the body AND mind is through food. Although each person’s experience with anxiety may be slightly different, I think it’s safe to say it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid stress and anxiety-provoking events going on in the world. As a naturopathic doctor, my goal is to equip your body and mind with what it needs to better manage the stressors and mental challenges that come with anxiety.
The first step to providing your body and mind with the nourishment it needs is by choosing nutrient-dense, whole foods. This means choosing REAL foods instead of packaged (hint: stick to the outside perimeter of the grocery store). Real foods are naturally packed with vitamins and minerals that your brain and cells need to function optimally.
Everyone’s body is slightly different in their nutrient needs, but as a rough guide aim for:
7-10 servings per day of veggies and fruit
Healthy sources of fats, proteins, and whole grains
Keeping sugar and simple carbohydrates to a minimum (more on this below!)
3 Anxiety Aggravators
Excessive coffee or caffeine: caffeine activates the stress response resulting in an increase in our body’s main stress hormone, cortisol. Even in those who habitually drink coffee this cortisol response may mimic the body undergoing a stressor (1). Coffee in moderation (1-2 cups per day) may be ok for some people, but others may find additional benefit from eliminating it completely.
Alcohol: alcohol mainly acts as a central nervous system depressant. When the effects of alcohol wear off, this may contribute to rebound anxiety. Have you ever felt more anxious the day after drinking?
Sugar: anxiety loves sugar. First you get that “sugar-high” followed by a crash in blood sugar, which for some people may trigger a reactive hypoglycaemic state a few hours after a sugar binge. This can lead to symptoms of increased heart rate, shaking, sweating, irritability (think “hangry”).
Blood sugar stabilization
For the above reasons, this can be a powerful tool for managing anxiety. The main ways to stabilize blood sugar are by increasing protein and healthy fats and decreasing sugar and simple carbohydrates. It’s also important to be eating regularly and not skipping meals if you’re someone who is prone to getting “hangry”.
Food sources of protein & healthy fats: nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds), lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish), beans, tofu, legumes (lentils, chickpeas), avocado.
Targeted Nutrient Therapy
The following are examples of a few nutrients that may impact anxiety and how to incorporate them into your diet.
Magnesium: maintains a calming effect on the nervous system, which may help prevent feelings of stress and anxiety (2).
Food sources: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, soy nuts, tofu, spinach
B vitamins: are involved in regulating the stress-induced cortisol response, and required for the production of many neurotransmitters (3). For example B6 is required to make GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.
Food sources: oats, green leafy vegetables, eggs, lean meats
Iron: iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, particularly in women. The symptoms of an iron deficiency may mimic some of the symptoms that occur with anxiety including increased heart rate, and shortness of breath.
Food sources: red meat, spinach, oats, tofu, beans, lentils, chickpeas
Ingesting nutrients through food is ideal, but may be difficult to attain quickly or at therapeutic doses, so nutritional supplements may be helpful in some cases. Talk to your naturopathic doctor before starting any nutritional supplements to ensure you’re choosing a safe dose that is right for you.
Curious about other naturopathic tools for anxiety? Learn more here.
Lovallo, W., Whitsett, T., al'Absi, M., Sung, B., Vincent, A., Wilson, M. (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(5), 734-739.
Kirkland, A., Sarlo, G., Holton, K. (2018). The role of magnesium in neurological disorders. Nutrients, 10(6), 730.
Head, K., Kelly, G. (2009). Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Alternative Medicine Review, 14(2), 114-140.