Miranda Partridge is a foodie, yogi, nutritional medicine practitioner, blogger and business owner who is passionate about using food as medicine. I asked her to write a guest blog post about something she is passionate about – nutrition and anxiety.
Anxiety is a common condition in Australian adults. In fact, 20% of men and 30% of women in Australia will experience the condition at some point in their life (Australian Bureau of Statistic, 2013).While it is not always easily recognised or understood, it can be debilitating for those who experience it, making what may seem like the simplest, everyday tasks, very difficult to begin, let alone accomplish.
Anxiety is one of those catch-22s where the anxiety you experience can cause areas in your life, such as your nutrition, to be the last thing you have the energy to care about. But when your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, your anxiety is more likely to flare up, which makes coping with everyday stresses that much more difficult.
In the midst of anxiety, it can be easy to get caught up in this cycle where self-care is the last thing on your mind, but without beating yourself up about it, there are plenty of small and achievable changes you can make to the food you eat that can improve your symptoms and make it easier to tackle day-to-day tasks. By making these small changes, you may find improvements in your stress levels, your coping mechanisms, your energy, your motivation and even your sleep.
Here, we discuss the basics.
Create a diet that is supportive of healthy brain chemistry
Abnormalities in the hormones serotonin, noradrenalin (norepinephrine) and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) have been shown to contribute to anxiety. The chemical pathways that produce these hormones can be supported through diet, as each one is created using specific amino acids, vitamins and minerals, available through regular foods.
To boost serotonin, we require the amino acid tryptophan, vitamins B3, B6, C and folate, and the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, while GABA requires the amino acids glutamine and taurine, vitamin B6, and minerals magnesium and manganese. Noradrenaline requires the amino acid tyrosine, with vitamins B1, B3, B6, C and minerals magnesium and copper. I know this sounds complicated at first, but let me simplify it for you.
- Eat protein with every meal – amino acids are the smaller compounds that make up the large nutrients known as protein. So ensuring you have enough protein is going to be a high priority for every meal. Protein is in meats, fish, eggs, dairy, and vegetarian sources including nuts, seeds, legumes (like beans and chickpeas) and grains (quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth for example). Give yourself a variety of protein sources every day to get a wider array of amino acids (and other nutrients) served at about the size of a deck of cards.
- Boost your vegetable intake – protein alone is not enough; our bodies need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals in order to turn each amino acid into a hormone. This is where our humble vegetables come in. Full of vitamins and minerals, vegetables are an essential part of any diet, impart a variety of flavour and texture, and are incredibly affordable. At least half of your plate should be vegetables, either raw or cooked, and you should aim to have at least 3 vegetables at a time. Be adventurous with your vegetables, and experiment with different ways to serve them, such as grated salads, roasted vegetables, grilled skewers and plenty of herbs. Just be sure to eat plenty of your green leafy vegetables, like spinach, rocket, kale, silverbeet and broccoli; they are rich in folate and a wide range of minerals discussed above. Aim for 5 cups of vegetables per day (1 at breakfast + 2 at lunch + 2 at dinner = easy!)
- Eat plenty of good quality fats – our brain is made of almost 60% fat, and fats are also required for the production of our brain hormones (neurotransmitters). Providing an adequate supply protects the cells of the brain and nervous system from damage and assists nerve cell communication. Omega3 from oily fish like salmon and sardines and chia seeds, and the monounsaturated oils in avocado and extra virgin olive oil are essential fats for the body and should be consumed as often as possible (salmon, no more than 3 times per week due to mercury accumulation).
Cultivate a low-stress environment wherever you can
With increased stress, our bodies go into a ‘fight or flight’ mode, anticipating threats to our safety. This is a normal mechanism in the body, but if we are constantly stressed, we stay in this state, and it can really take a toll on our wellbeing. Obviously, situational stress is not something that can be controlled by us, but there are some factors that increase stress on our bodies that we do have control over that are important to reduce as much as possible.
- Reduce your caffeine intake – especially after 2pm. The extra stimulation of caffeine can exacerbate the feelings of anxiety, leaving you feeling on edge without any reason to. Switch coffee for tea, black and green do have caffeine, but are slower release and a different concentration than the caffeine in coffee, so can be a better morning option than coffee. Herbal teas are great too, just remember that chocolate has caffeine in it too, so try to avoid it in the afternoons.
- Stay hydrated – dehydration can be stressful for the body, and is exacerbated by caffeine and a diet high in salt. Aim for 2-3 litres a day (herbal teas count towards this amount too!)
- Maintain your blood sugar levels – eating foods high in sugar or highly processed, skipping meals and (again) caffeine intake can cause dramatic rises and falls in blood sugar levels, with insulin being pumped into the blood to balance the levels of glucose in the blood. Eating complex carbohydrates, protein and fibre ensure the rises and falls in our blood sugar levels are not as sharp, which helps us to avoid that “3.30itis” when we crave sugar and feel fatigued, while still providing plenty of glucose to the brain for energy. Sweet potatoes (skin on), quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and brown rice (or basmati) are great examples of complex carbohydrates to include on a regular basis.
Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself
What you are going through is an incredibly difficult thing. Take it one step at a time; make small changes each day, and don’t beat yourself up if you slip up (but also, don’t let one slip up unravel all the changes you have already made).
You are stronger than you know. You are loved. And you are enough.
You are just in the middle of one of life’s hard times, and you will get through it and be stronger for having done so.
For more nutrition tips, visit Miranda’s Wellness or follow Miranda on Facebook.