Nutritional therapist Rose Glover examines the link between food and stress.
Clammy hands, tummy trembles and restlessness–we’ve all experienced those discombobulating feelings associated with anxiety at some time in our lives. Ordinarily, when we feel on edge, we may reach for the usual suspects: comfort foods such as refined carbohydrates (pasta, pizza) and sugar-laden foods (hello, chocoholics). These foods release the feel good molecule serotonin in our bodies making us feel, lets face it, fabulous. However this feeling is short-term, and is usually followed by blood sugar imbalances that in turn can make us even more moody and anxiety-ridden.
The good news is that it is possible to eat yourself calm. If you suffer from anxiety, eating plenty of the foods listed below could work wonders…
Eat your beans
Research suggests that a low dietary intake of zinc is associated with anxiety and depression. In fact, the highest amount of zinc in the body is found in the brain, and it turns out that this trace mineral plays a crucial role in the way the brain and body respond to stress.
Plant sources of zinc include tofu, lentils, beans, sunflower seeds and nuts such as almonds and walnuts. However, unfortunately these plant foods also contain a naturally occurring compound called phytates, which can actually reduce zinc absorption. Because of this, it has been suggested that the zinc needs of vegetarians and vegans are increased by 50 per cent (the standard RDA is 11mg daily for men, 8mg daily for women). However protein increases zinc absorption, therefore foods high in both protein and zinc, such as legumes and nuts, are good choices for vegans.
Be gut friendly
Our gut is home to trillions of beneficial and not-so-beneficial bacteria, which in an ideal world, all live together in a harmonious ecosystem. However, this delicate balance can easily be disrupted by numerous factors, such as high sugar foods, antibiotics or even a heavy night out on the town.
In recent years, research has shown strong links between bacterial imbalances in the gut and imbalances in brain chemistry, and in particular mental disorders such as anxiety. So much so, that the folk within neuroscientific research circles now refer to probiotics as psychobiotics. These super friendly bacteria have other benefits for your health too, they can help reduce bloating and other gut issues, help boost immunity and they even help your body make B-vitamins and digest your food, win-win!
Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi and sour pickles are great sources of beneficial bacteria. However, be sure to always check if the shop-bought sauerkraut has been pasteurized because this process will destroy probiotics (and remember to consult your GP before consuming non-pasteurized food if you are pregnant).
Miso paste is also loaded with friendly bacteria to help balance your gut microbiome. The fermentation of the brown rice and soya beans is what makes this condiment a source of lactobacillus acidophilus. Miso it has a strong, salty flavour and lots of sodium, so a little will go a long way. And remember to try to add miso paste at the end of cooking so as to avoid killing off the good bacteria.
Load up on greens
‘Eat your greens’ – our mums’ told us a trillion times, and with good reason. Swiss chard, kale and spinach are loaded with magnesium, which is natures ‘chill-pill’ mineral, helping to calm the nervous system and regulate the stress response. Green veg are also a good source of b-vitamins (except vitamin B12), which are also vital for the management of anxiety. Ensure you are getting at least one portion of greens daily, you can add them to soups, smoothies, juices, curries, pasta dishes or simply a good old fashioned side of steamed greens. Whole, unrefined grains like oats, buckwheat, millet and quinoa also contain both magnesium and B vitamins
Magnesium is also absorbed through the skin, therefore a warm bath with a cup of Epsom salts can be a wonderfully calming way to get boost your magnesium levels. If you are feeling very stressed, you could also supplement with 300mg of magnesium citrate just before bed to promote a restful night sleep and ease anxiety.
Don’t be afraid of fat
Since the brain is incredibly sensitive to inflammation, it needs a constant supply of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats in order to protect it. These fats help facilitate neuron-to-neuron communication and help to build healthy brain cell membranes, staving off anxiety. Numerous studies show that plasma concentrations of this fatty acid are markedly lower in vegetarians and vegans, compared to meat-eaters. This may be due to the fact that the plant form of this nutrient is poorly converted into the anti-inflammatory form that is found in oily fish.
To ensure you are getting enough omega 3 fats in your diet, eat plenty of ground chia seeds and flaxseeds, seaweed, walnuts and pumpkin seeds daily. You may also want to consider a vegan EPA/DHA supplement to boost your levels.
Get outside, sunshine
Ok, not technically a food – but the sun is by far the best source of Vitamin D, a deficiency of which has been associated with both anxiety and depression.
According to the British Medical Journal, more than 50 per cent of us have insufficient levels of Vitamin D, as many of us have problems utilising vitamin D from food sources. For this reason, I recommend to most of my clients that they get a simple vitamin D blood test done by their GP.
Plant food sources of this vital vitamin are limited, so getting out in the sunshine for 15 minutes daily is important, which can prove difficult for those living in the northern hemisphere. Fortunately however, we can store this vitamin in our bodies to get us through the dark winter months, so make the most of those hot sunny days!
And lastly … sip on Camomile Tea
If you have a jittery moment, then sipping on a cup of camomile tea may calm your nerves. That’s because certain compounds in this tea (e.g. Matricaria recutita) actually bind to the same brain receptors as anti-anxiety drugs such as valium.
The effects of drinking camomile can actually accumulate over several days after consumption, so make this your brew of choice on a daily basis!
Rose is a nutritional therapist who specialises in vegan and vegetarian health. She is passionate about showing people how to overcome their health concerns through specialized nutrition. She believes that the right foods can make you feel and look great, all day every day! Visit her website (roseglovernutrition.com) to enquire about nutritional consultations, or sign up to her free newsletter.