More than 40 million Americans suffer with anxiety disorder, often resulting in panic attacks. If you believe you have an anxiety disorder, you should probably be seen by a mental health professional.
But for the average, stressed-out American who’s often lacking enough sleep or feeling constantly tense or irritable, the answer could be as simple as something missing in your diet.
Exercise and “awareness practices,” such as biofeedback, meditation, and yoga are well-known to help keep us calm, but nutrition plays a major role as well. Many of the usual symptoms of stress are those also associated with nutritional imbalances.
A host of nutrients are required for maintaining a balanced brain chemistry and a calm mind — magnesium, B vitamins, and omega-3 fats to name a few.
A study of Australian women found those with the highest intakes of magnesium, folate and zinc, were less likely to suffer from stress. This is because these nutrients stimulate healthy serotonin production — the chemical in our brains designed to keep us calm and happy.
Magnesium deficiency is all too common and a well-known factor leading to stress and anxiety. If someone regularly suffers from headaches, insomnia, constipation and muscle cramps, the culprit might be as simple as a low magnesium level. Leafy greens, such as broccoli and spinach, nuts, seeds and avocado are great food sources, but sometimes only a magnesium supplement can correct a deficiency.
Folate and vitamin B are often prescribed in high doses for depression and anxiety. Good food sources include leafy greens, black eye peas, lentils, and liver.
Did you know that a tired body, combined with an overactive mind, is a sign of zinc deficiency? Other signs include forgetfulness and a reduced ability to taste flavors. Do you add extra sugar and salt to foods? You may be low in zinc. The richest source is oysters, followed by red meat and eggs. A vegetarian diet — especially when heavy on raw grains or unleavened breads, sweets, coffee and processed foods — can deplete zinc. However, beans, nuts and seeds are all great sources of it.
Healthy, or “good fats,” are also shown to prevent anxiety. Studies in animals and humans show that low fat diets can increase tension, hostility and anger, whereas diets higher in healthy fats are calming and can boost mood. Good fats include olive oil, avocado, and coconut oil. On the other hand, vegetable oils, such as soy, safflower and canola, are inflammatory and can fuel anxiety. Omega-3 fats from grass-fed meat and dairy, free range chicken eggs, and deep water fish are particularly therapeutic, as are flax, walnuts, and algae supplements.
Probiotics can be beneficial not only for digestion, but also as an effective therapy for anxiety. Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria, more bacteria than cells in our body. According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these organisms not only influence digestion, but our moods.
Certain bacteria, for instance, boost GABA, (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), a powerful amino acid which kind of works like the brain’s peacemaker, helping to turn off excess adrenalin to calm you down.
Eating fermented foods including yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut nourish digestion, and in the process our mental health. Plant fibers feed these helpful bacteria. Sugar, on the other hand, from sodas and candy, feeds the enemy: unhealthy anxiety-producing bacteria.
The bottom line? Anxiety may not be all in your head, it’s also in your body. So what you eat may just change your mind.
About the Author: Linda L. Prout, MS, is a nutritionist, speaker, and author of Live in the Balance, The Ground-Breaking East-West Nutrition Program. She has been a nutrition consultant for more than 25 years including at the Claremont Resort and Spa in Berkeley, CA and the Six Senses Spa in Turkey. Her East-West nutrition philosophy influences her nutrition plans and presentations for individuals and organizations around the world via email and Skype. www.lindaprout.com