With an increasing number of people struggling with the impact of COVID, this article focuses on how to reduce anxiety with the food choices we make
by Jane Hickey, author of Good Foods for Anxiety
As we approach the end of a year characterised by responses to a global pandemic, unprecedented restrictions in our daily lives, and even changes to what we consider “normal” in everyday life, we continue to be subjected to limited control over our activities and ongoing uncertainty about the days ahead of us.
Sharply aware of the need to protect our physical health, there is an increasing recognition of the need to support our mental health in the face of this situation which many are finding overwhelming.
Although we may feel that we have no control over many aspects of our lives, an aspect of our lives that we can control is the food we eat which can help us to support our physical and mental health. In particular, we can reduce anxiety with the food choices we make.
Stress or anxiety?
Both stress and anxiety are associated with activation of our nervous system, in particular the sympathetic nervous system which prompts a “fight, flight or freeze” response. Our minds and our bodies are affected by this response when hormones are released to switch us into defence against a threat. Our mind is able to focus clearly and our body is prepared to evade the threat by improved function. Physiological symptoms include an increase in breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure.
Neither stress nor anxiety are bad in themselves, as they are the consequence of our body’s defence systems to protect us from perceived danger or threat, with heightened mental awareness and physical performance when we need it. However, when either stress or anxiety becomes chronic, it becomes problematic, affecting both our minds and our bodies.
Stress is normally a response to an identified trigger, such as pressures of demands at work, worries about paying the bills or times of uncertainty.
Anxiety, although its origins may be identifiable, such as a traumatic incident or excessive stress, may not have an identifiable cause. Anxiety varies in a range of diagnoses, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias and panic attacks, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
However, you do not have to have a diagnosis to recognise that anxiety is affecting your life.
When anxiety becomes a problem
If anxiety is not always a bad thing, how can you recognise that anxiety has become a problem?
There is a range of conditions associated with anxiety and when it becomes severe, you may need to see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.
While your doctor may offer you treatment, you can also support yourself with your food and lifestyle choices.
Even lower levels of anxiety which are having an impact on the normal daily activities in your life, need to be addressed. You may be aware that you are “self-medicating”, for example with alcohol, to overcome difficulties presented by anxiety in your life.
If you are aware that anxiety is creeping into your life, this is the time to support yourself to overcome the anxiety and prevent it from taking over your life.
What About Treatment?
If anxiety has become a problem, you should discuss this with your doctor, who may recommend treatment with talk therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or with medication.
Increasingly, doctors are being advised to consider alternatives to anti-depressants. As quoted in a previous article about the doubling of anti-depressants for over-65s, NHS England is now adopting a different approach to mental health conditions. Social prescribing link workers are now based at most GP surgeries and can often provide more detailed information about non-medical interventions for mental health issues which might include activities such as gardening or arts groups.
Of course, sometimes medication is necessary and as there are a number of options for medication and it may take time to find the one that works best for a person.
Medication is unlikely to cure anxiety but it may be very effective by alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. If you are on medication, it is important to follow any instructions about possible interactions with foods or supplements.
Food is a modifiable factor
By choosing foods with the nutrients you need to support your health and wellbeing, you are strengthening your body’s own systems to function optimally and support your health and wellbeing.
With many aspects of life beyond our control, not only do we have control over our food choices, but they hold the potential to support our health, both physical and mental. Even with some of the shortages we have faced this year, our food choices are mostly within our control.
The food we eat is a significant “modifiable factor”, which contributes to raising or reducing anxiety levels. There may be some simple changes you can make to protect yourself against the impact of anxiety on your health by improving functions in your body.
By addressing inflammation and strengthening your microbiome, you can make a start to support the health of your body and mind and reduce your anxiety.
Reducing inflammation through food choices
Chronic inflammation, particularly in the gut and the brain, is associated with anxiety. An inflammatory cascade is created when inflammation promotes anxiety and anxiety promotes inflammation.
While acute inflammation in our bodies is a response by our immune system to defend us against infection or injury, chronic inflammation is no longer protective but is problematic.
Your food choices, however, are a modifiable factor which can help you to reduce inflammation. Foods which are pro-inflammatory need to be decreased or removed, while foods with anti-inflammatory properties need to be increased.
Sugar is a pro-inflammatory food which contributes to raising anxiety levels. Foods high in refined ingredients and processed foods are also pro-inflammatory. These are foods to reduce or avoid.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid which is anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 is found in highest concentrations in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herrings, and also in lower concentrations in foods such as chia seeds. It is important to balance your intake of Omega-3 evenly with your intake of Omega-6 fatty acids, in a ratio of about 1:1. Omega-6 is found in a range of food such as meats, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and peanut butter.
Other foods with anti-inflammatory properties that are easily added to foods and drinks are spices such as ginger and turmeric.
Understanding which foods are infammatory and which foods are anti-inflammatory is an essential aspect of learning how to reduce anxiety with the food choises we make.
Our microbiome is created by the trillions of microbes living inside us. These microbes influence our health in many ways and we depend on the beneficial microbes to support us to regulate anxiety.
We can support our microbiome by food choices which allow the beneficial microbes to flourish and outnumber the harmful microbes.
Prebiotics provide food for the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Food sources of prebiotic foods are a range of vegetables and fruits, especially onions, leeks, garlic, bananas asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes.
Probiotics provide the microbiome in our gut with beneficial bacteria.
Probiotic foods include fermented foods such as live yoghurt, traditionally made sauerkraut or sourdough bread.
Fruits and vegetables are also homes to the microbes which support our microbiome to flourish. By choosing vegetables and fruits from the whole range of colours you can provide your microbiome with beneficial diversity.
As everyone is created with biochemical and physiological individuality, your health is best supported by the food choices which take this into account.
Food intolerances and increased needs for nutrients influence the foods which are supportive of your health.
By recognising that food is a modifiable factor and by understanding the foods which are right for you, you can support your emotional wellbeing with a mindful approach to eating.
More information about reducing anxiety with the food choices we make
Good Foods for Anxiety: Five of the Best Foods for Anxiety by Jane Hickey is available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback format. Jane’s book provides a wealth of information and advice about how we can reduce anxiety with the food choices we make, plus additional lifestyle advice, and a range of delicious and easy recipes.
Felger J C (2018) Imaging the Role of Inflammation in Mood and Anxiety-related Disorders
Mohajeri M H, Brummer R J M, Rastall R A et al (2018) The role of the microbiome for human health: from basic science to clinical applications
Pierce J M & Alvina K (2019) The role of inflammation and the gut microbiome in depression and anxiety
Satokari R (2020) High Intake of Sugar and the Balance between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria