It’s no secret that diet has a direct correlation to your health. Science has confirmed the stomach has over 100 million nerve endings and is sometimes referred to as the second brain. It’s also no secret that with all the happenings in the world, anxiety and stress are at an all-time high. There are many ways to support higher levels of stress during uncertain times but one of the easiest, cheapest, and most tangible ways is to nourish your body with foods that support mental health.
Supporting your body through diet is key to maintaining optimal brain and mood function. Our body is very good at keeping us safe—but we have evolved as a society faster than our bodies have adapted to the changes in our world. A long time ago, anxiety was actually a beneficial tool—it told us we were being chased by a bear, or running low on food—and told us that our lives were in danger. Fast forward a few thousand years and we have evolved to no longer experience immediate threats. However, modern day society constantly triggers our bodies into fight or flight mode.
To our bodies, missing a deadline at work, narrowly passing a speeding driver on the freeway, or receiving a stressful text is still considered a threat and causes anxiety levels to peak.
Drinking water, making sure you get enough protein, and eating lots of vegetables are essential to health and can all help balance anxiety. Here’s a list of simple changes you can make to your diet to balance and reduce stress:
High Quality Protein
Start your day with an adequate amount of protein, as it keeps the body full for longer, helps stabilize blood sugar, and starts your day on a healthy note.
Switch Processed Carbs for Complex Carbohydrates
Many popular diets preach a low carb lifestyle—but carbohydrates are crucial to maintaining our body’s health. Complex carbohydrates (as well as proteins) are the building blocks for serotonin in the brain, and without enough carbs in your diet, the body puts itself in fight or flight mode—increasing cortisol levels as well as anxiety. More on the importance of carbohydrates for serotonin production can be found here.
Taking a good, high-quality probiotic is crucial to maintaining a healthy gut—which is where serotonin is produced. Probiotics have a myriad of benefits and can also help with skin and digestion. A high-quality, probiotic-containing yogurt is a great way to start your day while delivering a healthy dose of protein is crucial in keeping your hunger hormones balanced and preventing your body from going into starvation mode. Other probiotic-containing foods are pickled vegetables, kombucha, and sauerkraut. More on the benefits of probiotics and fermented foods can be found here.
Cut Your Coffee and Switch to Green Tea Instead
Too much caffeine can aggravate anxiety levels and only make things worse. Green tea has a multitude of health benefits, can be anti-aging, and doesn’t come with the jitters or crash that coffee does. Not only this, but it also contains L-theanine, which helps calm anxiety.
Dark Leafy Greens
Incorporate these into your diet as much as you can. Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and swiss chard all contain high amounts of magnesium. Magnesium is an essential nutrient that significantly improves anxiety levels. Many people are deficient in magnesium. Dark greens are great in a salad with a high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil (the olive oil helps your body absorb the vitamins contained in the leafy greens) or sauteed.
Wild Alaskan Salmon
Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for brain health, and can help with depression and anxiety. If you’re not a fan of salmon, a high-quality omega-3 supplement can give you the same benefits. This 2011 study on medical students showed that omega-3 supplementation lowered inflammation and anxiety in medical students.
Foods High in Zinc (such as eggs, cashews, oysters, beef and liver)
According to Psychology Today, zinc plays a role in modulating the brain and body’s response to stress. Zinc also plays a huge role in aiding the body’s natural inflammatory response. Read more about this study here.
Oranges and Citrus Fruits
Vitamin C plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and also reducing inflammation in the body. Consuming foods high in vitamin C can help lower cortisol levels in the body.
Food may not be a cure all but supporting your body with nourishing, whole foods can significantly decrease anxiety levels and improve overall health and wellbeing. Also, as it’s incredibly easy to incorporate these foods into your diet everyday and to create flavor and variety, why wouldn’t you take nature’s stress reliever?
To read more on the studies around nutritional strategies to decrease anxiety, please refer to this article from Harvard.
Ali Parsons graduated from The University of Washington with a degree in Media & Communications. She is passionate about nutrition, health, and wellness and is currently in the process of becoming a Registered Dietitian. Ali enjoys cooking, running, yoga, hiking and travel!