Did you know you can alleviate, or even eliminate, anxiety by paying closer attention to what you eat? Despite what we’re often told, anxiety isn’t so much a condition on its own as it is a symptom of a condition(s), one of which is poor digestion. It’s closely linked to serotonin levels and over 90% of serotonin in the body is made in the digestive tract. Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that what we eat has a huge affect on mood issues such as anxiety.
Anxiety has been a word used regularly in our house for almost 20 years – that was when our oldest started to show signs that were affecting his everyday life. Since then, we’ve gone through several programs, sessions with experts, books, techniques, etc, etc, etc. We’ve done a lot of work and after going through it all with four kids, I feel that we’re as close to experts on the topic as anyone without a specific degree in the subject can get! Besides techniques like exposure therapy, realistic thinking, getting enough sleep and relaxation breathing, we always found that certain foods the kids ate either helped their anxiety, or made it disastrous. The same held true (and still does) with me and my hubby.
Like pretty much any condition, anxiety is a result of imbalances in the body. The severity of it has a lot to do with an individual’s specific biochemistry, but diet and lifestyle play a significant part – yep, some of it is our own fault! It’s something I keep saying over and over to my kids so they’ll recognize that a) it’s something they do have control over, and b) it’s not so daunting when you can attribute the feelings to something you have control over. I think it’s just SO COOL that you can make a a huge difference in how often anxiety and panic attacks hit you simply by watching what you’re putting in your body. Fueling your body with foods that can correct the imbalances and support the processes responsible for these feelings is the key. And it’s not rocket science.
So what should you eat?
As always, my first piece of advice is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, grass fed/free range meat and poultry, stay away from process foods and drink lots of water – half your weight, in ounces, every day! Pick quality fruits and veggies that are non-GMO/organic, local (as much as possible), in season, or frozen. And eat as many different colors as you can find. Be sure to also fit in fatty fish, like salmon or mackerel at least twice a week.
Besides my “always and forever” suggestions for pretty much anyone I talk to, there are some more specific things you can focus on if you want to help ease anxiety…
- Eat Breakfast. Every. Single. Day. (and make sure to include some protein) – This is a tough one for a lot of folks. I have several clients who struggle with eating when they first get up – my daughter is one of them – and each of them is dealing with some form of anxiety/panic disorder…coincidence?? The reason this is effective for anxiety is because it helps to control swings in blood sugar levels, which in turn helps you feel calmer and less anxious. Stabilizing blood sugar is a key component of my anxiety protocol because spikes and drops in blood sugar lead to irritability, restlessness, making anxiety worse. The more stable you can keep it, the more grounded and settled you’ll feel. Smoothies are a great way to ease into eating breaky and easily start your day with ton of healthy stuff!
- Eat Enough Protein Throughout the Day – As I mentioned above, 90% of the serotonin made in the body is made in the digestive tract. Serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) is made from amino acids and amino acids come from protein. Our bodies need protein to make serotonin and if we’re not including enough quality protein in our daily eats, our serotonin levels will suffer. As you’d expect, without enough of this “feel good” neurotransmitter in our bodies, mood issues will worsen.
- Eat Three Regular Meals, Everyday (plus two healthy snacks) – Along the same lines as eating breakfast everyday, it’s important to fuel your body regularly throughout the day to avoid drops and spikes in blood sugar and curb cravings. My advice is always to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner (all with a serving of protein) and then add in a healthy snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon (a piece of fruit and some nuts are my go-to).
- Mix and Match with “Bonus Foods” – Anything you eat that will support digestion will help serotonin production in the body. Things like bone broth (click here for my favorite recipe!) and fermented foods (kimchi, kombucha) support digestion with nutrients that help heal the gut and re-establish balance between the good and bad bacteria in there. Organ meats and sprouts are nutrient dense foods that provide things like protein, iron, vitamin A, B vitamins, and enzymes that promote healing in the body and are needed to support every body process. Even fresh herbs and spices are a great way to boost digestion.
Many of the foods on this list are not ideal for anyone to eat, but it’s especially important for folks who struggles with anxiety on a regular basis to avoid them completely. Do yourself a favor and just don’t eat them.
- Anything “White” (breads, pasta, sugar, flour) – These foods are carbohydrates that have been stripped of nutrients, particularly B vitamins, but your body needs those vitamins to digest these foods. This means it will have to pull them from elsewhere in the body, leading to deficiencies. The B vitamins are considered the “happy vitamins” and deficiencies in them make anxiety and panic disorders worse.
- High Sugar Foods – For the same reasons it’s important to actually eat food, it’s important to stay away from high sugar foods. Sugar spikes your blood sugar, which then crashes and leaves you feeling miserable and adds to anxiety.
- Gluten and Dairy – Every one of my protocols includes a recommendation to eliminate these two groups of foods. They’re foods to which so many people are sensitive – unbeknownst to many of them because reactions are not immediate and/or severe enough to notice. Food sensitivities (particularly unknown ones) are a big deal because they cause things like inflammation in the gut, poor good/bad bacteria balance, and poor digestion. If you’re not able to digest food properly, you aren’t able to absorb and use the nutrients you’ve eaten. Looping back to serotonin, if you’re not digesting protein, you’re not making enough serotonin and it’s going to make anxiety worse. Eliminating these foods from my diet had a crazy positive effect on my overall health, including my anxiety. It’s made a huge difference in that of my kids, as well. Remove them from your diet for two weeks and take note of how you (or your child) feel, then re-introduce one at a time, over several days and note how you feel…if you find the anxiety improved with the elimination, keep them out! (**Watch for my 14 day gluten and dairy elimination challenge…you can see for yourself what an effect these foods have on energy levels and how you feel!)