By Zoë Palmer-Wright
There’s no doubt we are living in anxiety-inducing times, so it’s understandable that more people than ever are now struggling with high levels of anxiety.
Luckily, from a nutrition perspective, there is actually a lot we can do to tackle some of the root causes of our anxiety so that we feel calmer and more in control.
The first thing that is absolutely crucial if you want to better manage your anxiety is to eat in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
Unstable blood sugar levels are a huge driver of anxiety, and sudden drops in blood sugar can even trigger panic attacks.
This is how it works….
If you start your day with a high sugar breakfast composed mainly of refined carbohydrates, like a coffee and a croissant, the sugar from this breakfast will be released into your system really quickly, causing a fast rise in your blood sugar levels, as there is very little fibre or protein in this meal to slow it’s digestion down. This fast rise in blood sugar means that your pancreas has to quickly produce insulin to deal with all the sugar that’s quickly entered your system. Following this insulin release, and the sugar being carried off to your cells, your blood sugar levels will fall again pretty rapidly.
The problem is, any time we have a sudden drop in our blood sugar like this, it triggers the body to release the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, as these hormones help the liver to release glucose into your blood stream to temporarily raise your low blood sugar levels. The reason your body will do this is because it needs to keep blood sugar levels within a certain healthy range to ensure your brain, a heavily glucose dependent organ, is able to still function.
This experience of your blood sugar quickly dropping too low and stress hormones being released makes you feel shaky, tired, sweaty, jittery, anxious, nervous, irritable and “hangry” (hungry and angry). The coffee will only exacerbate these feelings because the caffeine in it triggers the release of more stress hormones. Ultimately, when you continually eat in a way that causes these dramatic spikes and falls in blood sugar levels, you put yourself on a blood sugar rollercoaster, cause stress to your body and seriously destabilise your mood.
Whereas, if you choose instead to start your day with a breakfast that includes a mixture of fibre, healthy fat and protein, your meal will be digested more slowly and any sugars in the meal will be released more steadily into your system, meaning blood sugar levels will stay more stable and the stress response will not be activated by the food you’ve just eaten.
And for better blood sugar management through the rest of the day, any meal you eat should include fibre (mainly from veggies, but wholegrains, legumes and nuts and seeds are also good sources), a roughly palm-sized portion of protein and some foods rich in healthy fats. A moderate serving of whole grains may also form a part of some meals. There are also some brilliant functional nutrients and foods that can help to reduce anxiety. Magnesium is one of the best of these. This calming mineral can be thought of as “nature’s tranquiliser”. Unfortunately, deficiency in it is widespread in the population due to our nutritionally depleted soils and crops, which make it harder for us to get enough of this important mineral in our diets. Meanwhile, our busy, high stress modern lifestyles increase our need for it. Ways of upping your magnesium intake include eating more green leafy vegetables ( at least one serving a day, ideally two) and nuts and seeds. Proper dark chocolate, with a high percentage of raw cacao, is another excellent source.
B-complex vitamins help to stabilise mood and calm the nervous system and are needed for the brain to make certain important mood-regulating neurotransmitters. We need even more of them when we are stressed and anxious. They can be found in meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, tempeh, nuts, seeds, leafy greens and nutritional yeast.
Fermented foods that are naturally rich in probiotics are also a great choice, and particularly so if you are struggling with digestive issues as well as anxiety, as they help to support a healthy gut microbiome. This will have a positive impact on mood and mental health because many key mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin, are actually made in the gut by beneficial bacteria. Good probiotic foods include kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, raw apple cider vinegar, kimchi and tempeh. Adaptogens are also incredibly helpful for better managing anxiety. These natural substances help your body better adapt to, and handle, physical and emotional stress and help keep stress hormone levels, such as cortisol, in check. There are a huge range of adaptogens to choose from, some leafy herbs, some roots and some fungi. Foga’s delicious Calm turmeric latte blend contains spices including turmeric and cinnamon and the fabulous adaptogenic Reishi mushroom ( Ganoderma lucidum ) which has been used medicinally in Asia for centuries and prized for its calming and stress-reducing properties.
Curcumin, the bioactive compound in Turmeric, has also shown anti-anxiety effects and cinnamon helps to regulate blood sugar levels and prevent the blood sugar swings which increase anxiety levels.