Eating to Improve Anxiety

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A fluttering heart. Sweaty hands. Butterflies in the stomach.  Muscle tension.  Sleeplessness, excessive worry or a racing mind.  To 18% of Americans these symptoms are all too familiar hallmarks of their battle with anxiety.  While some people are forced to control their anxiety with medication.  Others find symptom relief through a mix of dietary changes, mindfulness, movement and/or mental health treatment.  All of these choices can be effective options to bring relief. However, I like to try non-medication options first to see if they can have an impact.  This article offers some minimally invasive ideas to get you started on your path to an anxiety free life.

Tryptophan Rich Foods:  Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is an important precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Serotonin is considered a “feel good” chemical, promoting feelings of sleepiness, relaxation and calm.  It is also the precursor for melatonin, another chemical important for sleep.  Recent studies have shown that eating tryptophan rich foods by themselves may have a negative impact on the amount of tryptophan reaching the brain.  This decrease occurs because tryptophan, the least abundant amino acids in food, must fight with other amino acids to cross the blood-brain barrier.  Unfortunately, it is often crowded out by more plentiful amino acids.   However, combining protein rich food with some carbohydrates will help aid absorption of tryptophan.  Tryptophan rich foods include turkey, oats, bananas, chicken, cheese, nuts, sesame seeds, peanut butter and milk.

Protein:  Eating 3-4 oz of good quality protein (about a palm sized serving or three eggs) at each meal is  important for blood sugar control and reducing anxiety.  Protein contains the amino acids necessary for your body to produce the neurotransmitters which directly impact mood and anxiety.  If you can afford pasture raised, organic meat and eggs these are your best choices.  If that is too expensive, try to buy your meat free from antibiotics and hormones.  Try combining protein rich food with some carbohydrates to help aid absorption of tryptophan.

Seafood:  Omega three rich fatty fish such as salmon, herring, trout, sardines and tuna can be helpful in the reduction of anxiety.  Also oysters, mussels, crab and clams have high levels of zinc, an important mineral in the reduction of anxiety.  Wild seafood is the best choice and the Monterey Bay Aquarium ranks seafood choices on safety and its impact on the environment.

Asparagus:   Asparagus is high in folate, a b-vitamin complex known to help fight anxiety.  Folate is important in the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.  Folate is also important for the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter important for sleep and stress reduction.

Avocado:  Avocado can be helpful in reducing anxiety due to its high levels of folate and other B-vitamins.  It also contains potassium which naturally lowers blood pressure.  They are also a significant source of anti-oxidants like lutein and beta carotene which help fight oxidative stress in the body.  Finally, avocados are a significant source of Vitamin E.  Deficiencies of vitamin E have been linked to increased anxiety symptoms.

Leafy greens:  Leafy greens like kale, Swiss chard, spinach are excellent sources of b-vitamins and magnesium.  Magnesium is considered a calming mineral that is necessary for hundreds of chemical reactions in the body.

Lentils and other beans:  Lentils, garbanzo beans, navy beans, kidney and pinto beans are all excellent sources of folate.

Stay hydrated:  Drinking at least two quarts of water each day – more if you are very active- will help your body function optimally.  Clear to light yellow pee is a good indication of proper hydration.  Hydration can be achieved through drinking non caffeinated drinks or eating water rich foods like watermelon and other fruits and vegetables.

Whole grain foods:  Whole grains contain valuable b vitamins and magnesium.  Whole grains can also be a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that forms the basis of serotonin.  Brown rice, amaranth, teff, oats, millet, quinoa and barley are all excellent sources for whole grains.

L-Theanine:  L-Theanine is an amino acid that helps form the neurotransmitter GABA.  It is also important in the regulation of dopamine and serotonin.  It can be taken in a supplement form but is also found in green tea.  Do not take theanine if you are on medication for high blood pressure.

Adaptagenic Herbs:  Cortisol, a hormone released during periods of stress, can cause serotonin receptors in the brain to become less responsive.  Adaptagenic herbs like reishi, ashwagandha, holy basil and rhodiola help improve the health of your adrenal system, the system that’s in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress.  This improved adrenal response helps your body cope with anxiety.

Chamomile:  Drinking chamomile tea or taking chamomile supplements may help reduce anxiety due to the presence of chemicals that bind to the same brain receptors as Valium.  There is no standard dose of chamomile.   However, a recent study used 220 mgs daily in capsule form to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms.   You can also drink between 1-4 cups of chamomile tea daily to enjoy some these anxiety reducing benefits.

Passionflower:  Passionflower is a sedative herb that can be helpful in the reduction of anxiety and sleeplessness.  It should not be taken with other sedative herbs or drugs, with blood thinner drugs or MAOI drugs or taken for more than 1 month at a time.  To take: drink 1 tsp of herb steeped for 10 minutes in 1 cup of water 3-4 times a day or take a tincture.

Other Remedies

Exercise:  Just twenty minutes a day of vigorous exercise (particularly outdoors) has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety.  Both exercise and sunshine help raise serotonin levels.

4-7-8 Breathing:  Adding a twice a day breathing routine to your daily routine can greatly reduce your anxiety.  To start, completely blow all the breath out of your body.  Now inhale through your nose for a count of four.  Next, hold your breath for a count of seven. Slowly, for a count of eight, let it out through your mouth.  Repeat for at least 4 cycles.

Practice Mindfulness:  For many, worries about the future are the root cause of anxiety.  Practicing mindfulness, in which you train the brain to stay present in the moment, helps interrupt this focus on worries about future events.  Start with as little as ten minutes a day in which you sit comfortably, noticing what is happening in the moment, including your breath, sensations on your skin and noises around you.  The free app Stop, Breathe and Think offers short guided mediations that might also be helpful.

Sleep:  Be sure to get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night to help reduce stress.  Studies have shown that a lack of sleep may play a role in activating brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying.

Improve digestion:  If you suffer from digestive issues like loose stools, constipation, gas, burping or heart burn, you may not be getting all the nutrients you are ingesting.  Working with a nutritionist or medical professional to improve digestion may increase your absorption of vitamins and minerals.

Light therapy:  For people who experienced increase anxiety as the days get shorter in the winter, exposure to a light box, particularly in the morning time might help reduce anxiety.

Epsom Salt Baths:  Adding a cup of Epsom salts to a warm bath before bed gives your body added magnesium which is considered a calming mineral.

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