By Brian Robinson.
Everything that is capable of causing stress in the body must come under the microscope when it comes to dealing with anxiety. That holds true because high tension levels actually cause anxiety. What we eat clearly holds the potential to increase stress. Too much salt; allergens; poor diet; all hold that potential to increase stress along with countless others. However, there is another reason why what we eat is important. Our digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system; which in turn is part of our autonomic nervous system; which in fact is the very system that initiates and regulates fight or flight. What this means in practice, is that what we eat, when we eat, and the way we eat, can be used as a direct means of communication with our peripheral nervous system. Indeed, it could be argued that Communication Therapy in all its forms is the overriding therapy that facilitates recovering from anxiety.
It would be misleading to suggest that a poor diet could cause anxiety. However, a poor diet and bad eating habits certainly can make things worse. And conversely, a healthy diet and good eating habits can improve matters. What follows then, is intended to put a spotlight on some of the dietary and eating issues. It is not intended to recommend a particular diet. That information should only be sought from doctors or nutritional professionals.
Hypoglycemia is where sugar levels drop too low or fluctuate dramatically over the day. Too low a level and the body simply runs out of steam, becomes stressed and can start to release adrenaline. You may experience symptoms like weakness, sweating or dizziness. Too high a sugar level can also lead to stress insofar as the body has to increase insulin levels to cope with the extra sugar. Too high a level also acts as a stimulant and stimulants generally speaking are bad for anxiety.
Some foods release their sugar gradually, for example, whole wheat brown bread, porridge and most fruit and vegetables. Other foods like sugary foods or foods that have been through a process release their glucose more rapidly. Examples of quick release foods would be cornflakes, rice crispies, white bread or white boiled white rice.
The rate at which foods release their sugar is known as their glycaemic index. You can get a list of foods and their glycaemic index quite easily on the internet. Ideally, we are looking for a diet that keeps our blood sugar at the correct level evenly throughout the day. Sugar peaks and troughs are best avoided.
However, it would be a mistake to think that all foods with a high GI are bad and should be avoided. There are other ways of managing high GI foods. For example, if you eat rice crispies which has a high GI, with low fat milk which has a low GI, this will tend to slow down the overall sugar release of the meal.
It is also worth remembering that the way foods are processed can affect the way sugar is released. For example boiled potatoes release at a slower rate than mashed potatoes. This is so because the boiled potatoes haven’t been through the mashing process.
Another way of controlling sugar levels is through food intake. We can do this either by eating light snacks in between meals, or by eating say five lighter meals over the day.
Vitamin deficiency and a lack of nutrients can also lead to stresses in the body which may affect our mental health. This is all the more important for anxiety suffers because anxiety can be a further drain on our chemical resources. The following is a list of nutrients which if deficient can be linked to mental health issues:
Vitamin C: found in citrus fruit, green vegetables, potatoes and tomato.
Thiamine: found in whole grain cereals, nuts, fish and fortified breakfast cereals.
Niacin: contained in whole grain cereal, pulses, meat, fish and liver.
Folic Acid and B12: contained in liver, kidney, yeast extract, green vegetables, meat and eggs.
Magnesium: found in pulses, whole grain cereals, and green leafy vegetables.
Generally speaking, if you maintain a healthy diet and do not exclude any food groups, you should naturally get all the vitamins and nutrients you need.
Food allergies can play a part in anxiety because our bodies may feel it is coming under attack and therefore it becomes stressed. As we get older our bodies become less tolerant of certain foods, like cows milk or wheat for example, and so we should be on the look out for reactions to certain foods.
Stimulants such as caffeine have a known connection with anxiety. When you take a stimulant there is an amplifying effect and this can tend to make you feel worse. Caffeine is present in chocolate, coke and diet coke as well as tea and coffee. If you are going to cut down from a very high intake of caffeine, then this is best done slowly to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol and nicotine are also know to be connected with anxiety. Both are seen as poisons and can stress the body. Other substances like too much salt, chemicals found in preservatives, meat hormones and so on, can all place the body under stress.
It’s also worth noting that when we become anxious we tend to lose our appetite. It does not make sense to eat when you are in danger because the digestive system takes up valuable resources. If we stop eating, or eat very little, this tends to send a ‘danger present’ signal to our nervous system. When anxious, we should always start the day with a breakfast and then try and eat a little every three hours or so.
It is never a good idea to rush meals or eat foods on the run. This also sends a danger present signal. And when eating, try and over chew and savour the food. This is how people eat when they feel safe and relaxed.
Many nutritionists and some doctors believe that diet alone can solve anxiety, the suggestion here and in the other modules, is that this would be too narrow an approach. However, eating a variety of the right sort of food, while cutting down on the wrong foods, can have a significant effect on anxiety.