Eating To Defeat Anxiety




Anxiety attack help is still seen by many as popping a Valium, or perhaps breathing into a paper bag. While such actions may be effective at the time, one has to wonder if it is not also possible to avoid or diminish anxiety or panic attacks, without the person at risk being forced to avoid stressors or otherwise constrain their daily activities.

As it happens, the answer is not just probably, but definitely “yes”. Exercise, meditation of various types and cognitive-behavioral therapy have all been shown to be effective ways of managing both the frequency and severity of anxiety attacks. On a physical level, just like exercise (particularly aerobic exercise) stabilizes hormone levels and improves metabolism, good nutrition also impacts the brain in a very direct sense. This means that a person’s mood is more stable and they are less likely to spiral into an uncontrollable, physical fight or flight state.  “Activity scheduling entails creating a plan, say, Sunday night, for the week where you plot out times to be with people, take exercise classes, work on projects, etc. Often, people wait until a mood or motivation moves them. Rather than waiting for those tenuous experiences, I urge people to be proactive and follow their values. Don’t wait to feel better, but start to live better now.” Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD, LA-based clinical psychologist said.


Macronutrients refer to those things that make up the physical bulk of the food we consume: protein, starch, fiber and so on. Although stable blood sugar and insulin levels are very important to health – including our state of mind – the high levels of diabetes (almost 10% in the United States) indicates that few people are aware of this, or are not concerned about it on a practical level.


The convenience and uncomplicated tastiness of highly processed food and snacks supercharged with sugar often make these win out over healthier alternatives. Reducing general anxiety, as well as acute attacks, may be as simple as eating less packaged baked goods, deep-fried items, alcohol and sugar of all types. Opting instead for snacks and meals that contain some fiber, such as fruit, salads and whole grains, as well as combining protein with carbs, perhaps by including an egg in your breakfast, helps slow down digestion and prevents blood sugar from see-sawing. This also keeps a person from feeling hungry sooner – hunger, irritability, and anxiety often go together.


There is one surprising macronutrient with a powerful effect on mood: ordinary water. A large proportion of people are chronically dehydrated without ever realizing it, which results in stress and anxiety having a more profound impact. While the amount of water each person needs depends on many factors, cutting out alcohol, tobacco, and soda, all of which result in increased urination, is certainly a good start in more ways than one.


Brain Chemicals

As a general rule of thumb, certain vegetables are associated with the health of specific organs. Artichokes are supposed to support the liver, asparagus assists kidney function and broccoli helps out the lungs.


Although many of these correlations are anecdotal, each organ does indeed have certain special nutritional requirements, certainly including the brain. Perhaps the most important of these is folate, found in vegetables such as asparagus and spinach.


According to Jennifer Bradley, Psy.D., HSPP, Clinical Psychologist,” When we are imbalanced, we develop various types of difficulties, including psychological and/or physical symptoms, and we begin to use ineffective or damaging coping mechanisms.” All kinds of mental or physical stress, including anxiety, lead to oxidative cell damage in the brain. This can usually be repaired naturally and quickly, but only if sufficient antioxidants can reach the affected tissue. Of particular importance in this regard is vitamin C, which our bodies can neither manufacture nor store. Citrus fruit and berries of all kinds at breakfast are a good source, and the latter also supply numerous phytochemicals that are crucial to our health, even though only small amounts are needed.


Potassium, magnesium, zinc, and calcium come last on this list, not because they are not absolutely essential to healthy and calm nerves, but because any balanced diet should already include enough of all of them. If in doubt, milk, broccoli, bananas, almonds, legumes and spinach can all be eaten a little more often.


Vegetarians Take Note

B vitamins also play a very important part in healthy brain function, and are typically found mostly in meat, eggs and dairy products. For vegans, avocados, seeds and nuts are acceptable options, but anyone suffering from anxiety should consider having a doctor do a blood test to check B vitamin levels. There are, for instance, few good non-animal sources of B 12, and vegetarians commonly resort to supplements to stay healthy.


Stress is also significantly reduced by including enough omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in your diet, which helps to manage the levels of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Free-range eggs, bone broth and oily fish such as salmon and sardines provide adequate quantities. Vegans and vegetarians are once again out of luck in this regard, although walnuts, chia and hemp seeds can help to fill the gap. “Eat a healthful diet, that is low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in vitamins and minerals. Specific dietary factors that may be beneficial in depression are the B-complex vitamins (found in whole grains) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in cold-water fish, fish oil, and flax seeds).” As advised by ADAA member Stephanie Kriesberg, PsyD.


In Case of Emergency, Make Tea


Numerous anecdotes about the British army involve the troops having a “brew up” even in the middle of pitched battles. As it happens, numerous herbs and flowers have a decided calming effect on the mind, not only when ingested but even when merely smelled.


The best known is probably chamomile, which is effective not only at the time it’s drunk or smelled, but may reduce anxiety over the long term with regular consumption. Some of the compounds the flowers contain affect the brain in a similar way to the drug Valium, but without any of the associated side effects.


Green tea, or its premium form, matcha, is a great source of a chemical called L-theatine, which promotes relaxation and alertness simultaneously. The Argentinean tea yerba mate has similar effects, and is nowadays often seen as an alternative to coffee.


Finally, a little amateur aromatherapy can have great benefits. The scents of hops, lavender, rose and ylangylang all have a calming effect, and can be found either as concentrated essential oils or incenses.


Food and Stress

Dealing with anxiety by binging on comfort food, usually meaning a dish stuffed with fats and sugars, often does more harm than good in the long run. Eating a balanced diet instead, and paying attention to possible deficiencies, is one way to shrug off anxiety attacks over the long term. If you feel your diet may be part of the problem (food is rarely the only thing that’s contributing to panic attacks), consulting a nutritionist may be unexpectedly helpful.