Diet tips to combat stress and anxiety

Written by
Mary Cotter

31 Aug 2017

31 Aug 2017 • by Mary Cotter

Support your adrenals

Stress stimulates your adrenal glands, increasing the secretion of hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin.

This increases demand for B vitamins and depletes calcium, magnesium and potassium.

For this reason, it is really important to include variety in your daily diet and consume plenty of colourful vegetables, nuts and seeds. 

Choose from plant based sources of calcium that also naturally contain magnesium and potassium.

Magnesium helps to calm the nervous system, relaxes muscles and helps to switch off that stress response.

Examples include:

  • kale
  • cabbage
  • sesame seeds (or tahini)
  • tofu 
  • soy beans 

Meal suggestions: Try making a stir fry with soybeans, kale and sesame seeds and switch processed snacks for oatcakes dipped in hummus (which contains tahini). 

Assess your stimulant intake

Stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol and smoking alter brain chemistry and behaviour. Avoid caffeine as much as possible. This alone has a major effect on reducing anxiety. 

Caffeine from tea, coffee, cola and chocolate is a stimulant. Stimulants put the body on ‘high alert’ triggering the release of stress hormones. If you are already stressed, caffeine will only make things worse. Gradually reduce your intake and if possible stick to herbal teas instead. Chamomile helps calm nerves.

Alcohol is a brain depressant and can make stress and anxiety worse as it lowers levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin and depletes important B vitamins.

Uplifting B vitamins

Vitamins B6, B12 and folate are three very important and uplifting vitamins whose job it is to keep your brain chemicals in balance. They are involved in methylation.

Methylation is the process the body uses to make brain chemicals such as serotonin. When we are stressed the body’s B vitamin requirements increase. Vitamin B6 and folate are not stored in the body and must be consumed daily.

B6 can be found in: 

  • sunflower seeds
  • spinach
  • banana 
  • sweet potato 

The best sources of folate are: 

  • beans
  • lentils
  • green vegetables 

Meal suggestions: Try making a cauliflower and chickpea curry, adding lentils to homemade soup and adding mixed seeds to your porridge. 

Balance your blood sugar

When your blood sugar dips this promotes the release of adrenal hormones, as do stimulants such as caffeine and sugar.

The first step towards reducing anxiety is to balance your blood sugar by eating a low glycaemic diet containing slow-release carbohydrates eaten with protein and good fats. This means swapping white rice and white pasta for brown varieties, swapping cous cous for quinoa and choosing sweet potato instead of white. 

Meal suggestions: 

  • For breakfast, this could be porridge with a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts and cinnamon. 
  • A lentil and vegetable soup at lunch with oatcakes instead of bread.

Work on the quality of your snacks, and choose protein rich snacks such as a handful of nuts or seeds instead of a cereal bar. 

The mineral chromium helps to even out blood sugar by making you more sensitive to insulin – that’s the hormone that keeps blood sugar level even.

Chromium is found in: 

  • cinnamon
  • oats
  • romaine lettuce 
  • broccoli

Have the 'guts' to feel happy

Known as the gut-brain access, the bacteria in your gut communicate with your brain. An example of this communication is when you experience butterflies in your stomach. Looking after the friendly bacteria in your gut has a direct impact on how you feel mentally. 

How to support gut bacteria: Eat prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotics are the good bacteria that colonise in your gut and support your immune system as well as optimal digestion and mood. Prebiotics are what feed the good bacteria. 

Prebiotics include: 

  • ground flaxseeds
  • onions
  • garlic

Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as:

  • organic tofu
  • raw kefir
  • kombucha
  • ‘live’ full-fat natural yoghurt from a health food store  

If this all sounds a bit alien, consider supplementing with a probiotic capsule (not probiotic drinks, these are too sugary and processed). A registered nutritional therapist can help you. 

The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D is produced when our skin is exposed to the sunshine during the summer months. Most of us work long hours five days a week, don’t take a lunch break outdoors and barely see daylight let alone sunlight.

Vitamin D deficiency is rife and is linked with an increased risk of depression and mood disorders.

  • Aim to spend 15 minutes a day in the sun in order to increase your vitamin D
  • Get your levels tested and supplement accordingly.

Making these changes will give you more clarity and energy to then deal with underlying life and psychological issues that generate anxiety, such as areas of insecurity and the overwhelming feeling of having too much to do.