Nutrition And Self-Care For Stressed Out And Anxious Minds

Nutrition and self-care toolkit to ease stress and anxiety.

Nutrition And Self-Care For Stressed Out And Anxious Minds photo

Reclaim your spark for life by creating your own self-care toolkit to ease stress and anxiety

The Mental Health Foundation describes anxiety as ‘a feeling of unease, worry or fear’, which may be persistent or severe, whereas stress is ‘the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure’.1,2 This article refers to the type of stress that can be detrimental to health, rather than mild stress that can sometimes motivate us to get things done.

Anxiety underlies conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias. These conditions can be distressing and may be triggered by stressful and traumatic events, or by periods of prolonged low-level stress, therefore anxiety and stress often go hand in hand. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic was a particularly stressful time for many, during which it is thought that the global prevalence of anxiety disorders (normally 7.3%) tripled.3

Symptoms of general anxiety can include feeling on edge, a sense of dread or impending doom, restlessness, difficulty concentrating and irritability. Anxiety may show up in the body as shortness of breath, fatigue, dry mouth, stomach ache, headache, insomnia, achy muscles and heart palpitations.4

Symptoms of stress can be similar, but may also include racing thoughts, difficulty switching off, anxiety, low mood, feeling overburdened and tearful. Like anxiety, these symptoms may impact on sleep, work, relationships, sex, energy levels, diet and lifestyle habits. Stress can also contribute to a myriad of physical symptoms such as chest tightness, unexplained aches and pains, exhaustion, teeth grinding, digestive issues, dizziness, high blood pressure and headaches.5

Constantly being in a stressed and anxious state can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation over time, which can worsen anxiety and increase the risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, autoimmune conditions and cancer.6 Therefore it’s important to find ways to manage this before it gets out of control.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom! The good news is there are lots of strategies out there backed by science that can help.

Optimal nutrition and self-care practices can provide a solid foundation to help stress and anxiety, and can be a useful complementary approach alongside other strategies such as medication and talking therapies.

Use the suggestions below to create your own self-care toolkit to ease stress and anxiety

Tool 1 - Hack your PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System)

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the part of our nervous system that activates the fight or flight stress response, contributing to symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) on the other hand is responsible for the relaxation response (rest and digestive processes), of which 75% is controlled by the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve which runs from the brain to the gut.7

Chronic stress and anxiety can cause the fight or flight response to go into overdrive, whilst vagus nerve activity is reduced. This has a negative impact on our health, causing low blood pressure, poor digestion, low blood sugar levels, dizziness, nausea and even fainting. However, certain activities can stimulate the vagus nerve (your rest and digest system), which helps to reduce stress hormones, and lessen the intensity of the sympathetic nervous system, helping to return your body back to a state of healthy balance.

The following activities have been found to stimulate vagal nerve activity. Choose at least one vagus nerve-stimulating activity per day from the list below to help ease anxiety and induce calm:8-14

  • Deep and slow belly breathing with a longer exhalation than inhalation - watch a video on how to do this here
  • Yoga
  • Watch a comedy/laughter
  • Cold shower (if you’re feeling brave!)
  • Sing, hum or chant a mantra
  • Listen to pleasurable music
  • Loving kindness meditation - a helpful guide on this meditation can be found here

The key to their effectiveness is consistent, regular practice. Five to ten minutes daily is likely to be more beneficial than doing just one long meditation each month.

Tool 2 - Nourish your stress response!

During times of prolonged stress and anxiety, the brain is frequently perceiving threats and sending messages to the adrenal glands to trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This increases the normal demand for important nutrients involved in the production of stress hormones, including magnesium, vitamin B5 and vitamin C.15

Chronic stress is an energy-intensive physiological process and over time is likely to lead to burn out. If your diet lacks the above nutrients or you have digestive issues potentially affecting nutrient absorption, your adrenal glands may struggle to produce sufficient cortisol, leading to poor stress resilience and leaving you more susceptible to feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion.

So how can you increase your intake of these nutrients?

As a starting point, increase your intake of foods rich in these nutrients:

  • Vitamin B5 - mushrooms, salmon, avocado, chicken, beef liver, sunflower seeds, whole milk, sweet potatoes, lentils, oranges, nutritional yeast, pecan nuts and oatmeal.

  • Magnesium - dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans such as butter beans and black beans, brown rice, cacao, avocados and bananas.

  • Vitamin C - Bell peppers, kiwi, oranges, lemons, broccoli, strawberries, papaya, blackcurrants, Brussels sprouts, potato skin.

If you’re already at the point of exhaustion, it may feel difficult to find the energy to make dietary changes. Consider taking a multi vitamin and mineral to give your body a helping hand, or alternatively, try a combination of supplements that include vitamin B-complex, magnesium and vitamin C. However these should only be taken in the short-term whilst you focus on making dietary and lifestyle changes.

Magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate are good bioavailable forms of magnesium dietary supplements. For vitamin C, choose the ascorbate form rather than ascorbic acid, which is gentler on the stomach.

Excessive caffeine consumption can lower magnesium and overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), contributing to anxiety and sleep problems, therefore is best avoided.16

What about medicinal herbs for stress and anxiety?

Herbs such as valerian root, lemon balm, hops, passionflower and skullcap have traditionally been used for anxiety and sleep problems due to their potential to stimulate gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter.17

Ashwagandha is a popular Ayurvedic adaptogenic herb that may help to improve resilience to stress by protecting against stress-induced inflammation, enhancing memory, reducing fatigue and modulating the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis which controls the stress response.18

However, herbal supplements have the potential to interact with medications and may be contraindicated with certain health conditions, therefore it’s advisable to seek guidance from a medical herbalist or registered nutritional therapist to ensure these are safe to take.

Tool 3 - Support a healthy gut microbiome

The gut and brain communicate with each other via complex pathways involving the nervous system, gut microbes, immune cells and hormones. This is known as the gut-brain axis.

If the gut is inflamed, leaky, or there is an imbalance of gut microbes (gut dysbiosis), due to a highly processed, high sugar diet, chronic stress, alcohol, food sensitivities or frequent antibiotic use, inflammatory chemicals are released which can affect the brain and contribute to anxiety.19 So if you are feeling anxious for no reason, this could be a sign that your beneficial gut bugs need some attention.

Here are 4 ways to support your gut microbiome through diet to ease anxiety:

1. Include fibre

Beneficial microbes require fibre (prebiotics) to thrive and multiply. Aim to consume 30g of fibre daily. Gut microbes are particularly fond of onions, leeks, artichokes, bananas, oats, asparagus, garlic, berries and cacao. Fibre can increase specific microbes in the gut which produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that may reduce anxiety through lowering inflammation.20

2. Consume fermented products

These include unpasteurised sauerkraut, yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, miso, natto, kimchi and tempeh. They provide a natural source of beneficial bacteria that may support a healthy gut and help to reduce elevated inflammatory markers associated with anxiety disorders.21

3. Try a probiotic

Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria taken as a supplement or in fermented foods to support health. Different strains can have different functions. The following species have been studied for their potential benefits on reducing anxiety:19

  • Bifidobacterium longum
  • Lactobacillus species - casei, gasseri, helveticus, reuteri, rhamnosus
  • Saccharomyces boulardii
  • Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron

4. Avoid highly processed, sugary foods

Cakes, biscuits, crisps, crackers and sweets can cause rapid peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels, potentially contributing to low energy, irritability, and anxiety.22

Sugary foods, soft drinks, fast food and processed meat, combined with low fibre intake can allow pro-inflammatory types of gut bacteria to thrive, which may worsen anxiety.23

Instead, include the following nutrient-rich foods in your diet:

  • Different coloured fruits, vegetables, culinary herbs and spices
  • Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, rye or wholegrain bread, wholewheat pasta, quinoa, oats and sweet potatoes.
  • Healthy fats for example olive oil, olives, nuts, nut butters, tahini, seeds, avocados, coconut oil and oily fish.
  • Good quality protein such as meat, eggs, fish, tofu, legumes, beans and quinoa.

Tool 4 - Move in nature

Multiple scientific studies indicate that spending time in nature such as forests, woodlands or other natural spaces can reduce stress hormones, promote relaxation and improve resilience to stress.24

Organic compounds naturally released by trees have also been shown to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit psychological and cognitive health.24

Exercise may be an effective strategy for managing anxiety disorders particularly when combined with medication, as it can provide a distraction from anxious thoughts and boost feel-good transmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.25

Consider taking a brisk walk, going for a run or bike ride in your local natural, green spaces!

Tool 5 - Reach out for help

Whilst the above tools can be extremely valuable for managing stress and anxiety, they may not be sufficient alone in the case of severe anxiety disorders or where the source of stress is not easily resolved.

Sometimes we need a helping hand and that’s okay. Consider speaking to your doctor about support available to help you cope such as talking therapies or medication. It’s important not to feel alone.

Key Takeaways

In summary, there are a variety of options to consider for reducing stress and anxiety. These include vagus nerve hacks and woodland walks to induce calm, specific vitamins, minerals and herbs to support the body during chronic stress, and support for the gut-brain axis through increased fibre, fermented foods and probiotic supplementation. We hope that you find this self-care kit for stress and anxiety useful!

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  2. Mental Health Foundation. Stress. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress (2021)
  3. Santabárbara J, et al. Prevalence of anxiety in the COVID-19 pandemic: An updated meta-analysis of community-based studies. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry [internet] 2020 Dec109: 110207.
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