It is the most common mental health condition in Australia and when you’re in the grip of it, anxiety can seem unmanageable. But its bark is often worse than its bite and simple changes can go a long way in taming the beast.
Our diet is one, often overlooked way, understandably perhaps because we tend to think of what we eat as affecting our body instead of our brain.
Increasingly however, research shows that food indeed has the power to affect our mood and that mental health conditions, which can be the result of many factors, are not always “in your head”, but can be the result of a “whole-body disorder, with dysfunction of the immune system (chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation)”.
A poor diet has the potential to aggravate anxiety (and depression), while a nourishing diet can help to reduce the risk of it or, if you suffer from it, help to make it more manageable.
“This might seem far-fetched but the importance of nutrients for mental health is generally underestimated,” says Natalie Parletta, a senior research fellow in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Adelaide. “People’s immediate response regarding links between diet and mental health is that people who are anxious, depressed etc. are likely have poorer diets. And while this is certainly true, longitudinal studies have shown that people with poorer diets are more likely to suffer from mental illness over time. There are also established biological mechanisms to explain why we need nutrients for healthy brain function.”
When we are lacking in certain nutrients, it can manifest in the way we feel, explains nutritional medicine practitioner, Fiona Tuck.
“We can often get labelled as a certain type of person e.g. a worrier, OCD or a stress head when in actual fact there may be something more going on,” Tuck says. “Emotional outbursts, anxiety, mood disorders, obsessive routines and neurotic behaviour such as overreacting to certain situations and physical responses such as panic attacks, nail picking, nail biting, hair pulling and even eating disorders may be a sign that your body is deficient in certain nutrients.
“What we eat can play a huge role in how we are feeling and by making a few simple changes to our diet and lifestyle we may even see a reduction in these types of behaviours.”
Our cravings when we’re anxious or stressed, for example, can offer clues to the nutrients we need.
Tuck’s top tips to stay calm and stress free
- Cut back on stimulants and caffeine. Stimulants increase the adrenal hormones which may over stimulate the nervous system thereby heightening anxiety levels.
- Take a food allergy test. Sometimes symptoms of anxiety can be indicative of underlying food intolerance.
- Cut back on refined carbohydrates such as white bread, rice, pasta, sugar and alcohol. These foods can cause fluctuations in our blood sugar and our moods and are low in nutrients. Highly processed, high sugar foods can rob the body of further nutrients thereby increasing stress on the nervous system and the likelihood of further sugar and carbohydrate cravings.
- Cut back on packaged, processed foods such as packet sauces, cereals, processed meats, frozen meals and fizzy drinks. These tend to be highly processed, high in salt and sugar and low in nutrients.
– Sarah Berry