The winter months can bring on anxiety for many. For some, it’s post-holiday blues. For others, it’s the long days without sunshine. For many, it boils down to diet—the foods you eat could be causing or increasing your stress and worry. In addition to being a drain on your brain, anxiety can cause people to overeat. Over time, that just makes the situation worse—the more you eat, the bigger you get, the worse more you, the greater your chances of having an anxiety attack about it all.
Rather than get into that vicious cycle, here are some ways to use food to keep your anxiety in check.
Stay hydrated. On many levels, water is the great healer. By staying hydrated, you’ll be more alert and less likely to have mood-altering headaches or body cramps. You may even lose weight!
Eat whole grains. Brown rice, whole-grain bread, and other such foods break down more slowly and therefore take longer to release sugar into the bloodstream. That can help you avoid the high-and-crash of processed carbs such as white bread.
Limit processed sugars. Sugary snacks and drinks might give you a quick boost for an hour or two, but the crash that follows can have you confined to the couch. What you’re feeling is a rush of insulin followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar levels. One exception is a small portion of dark chocolate, which contains compounds that lower cortisol or the stress hormone.
Be sure you have plenty of B. You might be experiencing anxiety if your body is deficient in vitamin B and folic acid. Supplements can give you back the vitamin B your body is missing, or bring in foods such as nuts, eggs, leafy greens, legumes, chicken, and citrus fruits.
Watch the salt. High-sodium foods can lead to fluid retention, bloating, and high blood pressure—all factors that can raise levels of anxiety and diminish your health.
Eat more turkey. Tryptophan is an amino acid, and consuming it can help your brain produce serotonin—a feel-good chemical that calms you. Turkey is one of the most well-known sources, of tryptophan, but bananas, oats, nuts, and some other foods also contain it.
Feast on fish. Salmon, lake trout, tuna, sardines, and anchovies contain omega-3 fatty acids. Not only can omega-3s improve your mood, but they may also help lower your risk of heart disease.
Cut the caffeine. Coffee and sodas may give you a burst of energy, but drinking these too late in the day can keep you up at night, giving you plenty of time to ratchet up your anxiety levels mulling over a checklist of worries.
Don’t overdo alcohol. Some people have a few drinks because they believe it helps them wind down and relax. But the truth is that too much alcohol can be a depressant. It’s also a diuretic, which can be dehydrating. Much of it is loaded with processed sugar. And too much can elevate liver enzymes—a real problem for someone with fatty liver, my area of specialty. If you must drink, consider one glass of wine with a meal.
Know your sensitivities. Food sensitivities can cause inflammation or even unhealthy reactions. Certainly, if you are sensitive to gluten and dairy products, then avoiding or limiting these in your diet can reduce your anxiety levels. That goes for artificial sweeteners, too. Some contain ingredients that can actually trigger headaches and mood changes.
As a hepatologist, I specialize in that all-important organ of the body, the liver. I work with patients daily who are on the path to life-threatening illness—and most of the time it’s because of how they’ve viewed nutrition and eating, and now their liver is paying the price. Yes, their mood, and their overall health, is affected by what they eat. I see it every day.
A healthy, well-balanced diet is not only good for your nervous system, but for your overall health. And what better way to reduce stress than to feel great all the time?