Managing Anxiety and Stress Through Nutrition and Lifestyle
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Needless to say, the last several weeks have been stressful. We're all managing new realities and routines under very different circumstances from just a month ago. The financial and emotional stress is compounded further by those actually facing illness. It's a challenging time for everyone. I thought I'd offer some simple tips to keep the stress and strangeness from over-powering us. There are lots of suggestions listed below. Pick 1 or 2 or a few that resonate with you to start, and try to work them into your day-to-day.
1. Minimize or eliminate caffeine. Caffeine increases the circulation of stress
hormones in the body and suppresses the calming neurotransmitter GABA. It is the essential neurotransmitter for feeling relaxed and calm. Caffeine can also contribute to restless sleep, lack of deep sleep and insomnia. Sleep is one of the ways that our immune system 'cleans house' - getting rid of toxins and debris. Therefore, anything that compromises your sleep should be flagged and addressed.
Caffeine is so disruptive to mood and well-being, that it is used in studies to induce panic attacks. It can so reliably cause panic attacks, that researchers will give test subjects with anxiety 480 mg of caffeine (about the same amount as in a Starbucks Venti blonde roast) and more than 60% will experience a panic attack that can then be studied.
Often times its the texture, aroma, and feel of a hot beverage that we crave more than the drink itself. Experiment with different options and try to get into a new routine with your beverage of choice. Green tea has much lower concentrations of caffeine so it's a great alternative if you're slowly dialing down the caffeine. Mushroom teas like chaga have immune-boosting and anti-viral properties in addition to its earthy-flavor. There are plenty of brands of non-caffeinated teas that taste like coffee. I love the smell and flavor of Teecino's Hazelnut blend that's actually an herbal tea. You can also try my recipe for golden milk latte as a caffeine-free option that I think is just the best.
2. Improve your capacity to cope with stress with herbs. Ashwagandha is an age-old Ayurvedic herb with an impressive history and no known toxicity. It is known as an adaptogenic herb, which means it can regulate hormones as needed. If there is a deficiency, it will increase levels; and if there is an excess, it will decrease levels. Many studies have shown that ashwagandha will significantly and substantially lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. The best way to think about the effects of ashwagandha is that it will increase your capacity to handle the stressors in your life. A dose of 300 mg - 500 mg per day, with at least 5%-8% withanolides (the active ingredient) is a good place to start. Some people see a difference right away, but, generally, you need to take it for several weeks before you can really feel the effects. *One note of caution: ashwagandha is a nightshade, and therefore, those with autoimmune conditions may be more sensitive to it. If you have a known sensitivity to peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc., then you may be sensitive to ashwagandha as well.
3. Improve your capacity to cope with stress by eating anti-anxiety foods:
Eat fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, etc. that are high in Omega 3 fats and helpful in suppressing inflammation.
Eat good fats with every meal: olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, coconut oil
Eat enough protein with each meal. Proteins are the raw materials for making the neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating your mood.
Drink bone broth. Bone broth contains lots of glutamine, which is the amino acid needed to make GABA, the calming neurotransmitter. Drink it freely and daily.
Aim to have whole, unprocessed foods form the bulk of your diet. Aim to eat 7-9 servings of vegetables
Avoid processed foods, with refined grains and sugars (even those that say made with 'whole grains'). Highly processed foods, know as 'fast carbohydrates', are known to suppress mood. The inflammation brought on by these foods has been linked with increased rates of depression and anxiety. Even if you don't have a diagnosed issue, you are still susceptible to feeling down, depressed and anxious from eating inflammatory foods. Eliminate these foods or keep them to a minimum, this includes chips, sodas, crackers, breads, candy, most store-bought desserts, etc.
Avoid or eliminate gluten as much as possible. Not only is gluten a highly inflammatory food that can aggravate anxiety, many people with anxiety have undiagnosed food sensitivities that can make the whole situation worse.
Cut back on alcohol. Even though alcohol has a popular reputation for being 'relaxing', it's in reality a highly processed sugar that causes a lot of inflammation in the body. And as mentioned above, inflammation puts you at greater risk for feeling anxious and depressed. It also forces your liver to use up its prized supply of the antioxidant glutathione just to neutralize the toxic damage that alcohol wreaks after ingestion. So although you may feel relaxed for a while when consuming alcohol, the downstream damaging effects are far more long-lasting than the few hours of superficial relaxation a couple of drinks will bring you. And finally, if that's not enough: it suppresses your immune system, which is the last thing any of us need in this current climate!
4. Establish a calming evening routine and prioritize sleep. Make a routine for yourself each evening. Include things like meditation, herbal tea, journaling, aromatherapy, an Epsom salt bath, gratitude prayers, etc. Make a more elaborate regimen for evenings when you have extra time to indulge yourself and a shorter routine for when you don't. But the key here is to make plan consisting of 1, 2 or 5 things so that you come into the habit and expectation of calming down, relaxing and getting ready for restful sleep.
5. Start a meditation practice. Start meditating for 2 minutes per day. Yes, literally just 2 minutes. The key is consistency. Gradually increase to 5, 10, 15, etc. If you already have a meditation practice, aim to increase it by a few minutes. A meditation practice has a host of benefits, but the most relevant one here is that it is proven to decrease anxiety and stress. Other benefits include improving attention, improving blood pressure, improving self-awareness, and improving sleep - all good things. And the list goes on. Use the following links to help get you started: https://www.lifehack.org/759767/meditation-for-beginners and https://missionmeditation.com/learning-how-to-meditate-for-beginners/
I hope that the suggestions above help you find a some relief from the current chaos and uncertainty. Peace.
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