Nutrition for Stress and Anxiety

I know we are all hoping that when the clock struck twelve on January 31st that all of the
issues and stress of 2020 would magically disappear. Unfortunately, that is not the world we
are living in and the anxiety of money, health and personal well-being is still very real.
Luckily there are some easy nutritional adjustments you can make to allow your body to
better manage stress and to make anxiety feel less intense.

The simplest switch you can make is to balance blood sugar levels. This will not only benefit
your stress levels, but also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, so it’s a win-win. When
blood sugar is unsteady, so is your energy, your mood and the glucose availability to the brain.
Glucose is essential for the brain to function properly, so low levels inhibit speed of firing
(speed of thinking), neurotransmitter function and influence mood. When you have low blood
sugar, you are also more likely to feel dizzy and disoriented and that alone can perpetuate
anxiety. To combat this, do not go too long without food. It is normal to leave 4-5 hours
between meals, but anything too much longer be weary of. Fibre, protein and fat are also
the three key nutrients to include for balanced blood sugar. Fibre especially, slows the
absorption of glucose into the bloodstream and leaves you with sustained energy over time.
Keep nuts, seeds and dried fruit on hand as a snack or hummus and boiled eggs in the fridge
to add to meals. Also make sure to avoid simple carbohydrates like sugar, candy, cookies,
white bread, jam, crackers, chips etc. as these lead to high spikes in glucose (and insulin),
leading to a deep crash. This small change can make a huge difference.
Another thing to consider is protein intake. As mentioned above, protein helps manage blood
sugar levels but it is also what your neurotransmitters are made from. Without the building
blocks to make the correct amount of neurotransmitters, you will not have the proper
function in the brain, which can lead to higher anxiety episodes. Taurine is one amino acid in
particular that is similar in structure to GABA, the relaxation neurotransmitter. Taurine is also
useful for treating insomnia, mania and depression. Protein and taurine rich foods include
chicken, yogurt, beans, eggs, beef, lamb, non-GMO soy, almonds, cottage cheese and seeds.
The vegan, elderly and vegetarian athlete populations are the most at risk for protein
deficiency so if you fall into one or more of these categories, be especially mindful of your
protein intake.

Essential fatty acids are another macronutrient to monitor because essential fatty acids are
not naturally made in the body, therefore levels in the body are dependent on consumption
from food. Additionally, the brain is made of many fats. Nerve cells are coated in a fat
called myelin sheath, and this myelin allows our brain to make quick decisions and strong
connections. Without proper fat intake, our brain function is slowed and connections are not
made. In terms of stress, this could mean brain fog, confusion, low mood and improper brain
connections to the frontal cortex (rational thinking) or emotional centres. All of our cell
membranes are also all made of fats which makes fat absolutely essential.
Stress can also be elevated due to mineral levels in the body. Zinc is very important in the
body and antagonizes copper. Women who have a copper IUD should also be taking a zinc
supplement because these two minerals will compete for absorption in the body. With a
constant supply of copper from the IUD, zinc may not be absorbed as readily. Taking the birth
control pill can also raise copper levels in the body. It is actually the high ratio of copper to
zinc than can lead to anxiety, paranoia, extreme fears and schizophrenia (1). Another very
important mineral is magnesium. Many people are deficient in magnesium these days due to poor diet.

 

Magnesium has over 500 functions in the body including protein metabolism, energy
production, blood sugar regulation, muscle and nerve function and many other enzyme
reactions. Protein metabolism is a very important function is this sense, because many
proteins are needed to make neurotransmitters, as stated above. Magnesium also promotes
the function of the neurotransmitter GABA, the relaxation neurotransmitter. Supplement with
magnesium at night to promote relaxation of the mind and muscles and to promote sleep.
Additional consideration can be given to herbs. Adaptogens can be taken daily to help
balance cortisol levels, the stress hormone. They do not always increase or decrease levels,
but actually just find balance to keep you level-headed and able to manage stressful
situations better. I recommend holy basil (tulsi) and ashwagandha to be added to smoothies,
or taken as a pill. You can also find tulsi teas to enjoy throughout the day. L-theonine is
another option, which is an amino acid that is found in green tea. It acts to calm the body as
well and can be used for acute stress. Lastly, kava is an herb that is used for muscle
relaxation and headache relief as well as anxiety. Just be careful if you have liver issues with
this supplement and always make sure to check in with a health care practitioner before
taking any herbs or supplements. Everyone his different biology and an assessment is needed
to make sure each supplement is the right match for you. It is also very important to minimize
caffeine and stimulant use like cocaine, nicotine and some prescription meds. These can
increase cortisol levels and lead to blood sugar imbalance. They also increase the heart rate,
making panic and anxiety much easier physiologically. Try weening off coffee by switching to
tea or decaf and avoid recreational drugs.

Stress of course, is not just food related. There are many emotional and lifestyle factors
that can contribute to panic and stress. Therapy can be very useful to work through internal
issues that are leading to anxiety and a therapist can help you work through emotions safely.
Saying “no” more often can also be a very small action that has liberating impacts on your
mental health. Often times we feel like we “have” to do things to please others or in fear of
missing out (FOMO), when in fact, you are better off taking some chill time. Forcing yourself
to do something you do not want to do puts you in an anxious state of mind from the
beginning and then even the small things can make the situation progressively worse. Follow
your gut feeling (since the gut and brain are connected) and say no to things that do not make
you happy. It is okay to take a break and most of the time, you need it.
Most of all, take care of yourself. Stress and anxiety use a TON of bodily resources so it is
very tiring being in that state. Know that you are not alone and you are not broken. Some
people just need a little extra love and support to run optimally.

You got this.

Brook Lekopoy, RHN, BSc
(1) Optimum Nutrition for the Mind (2005), Patrick Holford