As the days start to shorten and an autumn chill comes back into the evening air, many people start to experience an uptick in feelings of anxiousness. Anticipating dark cold days, returning to school, and letting go of the “freedom” of summer can cause us to worry more, and feel less at ease. When that happens, we often look to certain foods like sugar, chips, coffee and alcohol to help relieve some of our symptoms. However, that can actually exacerbate anxiety.
Our gut is referred to as our second brain for good reason
Our gut is now referred to as our second brain, because there is such a strong connection between the brain and the gut. That’s because most (upwards of 80%!) of our neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine are produced in the gut. The gut has three times as many nerves sending input to the brain as the brain has for communicating to the gut. The connection between digestion and mood is imperative to understand – and is often overlooked.
Amino acids are essential for the creation of neurochemicals
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are essential to the creation of neurochemicals. If we are not eating plenty of protein, the gut doesn’t have the required building blocks, leaving us deficient in both calming and focusing neurotransmitters. Eating a variety of well-raised meats and plant-based proteins is the best way to ensure you’re getting the proper array of amino acids.
The brain and nervous system are primarily made up of fat
Every cell in your body is surrounded by a layer of fat, which helps nutrients and waste to get in and out of the cell. Eating healthy fats ensures proper cell-to-cell communication and optimal nerve function so the brain and the gut can be well connected. These fats are known as “essential” fatty acids because our body cannot produce them and requires that we consume them in our diet. Foods to focus on are coconut and olive oils, grass-fed meats and butter, raw nuts and seeds, whole fat organic dairy, salmon and deep sea fish, eggs, and avocados.
Crucial role B vitamins play in biochemical pathways
B vitamins play a crucial role in the biochemical pathways that help create balanced neurotransmitters. They regulate mood, reproductive hormones, and energy production. They are also heavily used when we are stressed. And, they are water-soluble, so the body cannot store them. The foods loaded with vitamin B’s are avocado, whole unprocessed grains, meat, eggs, dairy, sunflower seeds, almonds and dark leafy greens. And don’t forget to incorporate nutritional yeast into your diet as it contains the highest levels of B vitamins of any food!
Caffeine, refined sugar and carbs, trans-fats, and alcohol
Foods like caffeine, refined sugar and carbs, trans-fats, and alcohol can all deplete B vitamins so avoiding these foods during times of heightened anxiety or stress is essential. Because our stress response system was built for evolutionary survival, when we perceive a threat or stressor, our body will seek out high-calorie foods so we can have enough fuel to fight or flee. In our modern environment, we rarely face a threat that uses these extra calories so we end up storing the extra carbs as fat which then secretes more cortisol (or stress hormone). Simply being aware of this natural tendency can help us to self-soothe in other ways like exercise or deep breathing so we can avoid the trap of using junk foods to ease anxiety and worry.
Nicola Dehlinger, ND, graduated from SCNM in 2004. Dr Nicola sees clients from around the world in her naturopathic medical practice, Pura Vida Natural Healthcare, in Durango, CO. She is an expert in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. She is able to minimize supplements and medications as her patients become empowered to heal themselves. In addition to seeing clients, Dr Nicola leads group and private retreats. She also teaches a variety of online and in-person classes. In her free time, you can find Dr Nicola in the mountains or the kitchen, enjoying time with her husband, son, and their dogs. Website: www.puravidahealthcare.com