Anxiety is a complex condition influenced by many factors that vary from person to person. Medications and cognitive therapy can help, but nutrition can also be a powerful tool in addition to (or even instead of) these treatments. Below are some tips to make sure your diet is helping your anxiety and not making it worse.
Taken as a supplement, fish oil has myriad benefits, boosting everything from brain function to skin health.
Many who suffer from mental health disorders find that fish oil helps with depression as well as anxiety, so this is a great supplement for people who are managing both conditions.
Get it from eating fatty fish like salmon, or find a high-potency supplement and take a small spoonful before a meal once a day.
One of the most important lifestyle changes you can make to minimize anxiety is reducing or eliminating your caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant, and can exacerbate anxiety. It can also upset the digestive system and worsen conditions that often accompany anxiety, like irritable bowel syndrome and GERD.
When you quit caffeine, you may find you are less irritable and more relaxed. Give yourself time to detox, though — you might feel worse while you’re kicking the addiction, but it will pay off in the long haul.
Whether you quit cold turkey or taper down is up to you. Going cold turkey can be rough, but you’ll get through the transition more quickly.
One thing to be aware of is that if you cut out coffee, you may become more sensitive to caffeine and caffeine-like substances in places you wouldn’t expect, like decaf coffee, green tea, and chocolate, so be mindful of your intake and watch how these things affect you.
Sugar spikes your blood sugar, energy, and cortisol levels, which can send you on an emotional rollercoaster. Refined carbohydrates like bread act the same way, especially when eaten on their own, without protein or fat to buffer them.
Cutting down on sweets and other simple carbs can help stabilize your moods.
Sugar can feel addictive, but it works the other way too: The less you eat, the less you want to eat. If it feels like too much of a struggle to cut it out completely, start by cutting down a little at a time. Use less sugar in your coffee, or have a whole wheat bagel with butter instead of a muffin.
In addition to the foods you eat, your approach to food can make a difference too. These coping skills will help you stay stable:
Plan and prep ahead of time to make cooking easier. Spend some time thinking about what you’re going to eat throughout the week and shop with this in mind. You can wash and chop veggies ahead of time to make cooking quicker and easier, or go a step further and batch cook your meals in advance.
If cooking and shopping seem overwhelming and make you anxious, make them as simple and easy as possible. Shortcuts like buying veggies that are already washed and cut up can make cooking seem less like a time-consuming ordeal.
Compile a small repertoire of easy meals with minimal prep and ingredients that you can put together without thinking too much.
Think in basic formulas, like “protein plus vegetable plus complex carb,” and have a couple different options for each component.
Keep healthy frozen meals on hand for days you just can’t deal with cooking and carry easy snacks with you when you’re on the go.
If you have a packet of almonds in your bag or car, you won’t be tempted to pick up a pastry that will make your nerves jangly for the rest of the day.
To simplify grocery shopping, make a list before you go and organize it by area of the supermarket, so you can get in and out of the store quickly and won’t spend time wandering back and forth.
Food delivery services can also make life more manageable for anxiety sufferers. These apps are especially helpful for those who deal with social anxiety, have difficulty driving, or suffer concurrently from depression that makes it hard to get up and out of the house.
In addition to having regular groceries delivered, consider ordering meal kits. Shopping by meal rather than ingredient means there are fewer decisions to make, and there are many companies that offer healthy meals low in sugar and high in nutritious vegetables and protein.
If you find yourself getting obsessive about whether what you’re eating is the best thing for you, or if it stresses you out to feel like you’re denying yourself the foods you love, take a step back. It’s okay not to be perfect.
If you eat a mostly balanced diet rich in produce, proteins, and healthy fats, it won’t make a huge difference in your overall anxiety levels if you have a treat now and then. In fact, it can actually make you less anxious to develop a more relaxed relationship with food.
Experiment to see how these foods and meal prep strategies work for you.
Keeping a food journal can help you to identify patterns and trigger foods. Everybody is different. Over time, the closer attention you pay to your diet, the better you’ll be able to create a healthy lifestyle that works for you.