Over the past couple of years, the issue of mental health has been increasingly under the spotlight and now many people have noticed their mental health deteriorating during the pandemic. Having coped with months of isolation and uncertainty, it is no surprise that around one in four people in the UK are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. It is also evident that the health and mental wellbeing of young people is equally under pressure. One in six children aged five to 16 were reported to having a probable mental health issue in 2020 – approximately five children in every classroom.
As employees return to the workplace, taking steps to support mental health and reduce the anxiety many are feeling is increasingly important. There are many factors involved in mental health but increasingly under the spotlight is the importance of nutrition. A recent paper published in the BMJ entitled “Food and Mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?” supports the adage “We are what we eat”. This it seems to apply not just to our bodies, but also to our minds. The importance of diet and mental health cannot be overstated yet it is often when we feel anxious or stressed, we reach for ‘comfort’ foods – those snacks that are high in saturated fat and sugar that ultimately make us feel even worse.
Approximately 15% of employees are affected by mental health problems in the workplace. Women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men and mental ill health is responsible for 72 million working days lost, costing at least £34.9 billion each year.
While we all may feel anxious from time to time, for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, the constant worrying, overanalysing of decisions, irrational thought patterns or struggling to let go of repetitive thoughts can be debilitating. There are many types of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias that can result in a wide range of symptoms including difficulty concentrating, irritability, fatigue, tense muscles, sleep disturbances and panic attacks.
Anxiety is a multifaceted disorder – typically there are various underlying imbalances in the body which need addressing. Hormonal, gut, and metabolic imbalances, for example, often develop as our bodies attempt to adapt to chronic stress. In addition, underlying nutritional deficiencies can aggravate symptoms by altering neurotransmitter balance – the chemical messengers that affect how we think and feel. With anxiety, several neurotransmitters appear to play a role including serotonin, GABA, dopamine and stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline.
If you’re feeling anxious, try some of our ideas below to ease your symptoms and feel more in control. They do not of course replace professional help - if you are concerned with your anxiety then speak to your GP or health care professional.
- Choose Protein Snacks
When you’re feeling anxious, it is all too easy to reach for a sugary snack. But what your body really needs is sufficient protein. Protein provides you with the building blocks required for the production of our chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that influence how we think and feel. For example, serotonin is produced from the amino acid L tryptophan. This can be found in almonds, dairy products, legumes, meat, nuts, and seeds, poultry, and seafood. Protein also helps stabilise your blood sugar. Blood sugar highs and lows can lead to changes in mood and increased anxiety, so keep your blood sugar stable by opting for protein rich snacks.
- Nourishing the Gut
The gut – brain connection is receiving a lot of attention when it comes to mood and cognitive health. Not only are neurotransmitters produced in your gut but absorption of amino acids, vitamins and minerals which are required for neurotransmitter production will also be impacted if gut health is compromised. Supplementation with specific probiotics (beneficial bacteria) has been shown to decrease anxious behaviour, depression, reduce stress and improve sleep quality. So, try to include fermented foods in your snacks or meals. Yogurt with granola and berries is an easy go-to snack but why not try using kefir in smoothies, sip on a miso soup or kombucha for an afternoon snack or add some sauerkraut or kimchi to your salads.
To keep your gut healthy long term, you also need plenty of prebiotics. Prebiotics are types of dietary fibre that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. Examples include berries, apples, bananas, chicory, garlic, onion, oats, flaxseed, beans, and pulses.
- Switch Coffee for Green Tea
If you are struggling with anxiety, caffeine is another one to avoid. Caffeine can increase nervousness and may even contribute to panic attacks, so it is best kept to the minimum. Instead try green tea. Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, produces a calming effect on the brain, so while green tea may have a little caffeine, the effects seem to be mitigated by the presence of theanine.
- Get In More Greens
B vitamins, folate and magnesium are all essential nutrients for mental health. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxiety disorders in several clinical studies. These nutrients are naturally found in foods such as spinach, kale, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, legumes, dried figs, and yogurt. Kale crisps, trail mixes, chickpea crisps, seeded crackers or oat cakes are all easy ways to increase your intake.
- Nuts and Seeds
Zinc and selenium are vital minerals for neurotransmitter production. In double-blind randomized clinical trials, subjects given 100 mg of selenium daily for 5 weeks reported improved mood and less anxiety/. Nuts and seeds are good sources of both these minerals and make ideal snacks or toppings for salads, yogurt pots and porridge.
- Go Herbal
Various herbs have been shown to have anti-anxiety or calming effects. Lemon Balm, Valerian, Chamomile, Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are all good choices – available as teas, tinctures, and capsules. A 2009 study showed chamomile supplements (220 milligrams up to five times daily) may help relieve generalized anxiety disorder.
- Up the Omegas
Rich in omega 3 fats oily fish like salmon can be particularly helpful in easing anxiety. The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are necessary for proper brain function, and many of us fail to get enough in our diet. Smoked salmon with oat cakes or crackers is a quick easy snack. For vegans, flaxseed crackers or chia puddings are delicious options.
- Skip the Alcohol
When people feel anxious it may be tempting to reach for a glass of wine. Alcohol is actually a nervous system depressant and can disrupt blood sugars and sleep. Alcohol causes a reduction of slow-wave sleep which is our deep sleep and an increase of restless Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep stage, and earlier-than-usual waking times. The result? A reduction in restorative sleep. In fact, a Finnish study in 2018 revealed even a single drink has a negative effect on sleep quality. Try kombucha for a healthy alcohol-free alternative.
- Calming the Stress Response
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is what controls our response to stress. Overactivation due to mental and emotional stress, inflammation, hormone imbalances, infections, lack of key nutrients, poor sleep can all disrupt the HPA axis, creating a vicious cycle that can keep you in a state of panic. Taking steps to reduce or remove the stressors is essential. Lifestyle factors are particularly important in this respect: exercise, meditation, quality sleep, spending time in nature, having good social support are all areas to focus on.
- Mood Boosting Vitamin D
Our levels of vitamin D affect our levels of serotonin, which in turn impact mood. Hence, increasing vitamin D intake has been shown to alleviate depression and anxiety. Sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D. But as we spend more and more time indoors, we get less and less of this important nutrient. Advice from Public Health England is that adults and children over the age of one should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D3, particularly during autumn and winter. People who have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency are advised to take a supplement all year round. Aim to include vitamin D3 rich foods such as cod liver oil, wild salmon and mackerel and eggs. While you can find some vitamin D2 in plant foods such as mushrooms it is a third less potent in the body than D3.
- Make Snacks Count
When it comes to good mental health, ensuring optimal nutrient levels is vital. A wide range of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are essential for neurotransmitter synthesis, and without adequate supply, mental health is likely to suffer. The food choices we make each day have a profound impact on our mood and mental health, so opt for snacks that are nutrient rich.
The Bottom Line: healthier food choices are linked to better stress management, improved sleep quality, increased focus and concentration and overall improved mental wellbeing.
Christine Bailey (MSc & BSc in Nutrition, PGCE) is an award-winning certified Nutritionist and leading healthy eating expert. She is known for transforming people's health and love of real food. Head to Christine's home page to find out more!
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