Picture from Unsplash by Amirali Mirhashemian
If you are struggling with anxiety at the moment you are not alone.
The school holidays have just begun here in Sydney Australia, and we have also just entered lockdown again.
There are so many emotions present, holidays that have been cancelled, disappointed kids, stressed and anxious parents and the worry of trying to manage working from home with kids on holidays and/or having work and income seriously affected. Perhaps none of this is applicable for you but the concern about how long this will last may be enough to have sparked a serious bout of anxiety.
It is important to seek out support and guidance from a professional if you are really struggling however there are a few simple strategies we can work on from home. This starts with the food we are consuming.
When COVID first hit I indulged in some serious comfort snacking. The occasional treat is harmless however it is important to understand the link between our mental and emotional health and what we consume.
Technically known as the enteric nervous system, our gut health also referred to as the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut which measures about nine meters end to end from the oesophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. And all those neurons lining our digestive system allow it to keep in close contact with the brain in your skull, via the vagus nerves, which influences our emotional state.
"The second brain doesn't help with the great thought processes, religion, philosophy and poetry is left to the brain in the head," says Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Centre, an expert in the field of neurogastroenterology and author of the 1998 book The Second Brain (HarperCollins).
Cutting-edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body's immune response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders.
Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.) is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut "communicate" with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut's nervous system has led him to contemplate how in the coming years psychiatry will need to expand to not just consider our brain in our heads but that we also need to carefully consider, treat, and nourish the second brain in our gut.
Neurogastroenterology is an emerging field seeking to find the connection between the gut and our brains while exploring effective treatments for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
Snacking at home is easy to do especially when we are spending more time indoors, perhaps now might be an opportune time to mindfully consider what you are consuming and how this may be impacting your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Foods and Teas with proven benefits:
1. Brazil nuts.
Brazil nuts can help to uplift your mood, thanks to higher doses of selenium. Selenium reduces inflammation, which is often found at higher levels in people who suffer from chronic stress and/or anxiety. Selenium is an essential trace mineral that assists with cognitive function and is also an antioxidant, excellent for reducing cell damage.
• Brazil nuts are also a great source of extra vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient found in many foods. In the body, it acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. There is substantial evidence which shows that low levels of vitamin E contributes to increased risks of depression and stress and that adequate levels of vitamin E in the diet can prevent depression.
2. Pumpkin seeds.
These are great and an easy snack to keep handy by the laptop on the desk at home. Ideal for snacking, pumpkin seeds are a healthy treat, and a great tool for the fight against anxiety. As the weather grows colder pumpkin soup is delicious and nutritious. Get the kids to help you scoop and wash the seeds out of your pumpkins, lay them on some baking paper and roast them after a quick coat of olive oil, Himalayan salt, and pepper. Yummy!
• These nifty little seeds contain high doses of potassium, which is great for regulating the balance of electrolytes in your body and reducing blood pressure. Eating foods rich in potassium, like bananas and pumpkin seeds, can help to reduce anxiety and counter the harmful effects of stress.
• Pumpkin seeds also contain zinc which is essential for brain and nerve
functioning. According to studies, zinc deficiency could increase your chances of challenges with anxiety, stress, and depression.
3. Dark chocolate.
As a parent keeping a stash of dark chocolate is one of my secret weapons. My kids usually find my tasty treat stashes no matter where I try and hide them, but I don’t need to hide this one as none of my kids like it. Yay for me!
• Dark Chocolate is a as a source of valuable flavonoids, which could help to reduce neuroinflammation.
• Dark chocolate also increases serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your behaviour, memory, sleep, and mood. It also helps with relieving anxiety.
• Another ingredient in dark chocolate is Theobromine. Theobromine is the ingredient that is toxic to dogs, but studies have shown that it a positive, mood elevating effect on those that ingest it.
• Dark chocolate also contains high amounts of magnesium, and studies show that magnesium has a noticeable effect on anxiety, reduces that jittery feeling and helps with sleep.
Try choosing dark chocolate with 70% cocoa or more for the best results.
Chocolate tastes good so if you enjoy a treat of dark chocolate perhaps as you savour this treat mindfully you can also enjoy the fact it’s rich in minerals and ingredients that are good for you, in moderation of course.
I have been substituting yoghurt for ice cream for many years now. Yoghurt a fermented food contains a lot of healthy bacteria that supports our gut health. The bacteria from fermented foods such as Kimchi, tempeh, and sauerkraut are also great sources.
● Bacteria in fermented products have been found to have a positive impact on brain health. You know when you feel unsettled, jittery, and nervous, and you feel those sensations often described as butterflies in your tummy? It is possible that when we feel those butterflies in our stomach it is simply the communication between our gut and brain initiating a stress response.
Emeran Mayer, a professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA states, “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut.”
One study from 2015 found that fermented foods are effective at reducing feelings of social anxiety in younger people.
Perhaps switching the kids ice cream for yoghurt might be a proactive step you could take for their mental and emotional health?
5. Fatty fish.
You have probably heard that getting more fatty fish into your diet is good for you. Products like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring are rich in Omega-3. Try purchasing ethically sourced products.
● Because of the high levels of n-3 LC-PUFAs, increasing the intake of fatty fish may
be beneficial. The fatty acids eicosapentaenoic (EPA), docosahexaenoic (DHA), and alpha linolenic
(ALA) play a central role in brain development and functioning, and are central in the production of
serotonin, which is important for both sleep and mental health .
● Fatty fish is also relatively high in vitamin D which has been positively associated with sleep efficiency . The n-3 LC-PUFAs have been linked to mental health in adults and elderly individuals [1,2]. Both DHA and EPA assist with reducing inflammation, regulating neurotransmitters, and promoting healthy brain function.
● The Omega-3 fatty acid is shown to makes a huge difference to cognitive functioning and mental health. Recent research also shows that eating too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 could heighten the risk of anxiety and mood disorders.
This pretty little flower is perhaps one of the most familiar and best-known teas highly regarded for its soothing and calming qualities. Herbal teas have been used for centuries, both for their health benefits and for pleasure. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory, has high doses of antioxidants and contains antibacterial properties. The exact mechanism of its action is still being investigated but research suggests chamomile may work by increasing GABA and anxiety disorders are associated with low levels of serotonin and GABA.
Although herbal teas are technically different from supplementary capsules, oils, tinctures, and other medications you might use to manage anxiety, interactions are still possible. Always talk with a doctor or healthcare professional before adding herbal tea to your routine.
● Chamomile tea is home to the flavonoid called apigenin which is one of a handful of flavonoids found to have mood-enhancing properties. This flavonoid the focus of much research and study is thought to act on the same parts of the brain as common anti- anxiety drugs.
● Chamomile is also rich in polyphenols – many of which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties [3,4] that may bring other health benefits as well.
As a Yoga and meditation practitioner I sometimes use this pure oil in my room sprays mixed with other calming oils to help bring a felt sense of ease and wellbeing to my clients.
This is widely known for its mood-stabilizing, and sedative effects. Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy but there is more to this plant than meets the eye. It is a powerful healing herb used for centuries as an essential oil, in teas, and other herbal infusions. One of the most notable lavender tea benefits is its calming effect on the nervous system.
A study from Taiwan found lavender tea helped to reduce depression and improve sleep quality in postnatal women. The women reported feeling less fatigue and depressed after two weeks of smelling the aroma and drinking lavender tea compared to a group of women who received regular postpartum care only. Interestingly, the anti-anxiety effects of an oral lavender oil preparation are also found to be even more effective than medications, such as lorazepam, used to treat anxiety disorder.
● Lavender contains over 100 known compounds, including phytochemicals and antioxidants. The most well-known of these compounds is limonene, which stimulates digestive enzymes in the liver and may help to detoxify the body of carcinogens.
Feeling bloated or uncomfortable after a meal?
● Lavender tea aids digestion. A study from 2014 tested the extract of Lavandula viridis L’Hér (green lavender) to determine if it can alleviate digestive disorders and the results were positive. The herb is proven to help fight inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other acute and chronic intestinal symptoms caused by bad bacteria in the gut. Researcher has confirmed the therapeutic effects of lavender against acute colitis after observing its ability to improve gut flora.
Lavender is thought to be low in toxicity when used in small doses and safe for human consumption. But it is important to note there is also some potential for side effects. Lavender can also interact with or enhance the effects of medication used to treat anxiety or seizures. Lavender is not recommended if you are pregnant. As always check with your doctor to make sure there are no interactions with current medications and to make sure this is right for you.
If you are feeling a little stressed or anxious perhaps adding these snacks and drinks may help.
They are not only delicious but as you have read they also have many beneficial properties!
1. Logan, A.C. Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional.
Lipids Health Dis. 2004, 3, 25. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
2. Tanskanen, A.; Hibbeln, J.R.; Tuomilehto, J.; Uutela, A.; Haukkala, A.; Viinamaki, H.; Lehtonen, J.;
Vartiainen, E. Fish consumption and depressive symptoms in the general population in Finland.
Psychiatry. Serv. 2001, 52, 529–531. [CrossRef] [PubMed]