It’s Not How You Look, It’s How You Feel
As a seasoned veteran of the bar and restaurant industry, I’m all too familiar with a stressful work environment and the financial ups and downs associated with an unpredictable flow of business. Translation: intermittent anxiety coupled with worry and depression. I also know that these feelings, or “moods”, can increase tenfold if I don’t pay attention to what I put into my body. Similarly, if I take the time to properly fuel myself, especially in times of higher stress, I know that I’m quite capable of keeping these evils at bay.
Over 40 million Americans over the age of 18 – roughly 18% of the population – are affected by some form of anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be brought on by many different circumstances. Commonly fuelled by stress and an unreasonable sense of fear, side effects can include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, digestive disturbances and sweat (my personal favorite). Though some forms of anxiety require more attention, when it comes to treatment, there are simple nutritional steps you can follow to help combat this nasty problem. Let’s start with the stuff you should avoid:
Those of us who drink coffee know all too well about it’s temporary “pick me up” effect. Sadly for us, it’s the first thing that should be eliminated from your diet if you want to try to reduce anxiety levels. Not only can its stimulatory effects contribute to increased nervousness and stress, it can also interfere with quality sleep, which in turn contributes to anxiety. If you need proof, all you have to do is cut it out for a week and see how you feel.
In moderation, we know certain kinds of alcohol (red wine, for example) can be beneficial. In excess, however, alcohol is often implicated in disease, mental illness and a general lack of wellbeing. Over time, excess alcohol consumption can lead to nutritional deficiencies due to lowered absorption of nutrients. Being in a depleted nutritional state, in turn, can lead to more severe reactions to perceived stressors in our lives. The next thing you know, you’re having a panic attack over the glass you just broke and the world as you know it is ending. Anxiety has also been tagged as one of the potential withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, so your best bet is to develop a moderate relationship with alcohol and keep it from ever getting out of hand.
It’s not news that sugar is bad; I’m just providing you with yet another reason why. When foods high in sugar are eaten, they cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, which in turn triggers a higher than normal release of insulin. If insulin is over-released, the result can be a blood sugar crash. Unfortunately, most people respond by taking in – yup, you guessed it – more sugar, and thus a vicious cycle ensues. Drastic changes in mood can more often than not accompany these ups and downs. Your best bet? Avoid the stuff in the first place. Though this can be hard initially, like any kind of habit breaking, once you’re past the first few days to a week, symptoms of withdrawal will gradually disappear. And you’ll feel MUCH better.
When we ingest substances that we’re either allergic or intolerant to, histamine is released. Along with the immune reactions it sets off, we can experience other symptoms, one of which is anxiety. Though you may not be deathly allergic to a food, intolerance is very common. Try to pay attention to how certain things make you feel – and write down your reactions to help you figure them out. That anxiety that seemingly came out of nowhere could actually be linked to the fries you had at lunch.
Chances are, either you or someone you know has experienced some level of depression in their life. In severe cases, a doctor might prescribe some form of chemical-balancing medication However, like anxiety, you can drastically improve your mood (and your waistline) by avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
Here’s why: sugar and alcohol have mood-altering effects. Most of us are likely all too familiar with the sugar crash that comes after heavy indulgence. With alcohol, though one glass of wine or a single beer may bring with them the benefit of feeling relaxed, when consumed in excess, alcohol is a depressant. The link between coffee and depression, however, is still up for debate. A recent Harvard study suggests that moderate consumption may decrease the risk of depression, though they cautioned that it’s an area that still requires further research. My take? Be your own judge. If you’re a coffee drinker, test yourself – take a break and see how you feel after a few weeks. I find my reaction to it is more dependent on the kind I get (Starbucks vs. Dunkin’ Donuts, organic or not) and what I put in it. Finally, additives such as aspartame and MSG – which have been shown to have mood-altering effects – should also be added to your Don’ts list.
Flax Seed Oil
A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids – found in high concentrations in flax seed oil – has been linked to both depression and anxiety. It goes without saying then, that this is something that should be included in a positive mood-promoting diet. Best taken in liquid form, this cold pressed oil is highly reactive to oxidization, and is best consumed within a month of opening.
This essential amino acid is the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood and sleep. Adequate protein consumption is essential, as amino acids are the building blocks for everything in the body: the hormones that can affect our mood and the enzymes that break down our food that in turn can affect our mood. Good sources of tryptophan include turkey, tuna, cod, chicken, halibut and salmon*.
Found in large amounts in many leafy greens, tuna, cod and bananas*, this B vitamin assists many brain and neurotransmitter functions (Haas, 735).
Vitamin B12 and Folic Acid
The deficiency of these two B vitamins has been heavily linked to depression (Murray, 386). Therefore, they should factor heavily in your nutritional plan. The best sources of B12 are animal proteins such as eggs, beef and salmon. However, fermented options such as tofu and tempeh are also good. If you’re vegetarian, a good supplement is also advised. Try your local health food store and ask their opinion on the best kinds. Intramuscular injections from your doctor are also another great option. Excellent sources of folic acid include lentils, beets, broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce and asparagus*.
Herbs provide us with a world of remedies for various conditions. Chamomile is likely the most mainstream one, and it can be used to alleviate stress and anxiety. As with food, the purest and most organic form you can get your hands on is best, leaving you only with the task of boiling water so you can relax and enjoy a nice hot cup of tea.
With the summer of barbecues and beer behind us, fall provides us the perfect opportunity to break bad habits and turn over a new leaf. If you can implement some of these changes in your diet, not only will you feel the positive mental effects, chances are you’ll notice positive changes in your physical appearance, too.
So don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. The adage, “you are what you eat” has never been so relevant. Fuel your body with wholesome organic produce and stay hydrated. Move your body, sweat, sleep and most importantly, be grateful for the fact that Mother Nature has provided us with the simplest ways to get back on the road to wellbeing.
Food nutrient sources are obtained from Whfoods.org