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Stress & Anxiety

When we find ourselves in stressful situations, our bodies release a cascade of hormones, starting with adrenaline. As adrenaline surges around our body, it increases our heart rate and directs blood to our brains and muscles. This helps us to make split second decisions about whether to fight or run from the cause of the stress. Quickly after, cortisol is released and has the effect of raising blood sugar levels to help sustain our reactions.

Although stress has many negative associations, it is not always a ‘bad’ thing. If a child is running after a ball towards a busy road, being able to leap into action, could save their life. Equally, a quick burst of stress before an important event, may help us to focus and get us through a nerve-wracking experience.  

When this stress response is repeated in an on-going way however, it can turn into the longer-term state of stress, known as anxiety.  

It is not surprising, given the year we have lived through, that many of us have been and are still dealing with raised levels of stress and anxiety. This can lead to feelings of fear, anger, sadness or frustration. It can leave us feeling indecisive, disrupt our sleep and make us irritable or tearful. We may experience anything from headaches and nausea to indigestion, irritable bowel, stomach ulcers and raised blood pressure. For some of us, it may have led to drinking more alcohol or relying on drugs to help cope. Any of these reactions can then have the knock-on effect of impacting on relationships at home, work and with our friends.  

There are many things we can do to help ourselves when stressed and anxious, and identifying that we feel this way is a vital starting point. If things feel overwhelming and critical, then NHS urgent mental health helplines can be called 24 hours a day as can listening services like the Samaritans. Making an appointment to see your doctor is also an important step. They may advise one of a number of talking therapies, further specialist medical help and possibly medication.  

Thinking about our lifestyles can also help. Taking steps to build supportive relationships, having time out, doing some regular exercise, addressing sleep issues, practicing mindfulness. All are potential options for helping us through, as is thinking about what we eat and drink.  

How Anxiety Can Affect What We Eat  

A rush of adrenaline that is released when we are initially stressed tends to be associated with a decrease in appetite. This allows our bodies to get on with the task of dealing with imminent danger or fear.  

The release of cortisol that follows on the other hand, tends to leave us with an increase in appetite. If we live in a constant state of anxiety with permanently raised cortisol, this may trigger cravings for comfort foods, leading to weight gain and potentially, type two diabetes, raised blood fats and blood pressure as well as suppression of the immune system. In turn, this can impact negatively on our mood and self-confidence and worsen our overall mental wellbeing.

How What We Eat Can Affect Anxiety and Mood  

Although stress and anxiety may drive us towards ‘quick fixes’ of comfort food, if we can resist and instead opt for a traditional Mediterranean, Japanese or Finnish style diet, research reveals that it is possible to reduce symptoms of anxiety, low mood and even symptoms of depression.

The traditional diets mentioned all share the common theme of being naturally rich in fruits and vegetables. They also rely more on wholegrains rather than refined carbohydrates and feature lean proteins such as pulses, beans, tofu, fish and eggs with only moderate amounts of meat. They are, in short, long on nutrient-packed foods and short on nutrient-poor, processed foods rich in calories, saturated fats, sugar and salt and  

Scientists are not exactly sure why this combination of foods has a positive effect on our mental health but say it is likely to be down to various factors including the huge range of mood-friendly vitamins, minerals and super nutrients like antioxidant flavonoids these dietary elements provide.  

It is possible that these nutrients and super nutrients help to dampen down inflammation and stress pathways in our body’s, while fibre in traditional diets feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut, which in turn produce mood-boosting hormones like dopamine and serotonin. The improvements in physical health and weight loss, which often accompany a healthy style of eating are also likely to play a role.  

Check List Helping Optimise Mental Wellbeing

While the bedrock of a diet for good mental health is based on traditional styles of eating, it is well worth checking the list below and working out if a little extra help may be beneficial.  

1. Are You Getting Enough?  

Iron: Found in lean red meat and oily fish this mineral is also present in wholegrains, nuts, seeds, dark green vegetables and pulses. The average teenager and woman in the UK does not meet recommended intakes of iron and over time, can leave us tired, down and stressed. It is worth asking your doctor for a test to discover if you have aneamia, in which case iron supplements will be prescribed.  

B12: Only found in animals foods including eggs and milk, fish, chicken and meat, if you are following a vegan lifestyle, you need to supplement daily (or consume adequate amounts of B12 fortified foods daily) to avoid long term and irreversible nerve damage.  

Magnesium: We get most of our magnesium in western diets from nuts, pulses, wholegrains and fruits. If you do not include these foods regularly, you may want to consider a daily supplement. Currently, almost 12 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men are below the lower safety net for magnesium intakes in the UK. Symptoms of poor magnesium intake can include mild anxiety and nervousness along with tiredness and irritability, all of which could heighten symptoms of stress and anxiety.  

Vitamin D: We are all recommended to take 10-micrograms of vitamin D daily in winter and many of us throughout the whole of the year. Low vitamin D in our blood can leave us exhausted, down and anxious.

2. How About Trying?  

Ashwagandha: A herb widely used in Ayruvedic medicine to combat and reduce stress, recent research has proven it to be considerably effective compared to a placebo, helping to lower perceived stress levels, reduce anxiety, improve sleep and lower circulating levels of the hormone cortisol in the blood.  

Ginseng panax: This well-known traditional Chinese medicine has long been used by traditional doctors to help ease stress and anxiety. Modern science confirms extracts of this herb have several pharmacological activities, that play a role in modulating mood    

Holy basil: Growing widely on the Indian continent, the herb tulsi, also known as holy basil, is revered in both Siddha and Ayurvedic medical systems for its wide range of benefits, including protecting our hearts and having anti-microbial properties. A review of 24 studies on humans has proven a range of health benefits, with four reinforcing its traditional use for helping to relieve stress.    

Oats: Oats and their extracts contain plant compounds that researchers suggest may improve mood and protect against stress. A study looking into this idea discovered that after four weeks of taking oat extract, those involved in the study were better able to deal with memory tests and showed lower stress responses to taking them.  

Probiotics: Good bacteria known also as probiotics, can help to populate the gut with beneficial bacterial. Scientists are increasingly making links between good gut health and levels of mood enhancing chemicals like dopamine.  

Written by:  
Amanda Ursell
BSc Nutrition
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,  
Associateship King's College (AKC)

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