Given that anxiety is the most prevalent mental illness in Australia – affecting one in three women – we spoke to a psychologist and an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to dive deeper into this link between food and feels, and discover exactly what sufferers should and shouldn’t be eating.
WHAT’S THE DEAL
“The relationship between diet and mental health is complex,” SANE Australia Psychologist Melissa Wilson says. “Our bodies have nutritional needs which support its daily functioning. This means what we feed our bodies can have an impact on the functioning of different organs of our body, including our brain.”
“Our brain needs particular nutrients such as protein and vitamins to make the chemicals that keep it functioning well. A number of nutrients are involved in mental health, including omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B and D, folic acid and zinc. Often a deficiency in these and other nutrients can increase symptoms of mental illness. For example, folic acid is used to make the chemical serotonin and a deficiency of serotonin is linked to symptoms of depression.”
Lisa Donaldson, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that the connection between gut health and mental health is also significant.
“Recently a convincing amount of research is revealing strong links between our gut bacteria and our mood. Having a healthy gut microbiome and including gut-friendly foods to help boost gut function could have a key role in lowering stress and inflammation in the body, and in turn boost overall health.”
DISHES TO DITCH
“There are some foods and drinks that have chemicals which stimulate our bodies and can produce physical symptoms of anxiety,” Melissa says.
Unfortunately, they’re often our go-tos when we’re in a bad mood.
“It’s often foods that we choose to ‘pick us up’ that can often ‘bring us down’,” Lisa adds. “A diet that is laden with heavily processed or refined foods (chocolates, biscuits, chips) may help us feel good in the short term, but they are broken down quickly and can leave us feeling sluggish. These foods are often nutrient poor and do very little to sustain us.”
That sugar high after smashing a family block of Cadbury often comes with an anxiety-ridden crash.
“Sugar from high-sugar foods or simple carbohydrate foods such as pasta, produces a quick spike in our blood-sugar levels which can quick drop again,” Melissa says. “This sudden drop in blood-sugar can also mimic physical symptoms of anxiety. While this is important for everyone to know, those with hypoglycemia may be affected by this more severely.”
Your methods for waking up and winding down can also impact how you feel throughout the day.
“Caffeine acts on our nervous system and stimulates the body, which is why we can find it hard to start the morning without having our daily coffee,” Melissa says. “If we are already experiencing anxiety, caffeine can act to increase the physical symptoms of anxiety such muscle tension, shakiness, increased heart rate or palpitations and perspiration. Caffeine can also cause panic in people without an anxiety disorder.”
If you find yourself reaching for a glass of vino to soothe a stressful day or help you deal with social anxiety, you could be making things worse.
“Alcohol is commonly used in an attempt to help relieve anxiety, particularly in social situations,” Melissa says. “However, when alcohol is leaving your body it agitates the nerves in your body leaving you in an agitated state and also disrupts your sleep. This can then increase feelings of anxiety.”
PRODUCE TO PLATE UP
Lisa believes that a healthy, balanced diet is always the best route to overall good health, but there are some foods that can further improve mental wellbeing.
“Choosing a diet rich in fermentable fibres (prebiotics) such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and fermented foods (probiotics) such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and kefir – will help feed and boost your gut bacteria," she says. "In turn, this is likely to help lower inflammation, to help the body feel less stressed."
"B vitamins are involved in neuronal function and brain health, so including a range of whole grains, vegetables and lean meats is an easy way to ensure adequate intake throughout the week. Zinc, found in foods like prawns, beef, pumpkin seeds and oats, can affect the action of serotonin (the happy hormone) in our body, so can be hugely beneficial. Other nutrients of interest include omega 3 and vitamin D. These can be found in the diet via foods such as oily fish, lean meats, eggs and dairy products."
• Reduce caffeine, alcohol and sugar/sweeteners, particularly if you have anxiety or are going through a stressful time
• Get enough sleep to allow your body the time it needs to use the nutrients you get from your diet to repair and restore your body
Ensure your diet is rich in:
• Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
• B vitamins found in whole grains, vegetables and lean meats
• Omega-3s found in salmon and olive oil
• Zinc rich foods like prawns, beef, pumpkin seeds and oats