Stress and Anxiety: can eating the right things help?

  • There are lots of factors in our lives that can cause us stress and anxiety.
  • Did you know that a lack of good nutrition can make our stress and anxiety worse?
  • You can reduce your symptoms with a few simple changes to your diet.
  • Eating a healthy diet really can significantly help you to boost your mood!

If you want to get more of an idea about why eating well will make a difference read on…………………..

Stress and our nervous system

Your nervous system works by transmitting electrical impulses (or messages) between your nerve cells and the brain and spinal cord. At the gaps between the nerve cells, these electrical messages change to chemical ones which are called neurotransmitters. The yellow dots in the image below represent neurotransmitters travelling from one nerve cell to the next.

Neurotransmitters have a big impact on how your brains work and therefore on how you think, feel and behave. Not eating the right foods can lead to low levels of neurotransmitters which have been linked to stress, depression, anxiety and other health problems.

We have many neurotransmitters in our bodies and there have been over 100 identified in the human brain alone. Three of the most important for our mood levels  are:

  • Catecholamines
  • Serotonin
  • GABA

Catecholamines

Your body makes catecholamines (such as adrenalin) when you are exposed to any type of stress in your life. Catecholamines help you to feel alert and focused with energy and motivation to tackle whatever life throws your way. If you suffer from long term stress your body can continue to produce adrenaline which can contribute to anxiety levels. Eventually, levels become depleted and depression and fatigue can occur.

Symptoms of high levels of catecholamines include feeling stressed, digestive issues, agitation, inability to rest and relax, a rapid pulse, not being able to sleep and changes in weight. At the opposite end of the spectrum when you have low levels of catecholamines you may suffer from low motivation and poor concentration. Other symptoms include lack of energy, intolerance to stress, indecisiveness and lack of focus, depression and apathy as well as cravings for sugars, nicotine, caffeine and/or alcohol.

Serotonin

Serotonin affects our mood, how well we sleep, how hungry we feel and how well we remember. Feeling relaxed, positive and calm is linked to good levels of serotonin and yes, you guessed it low serotonin is associated with anxiety and depression. Did you know that over 95% of serotonin resides in the gut rather than the brain?

Symptoms of low serotonin include feelings of stress and anxiety, feeling low or depressed, insomnia, cravings, low libido as well as low pain tolerance.

GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric acid)

GABA is the main calming neurotransmitter that quietens the brain and inhibits the stress response. 70% of this neurotransmitter is produced in the gut. Studies have shown that deficiencies are associated with anxiety, stress and poor sleep. Symptoms include panic attacks, inability to relax, stiffness in muscles, cravings, and tinnitus.

It’s clear here that a lot of the symptoms are very similar. Stress and anxiety could be linked to imbalances in, or low levels of, many of our neurotransmitters.

You can Choose food to boost your mood

Neurotransmitters are made in your body from the nutrients in the foods that you eat!

To manufacture neurotransmitters, we need to have in our diet:

So where do you find these wonderful things that can have such a positive effect on your mood?

Let’s look at them in turn and I’ll list a few examples for each:

Tryptophan (needed for serotonin production)

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which means that our bodies cannot make it. It, therefore, must come from our diet. Foods naturally high in protein such as meat, fish, eggs dairy, seeds and nuts typically contain the highest levels of tryptophan.

Glutamine (needed for GABA production)

This is a non-essential amino acid which means that our bodies can usually make glutamine from the building blocks of other amino acids. However, when we are stressed our body’s demand for glutamine increases and we need more from our diets.

Foods such as beans and pulses, meat and dairy products especially ricotta and cottage cheese are good sources of glutamine.  Vegetables like cabbage, spinach and kale and the herb parsley are also good sources; especially if served raw.

Tyrosine (needed for catecholamine production)

Tyrosine can also be made by our bodies which means it’s non-essential. However, it is involved in lots of vital functions in the body so it’s a very important amino acid. We need adequate amounts of iron in our bodies to make this amino acid so that’s important to remember too.

Protein-rich sources like meat and fish provide good amounts of tyrosine, as do beans and leafy vegetables.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are linked to better absorption of tryptophan in the body. Therefore there is a link between eating carbohydrates and serotonin production. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which triggers the secretion of insulin by the pancreas as blood glucose levels rise. Insulin acts like a key and unlocks cells so that they can absorb glucose to use for energy. At the same time, amino acids are also absorbed by the cells, all except tryptophan which is held back in the blood by binding to a protein called albumin. This increases the chances of tryptophan making its way across the blood-brain barrier so that it can, (through a complicated process with the addition of other nutrients), be made into serotonin.

Simple carbohydrates include fruits and refined grains. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans and pulses.

Zinc

Zinc is needed to produce many neurotransmitters including catecholamines, serotonin and GABA. Sources of zinc include shellfish, red meat, eggs, pumpkin seeds, ginger, cashew nuts and oats. Low levels of zinc have been shown in studies to be linked to low mood and depression.

Iron

Iron is needed to produce both serotonin and catecholamines. The most readily available source of iron is from red meat. However, plant sources such as green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate and apricots are great sources of iron too.

Calcium

Calcium is required in the production of serotonin. Dairy foods are high in calcium, as are nuts such as brazil nuts and especially almonds.   Eating foods such as sardines with a few bones mashed in is a good way to boost your calcium intake too.

Magnesium

Magnesium is essential in the production of Serotonin and GABA. Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, cashews, macadamia nuts, beans and pulses. Low levels of magnesium in the body have been shown to be linked to anxiety, stress and insomnia.

Folic acid (folate)

Folate is essential in the production of serotonin and catecholamines. It is found in green leafy vegetables, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, lentils, chickpeas and beans.

B vitamins

B vitamins are vital in the production of all three neurotransmitters mentioned in this article. Our bodies cannot store B vitamins so we need to eat foods with them regularly. They are found in meat and poultry, leafy green vegetables, avocados, sunflower seeds and nuts such as almonds, pecans and hazelnuts. Low levels of B vitamins have been shown to be linked with depression and insomnia.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is also a necessary component in the manufacture of all three neurotransmitters. As you probably already know vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables and broccoli, kiwi fruit, strawberries, peppers and so on. Studies as recent as 2015 have shown that low levels of vitamin C are associated with depression and anxiety.

Omega 3  fats

Omega 3  fats support neurotransmitter messaging as well as reducing inflammation so it’s important to mention them here. Great sources of Omega 3 fats come from oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, trout and wild salmon as well as walnuts, chia and flax seeds and cold-pressed oils such as rapeseed or hemp oil.

Are you ready for a challenge to get you started?

You now know quite a lot of foods that could really help with reducing your stress levels. Why not put together even just one meal over the next couple of days that incorporates a few of them? Get creative and experiment; it doesn’t even have to be a full meal; think about your snacks too!

I can help

I offer nutritional counselling at my practice at the Affinity Centre in Wilmslow. Contact me to find out more!

Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher

Hello, I’m Eileen Fisher. I’m an indoor and outdoor therapist and nutritionist. I offer counselling and psychotherapy for both individuals and couples, as well as nutrition advice and support around disordered eating.

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