As a therapist, most of my experience working with clients has been in mental health clinics and psychiatric units. I’ve worked with some folks who had some pretty severe mental health conditions (namely, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and severe depression), but I find that the majority of my time is spent helping people work through their anxiety.
It’s said that depression is the “common cold” of mental illness, but in my experience, the most common of mental health concerns is anxiety. And, according to the research, my feeling was right: there are about 40 million in the U.S. people suffering from anxiety.
What I found most upsetting, however, was the way the mental health practitioners and psychiatrists throw drugs at everything. Nervous about your daughter’s upcoming wedding? Have some pills. Suffering from seasonal affective disorder? Have some pills. Worried about the side effects? Here are some pills to help you with those pills.
Our bodies have an inspiring capacity to right themselves—to counter the imbalances that occasionally happen to everyone. While there are certain mental health concerns that do require medication—anxiety is not always one of them.
So over the last few years, I’ve incorporated diet into the interventions I do with clients who suffer from anxiety. Here’s what I advise:
Food Additives, Fake Sugar, and Dyes. Ever take your kid to a birthday party, and at the start of the shindig, everyone’s little ones are cute and angelic, and then they have soda and cupcakes and sprinkles, and ten minutes later everyone is running around like a maniac?
We try to keep our kids away from processed foods that cause such strong reactions. So why do we think that we outgrow foods effect on us?
A large number of people report mood swings, anxiety, and even depression after eating artificially produced sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and aspartame (which is in just about every processed food item you can imagine). Food dyes, including Red #40 and Yellow #5 have been shown to have the same effect. Stay away!
You wouldn’t want your kids eating them, so why would you?
Caffeine. Some people can drink all the caffeine they like, and never experience anxiety—but that number is most likely very small. Believe it or not, “caffeine-induced anxiety disorder” is a recognized mental health condition found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, which is the go-to manual used by people in the mental health field. If you’re prone to anxiety—or most particularly, if you are prone to panic attacks—be careful with caffeine, or avoid it altogether.
Missing Meals. The 21st century diet is unbelievably high in sweeteners, both artificial and natural. Those sweeteners can create a spike—and rapid decline—in blood sugar levels, and if you have a natural inclination to anxiety, foods containing excess sugars can wreak havoc on your mood.
Ingesting scheduled meals can have a tremendous effect on stabilizing your blood chemistry—and maintaining your mindset.
We’re busy. It happens. You’re bound to miss meals here and there. But make it a point to sit down and consume a reasonable amount of healthy foods (which we’ll talk about below). Sticking to a regular eating schedule can have a tremendous effect on your mood.
Dehydration. A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Tufts University found that athletes who experienced mild dehydration felt confused and apprehensive, and were more likely to display signs of agitation and anxiety. There are many reasons why staying hydrated is important, and it turns out that keep your anxieties at bay is one of them.
What to Eat
So, now that we know a few things to avoid, what can we consume? What foods help anxiety?
Here’s the obvious one: fresh foods that have not been processed. That’s the gimme. They should be the cornerstone of your diet. But if you’re looking for particular foods to alleviate anxiety, try the following:
Seaweed. With high magnesium content, kelp and other seaweed are very high in tryptophan, the amino acid that helps combat depression. And, because seaweed has no gluten content, it is a great choice for people have gluten allergies.
Blueberries. Nature’s perfect fruit. With antioxidant levels that are off the chart, blueberries are considered very useful in relieving stress. Plus, they’re absolutely delicious.
Almonds. With both zinc and iron, almonds help balance mood and relieve anxiety. Plus, the healthy fats contained in almonds are an often-overlooked component of a health diet.
Salmon. There is growing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, lake trout, sardines, and anchovies) reduces both anxiety and depression. And, omega-3s may also reduce the risk of heart disease, so that’s pretty great, too.
Chocolate. If there’s proof that nature wants us to be happy, it’s the fact that chocolate reduces anxiety. Pure dark chocolate (the kind without sugars or milk) reduces cortisol, which is the stress hormone the creates feelings of anxiety.
Seriously, think about that. Eating chocolate is necessary to maintain good mental health. That might be the best news you get all week.
We have been programmed, over thousands of years of close contact with nature, to right ourselves through natural methods. The foods we consume can have a tremendous effect on our mood, and I am thrilled when my clients make a change in their food intake and see benefits across all areas of their lives. I would urge you to do the same!
Matthew Morris is a therapist in northern New Jersey, and also runs a site that helps people get started in caretaking careers.