As the days start to shorten and an autumn chill comes back into the evening air, many people start to experience an uptick in feelings of anxiousness.
Anticipating dark, cold days, returning to school and letting go of the freedom of summer can cause us to worry more and feel less at ease. When that happens, we often look to certain foods like sugar, chips, coffee and alcohol for relief. However, that can actually exacerbate anxiety.
Our gut is sometimes referred to as our second brain because there is such a strong connection between the brain and the gut. Upwards of 80% of our neurochemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, are produced in the gut. The gut has three times as many nerves sending input to the brain as the brain has for communicating to the gut. The connection between digestion and mood is imperative to understand – and is often overlooked.
Protein is made up of amino acids which are essential to the creation of neurochemicals. If you don’t eat plenty of protein, the gut doesn’t have those building blocks, leaving us deficient in both calming and focusing neurotransmitters. Eating a variety of well-raised meats and plant-based proteins is the best way to ensure you’re getting the proper array of amino acids.
The brain and nervous system are made up primarily of fat. Every cell in your body is surrounded by a layer of fat that helps nutrients and waste to get in and out of the cell. Eating healthy fats ensures proper cell-to-cell communication and optimal nerve function so the brain and the gut can be well connected. These fats are known as “essential” fatty acids because our body cannot produce them and requires that we consume them in our diet. Foods to focus on are coconut and olive oils; grass-fed meat and butter; raw nuts and seeds; whole fat organic dairy; salmon and deep sea fishes; eggs,;and avocado.
B vitamins play a crucial role in the biochemical pathways that help create balanced neurotransmitters. They regulate mood, reproductive hormones and energy production. They are also heavily used when we are stressed. And they are water-soluble, so the body cannot store them. Foods loaded with B’s include avocados, whole unprocessed grains, meat, eggs, dairy, sunflower seeds, almonds and dark leafy greens. And don’t forget to incorporate nutritional yeast into your diet, as it contains the highest levels of B vitamins of any food.
Foods like caffeine, refined sugar and carbs, trans-fats and alcohol can all deplete B vitamins, so avoiding these foods during times of heightened anxiety or stress is essential. Because our stress response system evolved for survival, when we perceive a threat or stressor, our body will seek out high-calorie foods so we can have enough fuel to fight or flee. In our modern environment, we rarely face a threat that uses these extra calories, so we end up storing the extra carbs as fat, which then secretes more cortisol (or stress hormone).
Simply being aware of this natural tendency can help us to self-soothe in ways such as exercise or deep breathing so we can avoid the trap of using junk foods to ease anxiety.
Nicola Dehlinger is a naturopathic doctor at Pura Vida Natural Healthcare in Durango. She can be reached at 426-1684 or www.puravidahealthcare.com.