Let Food be thy Medicine: Eating to Manage Anxiety
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
When you feel anxious, it’s common for an outsider to say ‘Eat! If you eat, you would feel less anxious’. Insofar as anxiety and hunger are physiologically correlated, such a recommendation would be wise. Eating meals will reduce irritability and increase positive affect. This is because skipping meals causes a drop in blood sugar levels which can intensify anxiety.
And that’s about it, folks. Eating! Simple as. All there is to it.
But alas, life is never that easy. Nutritional psychiatry research would suggest that there are
certain foods which can actually exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression.
Refined carbohydrates are the primary offender. Put simply, these consist of grains that have
been divorced from their nutrients. Compounded of sugars, flour, bread, noodles and chips -
to name a few – refined carbohydrates are also plenty packed in a plethora of breakfast foods such as yogurt, cereal and pastries. So as Instagram-friendly and aesthetically pleasing as a goji berry yogurt brunch can look like, perception is most definitely not always reality.
Whilst such foods do augment one’s glucose levels and thus are able to maintain high levels of energy and concentration, there is a scientific connection between the fall of blood sugar levels and irritability. Then, if an individual is eating refined carbohydrates throughout the day (we all snack, let’s not pretend), their cortisol hormone and adrenaline levels will fluctuate erratically and unpredictably, only worsening one’s feelings of nervousness or worry. One study showed how a single glucose-sweetened beverage can double an adult adrenaline level which would cause common symptoms of panic and anxiety – which, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with – namely, palpitations, sweating and light-headedness.
Cured and Cultured foods like charcuterie, dry sausages, sauerkraut, cheese and steak are also thought to trigger anxiety. During the fermentation process, food proteins are broken down by bacteria into biogenic amines, very small molecules, one of which is Histamine, reputed to equally increase adrenaline levels and aggravate anxiety.
Not to be forgotten are the nightshade plants like peppers, aubergine and goji berries, famous for their natural pesticides (glycoalkaloids). Unfortunately, their chemical component, capable of destroying worms and insects is also what negatively impacts human cells by precluding them from acetylcholinesterase, a necessary enzyme.
This can result in the parching and overstimulation of the nervous system, leading to various
neuropsychiatric side effects such as anxiety.
Point being, you shouldn’t rely on those supposed ‘comfort foods’ to get you through that
breakup anxiety or the grief of losing your African pygmy hedgehog, because they are certainly not trying to comfort you. Two-faced sods, the lot of em!
But of course, do look out for foods that can help soothe your anxiety. For instance, when eaten in moderation, carbohydrates together with protein and vitamin-rich foods will boost your levels of tryptophan and increase serotonin.
Some tried and tested combos we love are porridge with walnuts or frozen berries and scrambled eggs on wholegrain bread. And if you’re ever looking for a good old bedtime snack to munch on whilst you binge watch Naked Attraction till your eyes close, try some cherries or red grapes. These contain quercetin, an antioxidant known to promote feelings of calmness and tranquillity!
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Kovacova-Hanuskova E, Buday T, Gavliakova S, Plevkova J. Histamine, histamine intoxication
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10.1016/j.aller.2015.05.001. Epub 2015 Aug 1. PMID: 26242570.
Milner SE, Brunton NP, Jones PW, O'Brien NM, Collins SG, Maguire AR. Bioactivities of
glycoalkaloids and their aglycones from Solanum species. J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Apr
27;59(8):3454-84. doi: 10.1021/jf200439q. Epub 2011 Mar 14. PMID: 21401040.