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How to eat to regain your sense of calm (Part 1)

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Palpitations, a dry mouth, sweating, and insomnia are just some of the unmistakable signs of anxiety. Everyone has experienced these symptoms at some point in their life. Who hasn't felt stage fright before a presentation, hyperventilated before an exam, or spent a sleepless night before their dental appointment?

Under normal circumstances, you get through the situation in question unscathed, and life goes on. However, it is very different for people who suffer from anxiety disorders. Patients with this condition experience virtually no relief or respite because their anxiety is unrelated to a specific situation or event and is – objectively – unfounded. There is no single challenge to get through and move on. Their anxiety goes on constantly, from one situation to the next, and the next, and the next ...

Although anxiety disorders were common even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the stress of lockdowns and worry about our own health and that of loved ones, our jobs, and our financial security has sent numbers surging. A team of researchers at the University of Manchester is currently looking into this. Although the work is still ongoing, they predict that mental health problems will continue to be affected by the pandemic for years to come.

So, where does nutrition come into it?

At first glance, it may seem preposterous to say that diet influences how we feel; but think about it: In the cold, hard light of science, feelings are chemistry! Of course, in the first instance, it is our environment, our experiences, and to an extent, our personality that makes us feel the way we feel. But our feelings of fear, anger, overwhelm or love and confidence trigger the release of hormones in our body, which is where chemistry kicks in.

We need the happy hormone serotonin and the pleasure hormone dopamine to feel good, the sleep hormone melatonin to sleep, and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol for our get-up-and-go and to fight or flee when we’re under threat. Hormones work in unison with each other. Some hormones suppress others; some trigger the release of others. But for these feedback mechanisms to work, for our body to even be able to manufacture the chemicals that we need, we must supply the raw materials they are made of.

Those raw materials are:

  • fatty acids, (think oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oils)

  • proteins, (lean poultry, nuts, tofu, fish)

  • vitamins, minerals (fruit and veg - aim for 5 veg & 2 fruit a day!)

  • phytonutrients (eat a rainbow - aim for a daily spectrum of red, purple, yellow, orange, and green plant foods daily)

What’s more, even our friendly gut bacteria contribute to how we feel by extracting more nutrients from our food for us, manufacturing some, such as short-chain fatty acids, from scratch, and even providing some ready-made serotonin! So, if you think of feelings that way, what we eat is bound to have a massive impact on how we feel and how we cope with the challenges life throws at us.

Don't get me wrong; I’m not saying that diet will cure an anxiety disorder. However, if we try and fuel our bodies with poor-quality food that does not provide the building blocks of the hormones and catalysts our brain chemistry requires, we’ll have a much harder time overcoming mental health issues.

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