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Anxiety Making Your Symptoms Worse? 4 ways food may help

Listen to the audio of this post instead!

Right now, there is so much uncertainty. Your life has been flipped upside-down. Your brain is struggling to keep track of it all. You’ve lost your routine and your self-care is slipping by the way-side. And the stress of everyone else around you isn’t helping! Every time you hear a “ping” on your phone, you feel compelled to check it, but that just seems to make things worse.

And then you dwell on it.

Your mind ruminates into a doom-spiral.

Enter, your old friend anxiety

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again, because we all need to hear and truly feel this: those feelings are valid and you are NOT alone.

It wasn’t until after my first concussion that I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorders. Though it’s “Krystal” clear to me now that I was struggling with it for a long time before. The brain injury just amplified it. At least, that’s how I feel, and maybe you’ve had the same experience.  It’s truly hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know what anxiety is really like. But it’s very real and it’s your reality. Especially with intense media coverage and concern surrounding the current pandemic.

Anxiety can make it hard for you to eat. And believe it or not, how you eat can influence your anxiety. So I thought now was a good time to address this. But let me make something absolutely clear: what I’m offering you today is by no means a cure. These nutrition tips do NOT diminish your reality of living with anxiety. But it’s worth it to see if there’s even a little bit of that anxiety we can alleviate through your buddy and mine, food 🙂 <3

How is your anxiety affecting your nutrition?

No really… how is your anxiety affecting you? Because anxiety may impact people in different ways. Do you have triggers? Are they social, physical? For me, my triggers are sensational! (lol) My anxiety flares up the moment I feel my PCS symptoms.

So how anxiety affects your nutrition may depend on your triggers. It’s beyond my scope to help you deal with those triggers, but I thought I’d just bring some awareness to this issue here, so as not to ‘blanket statement’ this type of nutrition support. Plus, I hope it raises some awareness in those who are unaware.

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But from a body physiology standpoint, anxiety can impair your nutrition by lowering your appetite, giving you nausea making it hard to eat, then slowing down the movement of food through your digestive tract. All-in-all, anxiety can lower your drive to eat, then make eating uncomfortable.

No matter how anxiety impacts your nutrition, know that it’s legit. While you work with a qualified professional on your anxiety triggers & management, there are some work arounds for nutrition we can tap into 🙂

4 nutrition tips to help alleviate anxiety

#1 Eat food. Veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and other stuff you like 🙂

Ok, eat food, duh! But this overall nutrition recommendation is worth noting.

A Mediterranean style of eating that focuses on veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, beans & legumes, as well as some dairy does seem to help with mental health. The Food and Mood Centre lays out their research and emphasizes the benefits of eating in this way.

But why I think “eat food” is super important to actually say and put into writing, is because it reminds you to look at foods TOGETHER.

When we think of nutrition for mental health, or brain injury, or any other ailment, we tend to think of individual foods, or even supplements of individual nutrients. Truth is, food does not act in isolation (even if we are temporarily living in that way!) Nutrients interact with each other. Certain components of food help the body absorb nutrients from other foods! Plus, as much we think we know it all about food, in reality, we don’t. There are likely still important compounds in food we have yet to discover or appreciate. And finally, as humans, we don’t eat nutrients. We eat food. Mixed together. In many different ways. And this point emphasizes that 🙂

#2 Include in your diet some foods high in Tryptophan

Ha! Above I say to focus on food over individual nutrients, and here I am contradicting that! The irony is not lost on me… But there is time and place to appreciate individual nutrients and how they may help, especially if we consider them in the context of food and your whole diet.

So why the highlight on Tryptophan? It’s an amino acid — one of the building blocks of proteins. However that’s not what makes it important for our purposes today. Did you know that amino acids can be turned into things other than protein in the body? Specifically, Tryptophan can be converted into one of our favourite happy substances, serotonin.

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Serotonin is known for it’s mood-improving activity. It’s the target of some medications for mental health. Thing is though, the amount of serotonin we have in the brain depends on our dietary intake of Tryptophan. Your body doesn’t naturally make this T-rrific amino acid! You have to get it through food.

I will be honest that research is conflicting. Some studies show an improvement in mood when we increase Tryptophan in the diet, whereas other studies do not. However, Tryptophan’s effect may be more important for people who already have mental health problems. Research in people like you and I seems to show that lowering Tryptophan in the diet can worsen mood, whereas adding Tryptophan-rich foods can improve it.

As exciting as research may be to you, let’s talk about what’s really important…the food! Foods high in Tryptophan are delicious including pumpkin seeds, eggs, chicken & turkey, canned fish, soybeans and mozzarella cheese. Yum!

Soya, Beans, Soy Bean, Legume, Green, Pod, Soybean

#3 Try smoothies, puddings, and purees when your gut is queasy

We talked about what to eat in the first two points. Let’s now look at tips for how to eat.

Above I mentioned how different people will be affected by anxiety in different ways. If you experience low appetite or digestive issues, then make it easier for yourself to get some nutrition into your body. Taking your nutrients in beverage or pureed form may be the temporary ticket.

Plus, you have a number of options at your fingertips — smoothies have become so popular! And all sorts of ingredients can be added to smoothies, puddings and purees. Check out this Raspberry-spinach-flaxseed smoothie, or this Spiced chia pudding or this Green lentil power smoothie.

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Taking food in this form may help you get through the tough gut times. However, if you have the ability to eat solids, be sure to vary up your mealtime textures when you can. This can make food more fun, and better appease all your senses.

#4 Mindfulness part of your self-care? Apply it to food ♥️

#Mindfulness has maybe become a sort of buzz word, but hopefully that doesn’t take away from it’s potential for healing. I learned mindfulness from my psychologist as a therapeutic treatment, and have found it helpful. So naturally as a dietitian, I have come to learn, practice, and professionally develop mindful eating.

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Like I said to one of my clients: “mindful eating isn’t sitting in the dark eating a carrot..” I think a hyper focus on food can sometimes cause more anxiety! Instead, true mindful eating is rooted in the fundamental mindfulness concept that you observe without judgement.

If this is something you already include as part of your anxiety management or overeall self-care, then applying those principles to food might be good next step in your practice — a great exercise for your mind and body.

Breathe

At the end of the day, there is no magic cure for anxiety. Food does play an important role in your mood. Whether that is what you eat or how you eat. Hopefully these tips don’t add to your overwhelm, but instead provide you some extra tools to help you take a deep breath when it comes to food.

Inhale. Exhale. Eat. Enjoy.

With much love & virtual hugs,

Krystal Merrells

Registered Dietitian

TBI survivor

Anxious & still eating 😉

References & Resources:

Ontario Psychological Association: Find a psychologist: www.psych.on.ca/Utilities/Find-a-psychologist.aspx

Cookspiration app for recipes: http://www.cookspiration.com/

Lindseth, G., Helland, B., & Caspers, J. (2015). The effects of dietary tryptophan on affective disorders. Archives of psychiatric nursing29(2), 102–107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2014.11.008

Jenkins, T. A., Nguyen, J. C., Polglaze, K. E., & Bertrand, P. P. (2016). Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients8(1), 56. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8010056

Dash, Sarah. An introduction to mood foods. Food and Mood Centre. https://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/2017/08/intro-to-mood-foods/

Coronavirus Anxiety and Brain Injury. TBI Survivor. March 14, 2020 by Jeff Sebell. http://www.tbisurvivor.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-anxiety-and-brain-injury/

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