What if your food and drink choices were to blame for some symptoms of anxiety and depression?

The food blues 

“I personally feel that food can have an impact on our mental health and well-being,” says registered holistic nutritionist and naturotherapist Kirstin Schell, RHN B.Comm., who is also a personal training project manager for GoodLife Fitness “Eating well and nourishing our body with lots of fresh food helps us feel physically better and mentally helps to know we are caring for our bodies.”

This does not mean that there isn’t a place for foods traditionally seen as unhealthy, but rather that we should be eating a mainly healthy diet while enjoying the ‘unhealthy’ foods in moderation, without guilt.

But how do we recognize if a food is exacerbating symptoms of anxiety and depression?

Those could include:

  • worrying & restlessness
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • guilt
  • fatigue
  • trouble focusing & irritability

On the more intense end of the spectrum, symptoms can extend to ongoing withdrawal from family and friends, changes in sleep patterns, lack of or increased appetite and physical pain.

Most people experience manageable bouts of stress and anxiety, but what you put into your body can absolutely impact the degree to which you suffer.

Your brain (and body) on caffeine           

Moderate caffeine intake has its place in our diet, but it’s important to keep track of refills of caffeinated drinks. Caffeine can lead to feeling jittery throughout the day, inability to sleep at night and a rollercoaster of energy swings.

It’s easy to use the stimulant as a crutch since it’s a drug that inhibits the brain chemical adenosine. Adenosine induces feelings of tiredness, which means that we may be masking poor sleep habits and ignoring signs of stress. High doses of caffeine can also mirror symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness, restlessness, insomnia, an increased heart rate and gastrointestinal problems.

Savoury and sweet … and the havoc they may wreak     

Most people understand that a high sugar diet isn’t ideal, but we’re now learning more about the long-term impacts of ongoing sugar consumption. 

A study of healthy female participants, done by the University of California, Davis, found that sugar provided a temporary relief from feelings of anxiety and tension by inhibiting stress-induced cortisol secretion. However, that temporary relief makes us more reliant on sugar, increasing the risk of obesity and related diseases.

There is a place for some sugar in the diet, but if there is too much sugar and not enough of other important nutrients, our mental health can suffer from the extreme swings in blood sugar.

It can also affect your mood regulation. A diet high in sugar can increase the chances of incident mood disorders in men, and recurrent mood disorders in both men and women.

Salt isn’t much better, either.

“A high intake of sodium often implies a dependence on convenience and packaged foods. Eaten too often, these foods are often void of nutrients and will negatively affect health in the long term,” says Schell.

Excessive sodium intake is damaging to your neurological system, and may lead to fatigue, depression, panic episodes and immune system damage.

Fuel your mood

Diet and lifestyle choices can affect your psychological well-being, so how can you support your mental health with your food choices?

Eating a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats at each meal will help the body enjoy consistent, sustained energy throughout the day.

Avoid regular intake of these foods:

  • Cheese, cured meats and fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, containing the neurotransmitter histamine
  • Caffeine, which can disrupt sleep
  • Trans fats, linked to risk of heart disease and depression
  • White flour, sugar, refined carbs, which may trigger panicky feelings due to adrenaline spikes
  • Alcohol

Reach for these foods and drinks instead:

  • Replace juice and pop with water (plain or sparkling)
  • Replace nut butter with whole nuts (reduced sugar and sodium)
  • Eat more fatty fish (supplements your diet with Omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Use Greek yogurt as a creamy base in recipes (incorporates good fat and a source of probiotics)
  • Start your day with complex carbs, eggs and lean meats (great protein, less sugar)
  • Snack on seeds and dark chocolate (low-sugar snacks)
  • Favour savoury foods with turmeric (anti-inflammation benefits)
  • Sip on chamomile and green teas (calmer alternatives to coffee or black/caffeinated teas)
  • Replace refined carbs with whole grains (look for whole grain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, oatmeal, bran cereal)
  • Make sure to include fruits and veggies at every meal (frozen counts!)

Don’t go cold turkey

  • Reducing sugar consumption too aggressively can cause withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, confusion, and fatigue.
  • The same can be said for caffeine, as aggressively reducing your intake can lead to distressing symptoms such as headaches, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, and tremors 

Disclaimer: Ongoing and debilitating feelings of anxiety and depression are serious. Always seek medical guidance from your doctor, mental health provider or other qualified health providers. 

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. 

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: call 1-833-456-4566, text 45645.

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