How Food Can Help Reduce Anxiety
As you may know, for the month of April we teamed up with Fernwood Fitness and the Fernwood Foundation to create the 'Mindfulness' box to empower women by promoting positive mental health and supporting those with anxiety and depression.
Professor Felice Jacka and Dr Tetyana Rocks at the Food and Mood Centre provide evidence-based research and resources to the Foundation, informing the nutrition and wellness components of all Fernwood programs.
They also develop the nutrition components of the wellness program, focusing on Mediterranean diet-style meal plans for mental health. We were lucky enough to ask Dr Rocks some questions about anxiety and how food may effect our mood...
Dr Tetyana Rocks
Tetyana is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian who competed her PhD at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). Funded by the Australian Postgraduate Award, Tetyana’s PhD focused on eating, exercise, and body attitudes and how these factors are influenced by nutrition knowledge.
Her specific interests include every-day simple nutrition for a healthy body and mind throughout the life stages.
What is the Deakin Food and Mood Centre?
Our new Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University is a multidisciplinary centre of researchers, whose focus is the development of new, nutrition-focused, preventive strategies and treatments for mental and brain disorders.
What is anxiety and how common is it in women?
Being anxious in the face of threats or stress is normal; however, when anxiety exists with no apparent cause, or when it affects one’s daily functioning and wellbeing, then it becomes a problem. Anxiety disorders such as social phobias, generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder, are one of the top two leading causes of illness and disability around the globe. They are very common, affecting more than 14% of the population in Australia at any given time.
How can food help reduce anxiety?
Our research has repeatedly shown that people who eat a healthy diet, higher in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, fish, lean, unprocessed red meats and healthy fats are at lower risk for anxiety disorders. Those having a more western-style, processed food diet are more at risk. As well as this, we’ve now shown if someone has a mental health problem, we can improve their symptoms by improving the quality of their diet. We are starting to think this could be caused by food having a very rapid and important impact on the gut microbiota and gut-brain-axis, which is central in controlling our stress response system - the seat of anxiety.
Can certain foods make us more anxious?
Based on what we currently know from research, foods that negatively affect the health of our gut and its resident microbiota may have a negative impact on anxiety over time; these include processed foods with artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers and saturated fats. On the other hand, plant foods that are high in fibre and polyphenols, as well as fats from olive oil, avocado, nuts and fish, are beneficial to our gut health. In the short term, sweet foods can calm us down, a bit like a drug, but the long-term impact on anxiety is the opposite.
What are the main foods we should be including in our diet to help reduce anxiety and why?
Although there is no one specific food that will reduce anxiety, making sure you are eating well will help you in the long run. Aim to eat plenty of green leafy vegetables to boost your vitamin and minerals intake: cruciferous, Chinese greens, asparagus, spinach and other salad greens, etc. Top up your intake with other colourful fruit and vegetables to increase the variety of micronutrients and bioactive compounds in your diet, and to help your immune and nervous systems cope with stress.
Plant-based food, such as fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts will also provide plenty of different fibre (including prebiotic fibre, a.k.a. food for your gut microbiota). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have been linked to good brain and mental health, so aim to include in your diet good amounts of oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines), and nuts and seeds (particularly walnuts and flaxseeds). Ensure you have enough whole grains, such as oat, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, spelt and brown, black, red or wild rice, as these all have plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fibre to support your mental health.
Unlike sugary snacks, wholegrains will provide your body with a steady release of energy decreasing hunger-associated mood swings. Additionally, emerging evidence show probiotics (such as those found in yoghurts, kefir and other fermented foods) are beneficial for your gut health and in turn, might be great for your mental health as well.
What is a Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is the most extensively researched diet in the world. There are around 30 varieties of the Mediterranean diet, but all of these have same underlying principles
High intake of vegetables (particularly leafy greens and vegetables), fresh fruit, legumes and whole-grain cereals.
Extra virgin olive oil, as the predominant fat and minimal intake of other fats.
Yoghurt and cheese consumed in moderation (fermented milk products).
Regular intake of nuts, fish and seafood.
Small portions of red meat, particularly processed meats rich in fat.
Moderate amounts of red wine, consumed usually with meals.
Adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet has been associated with many health benefits, including decreased cardiovascular and cancer risks, decreased cognitive decline and decreased depressive symptoms.
What is the Deakin Food and Mood Centre currently researching to help positively impact this issue?
Currently, we are focusing on building evidence on the links between food and symptoms of anxiety by both assessing current research and developing new studies. The centre’s multidisciplinary team is committed to translating scientific knowledge to the wider community, so we are active contributors to many programs that aim to disseminate the message and build knowledge and skills related to food and mood.
How can we get involved to support women with anxiety?
It is important to talk openly and remove any stigmas associated with mental health in general and anxiety in particular. Open dialogue and understanding will facilitate support networks that are crucial in preventing and managing anxiety.
Dr Subhadra Evans
Dr Subhadra Evans and Dr Mandy O’Connor at Deakin University develop the mindset components of the wellness program, focusing on emotional intelligence and coping mechanisms. The aim of the Wellness Program will be to equip all women with information and practical strategies for good mental health.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr Evans undertook research into the use of mind body interventions, including yoga, mindfulness and hypnosis for addressing chronic pain and improving wellness so we were stoked to ask her some questions about anxiety and emotional intelligence...
What is emotional intelligence and why is it so important?
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognise, manage and adjust to our own and others’ emotions. Research has associated emotional intelligence to better mental health outcomes, perhaps because being aware of and managing our emotions allows us to respond to events in a way that is in line with our values, rather than simply reacting in the heat of the moment.
Developing emotional intelligence can help us to navigate our social relationships, choosing our responses to others wisely. Emotional intelligence may also give us some space to reappraise a situation and use empathy and compassion. For example, a colleague who might leave you feeling undervalued may themselves be experiencing heightened stress and an unmanageable workload. Developing our emotional intelligence can allow us to know and better respond to our own and others’ emotional needs.
How can exercise help to improve your emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence involves the identification, understanding, expression and regulation of personal or others’ emotions. Research indicates that exercise, when used as a mood-enhancing strategy, has the capacity to significantly improve emotional intelligence. Studies have found that engaging in physical activity can enhance optimistic attitudes, increase positive mood and lower negative mood and anxiety states.
Physical activity significantly impacts physiological functions through increased production of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as natural endorphins, serotonin and norepinephrine hormones. This physiological process has been linked to reductions in depression and anxiety and increased positive mood, therefore giving people the opportunity to focus on the elements of emotional intelligence. Additionally, higher levels of emotional intelligence have been associated with increased motivation and engagement in exercise and physical activity.
Is restorative exercise (like yoga) better for mental wellbeing than high intensity exercise?
While we know that moving our bodies helps our mood, research is not at the stage of being able to say whether yoga is better for mental wellbeing than high intensity exercise. Yoga and physical exercise both seem to enhance wellbeing, but the mechanisms for each may be different. For example, the purpose of yoga is to settle the mind, and yoga’s meditative practices may help in doing this. With high intensity exercise, balancing emotions may not be a direct goal, but often happens nonetheless.
Perhaps the best approach is to find an activity that is enjoyable, since to reap the benefits of yoga or high intensity exercise, we need to stick with it. We are most likely to continue with activities that we enjoy, and that suit our needs. Some people have physical restrictions and are unable to engage in high intensity exercise, but yoga, with appropriate modifications taught by an experienced teacher, provides a way for everyone to access the mental health benefits of movement.
Why is meditation and mindfulness helpful for women suffering from anxiety and depression?
Examining our attention during mindfulness can give us some clues as to why many people find the practice helpful in managing emotions. Mindfulness involves placing our attention on the present moment experience. This focus on the present can steer us from the sorts of worries about the past and future that are characteristic of anxiety and depression. Along with focusing on the present, mindfulness involves acceptance of what is occurring in a non-judgemental manner. In this context, acceptance is not being passive; it simply means experiencing whatever is occurring fully, without pushing away, criticizing or supressing thoughts and feelings. By removing judgement of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel, we learn to accept that the human experience involves a rainbow of emotions, becoming more peaceful with the entire spectrum of feelings, even the blue tones.
What are some practical coping mechanisms people can adopt into their day to day lives?
Know your limits
Become an expert on what stress means to you, by noticing what is going on in your own mind and body. Perhaps you are chronically tired and need more sleep, which can make worries feel so much worse. Noticing how stress shows up in your body and your thoughts can help to determine what the problem is, and how to manage it better.
Divide and conquer
Try not to overwhelm yourself with the big picture. Break big tasks into small, manageable tasks. For example, if you have a big birthday party to organise, see if you can chunk the tasks into smaller, realistic steps to accomplish each day. Sometimes a visual planner can help, where you lay out your manageable goals for each day.
The reality is that we are often over-committed. Think about your goals, and prioritise your time accordingly. Write down which tasks need to be done first, and take care of those before moving across tasks that are less important. It might seem counterintuitive but taking small breaks (such as those described below) can also help with focus.
Studies consistently show that exercise is good for our physical and mental health. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that ward off depression, conquer anxiety and even alleviate fatigue and pain. The next time you feel overwhelmed or overtired, try a 20-minute walk or jog. You might be surprised by how refreshed you feel!
If you feel overwhelmed, speak to someone. Trusted friends and family can offer help and support. Research has found that discussing problems with someone in a similar situation reduces stress, so talking to friends can be a great way of dealing with stress. Sometimes just hearing your problem aloud can ease the burden, other times talking through a problem can result in all kinds of new solutions. Talk therapy with a professional can also be helpful. If talking isn’t your thing, find someone to be silent with. Connecting with nature or pets can also help during difficult times.
Take a break from the doing mode
Sometimes we get stuck in the ‘doing mode’, where we focus on achieving and striving for greater and greater states of excellence. Being so focused on achievement can sometimes lead to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and missing out on the small but important things in life. Switching gears to the being mode (which we practice during mindfulness) helps the mind to take a break.
Our thoughts can be our worst enemy, or our best friend. First, notice the content of your thoughts. Are they kind, helpful and encouraging? Or do you beat yourself up with thoughts of being ‘stupid’ ‘lazy’ or ‘never doing enough?’ One antidote to unkind or unhelpful thoughts is to try what scientists call mindful self-compassion. Practice imagining you are speaking to your best friend. What kind of patient, helpful advice would you give to someone you really care about? You might tell them they are not alone, or that lots of people have struggled with similar problems. Try giving that advice to yourself! Research shows that our inner talk affects our outlook on life.
Placing our attention on the things and people we are grateful for can increase our emotional intelligence. Spending dedicated time each day thinking about what we cherish is one way of ensuring we set aside gratitude time. However, a recent psychological review noted that focusing on feelings of gratitude directly after an act of kindness is a particularly powerful way of accessing the prosocial benefits of gratitude. So spend a moment in real time, savouring and being thankful for the little acts of kindness we encounter. A friendly smile, a patient driver holding space for you in their lane, the sun’s warmth- we all have a lengthy and varied list of kindnesses to note and be thankful for, if we but spend a moment to think about them.
Is it only helpful for women with these conditions?
Learning adaptive coping strategies and practicing mindfulness are likely to benefit most of us, since we all face life challenges and difficult emotions. There are many different ways of coping, and it can be helpful to develop a toolkit of strategies, since coping often needs to be adapted to the situation. For example, if we’re dealing with a difficulty that we can do something about (like procrastinating about a work deadline), then problem focused coping such as charting out a time management plan can help to alleviate anxiety. If the problem is beyond our control (we missed the deadline) then an emotion focused strategy like going for a walk in the park, can help to regulate our emotions. There are also individual differences in preferred coping strategies – some people like to talk about their challenges, others connect more with nature, and yet others might prefer cuddling a loved pet. Try out a range of problem and emotion focused strategies to build yourself a custom-made toolkit.
What will women get out of reading the Great Minds eBook?
The Great Minds eBook is a valuable resource for all women. You’ll find helpful information to learn more about your own mental health and strategies for promoting good mental health. You’ll discover more about your EQ (or emotional intelligence) and how to boost it, learn about the Mediterranean Diet’s positive effects on mental health with a seven-day meal plan and be provided with practical strategies to introduce mindfulness, yoga and meditation into your life. There’s something that every woman, no matter what stage of their life they are in, can gain from reading Great Minds.
Why is the Great Minds eBook a helpful resource for women suffering from anxiety and depression?
The Fernwood Foundation is dedicated to providing support for women with anxiety and depression. 100 percent of sales from Great Minds will go to the Fernwood Foundation and fund mental wellbeing research at Deakin University, as well as our upcoming Wellness Program. The information and strategies in the eBook provide simple steps and strategies for promoting positive mental health, including eating Mediterranean with a seven-day meal plan. Recent findings from a Deakin University study show that adults with major depression who ate a high-quality Mediterranean diet (with support from a clinical dietician) experienced much more relief from symptoms of depression from those who received social support but didn’t change their diet.
Checkout the Great Minds eBook here: https://www.fernwoodfoundation.org.au/eq-ebook/