Anxiety is mental, spiritual, AND physical -- what you eat can make a big difference.
Anxiety is an interesting thing. It’s very common — more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from some form of anxiety. One in five of us will face an anxiety disorder in our lifetimes, and with it, the myriad theories on how to treat or prevent it.
Here’s where it gets particularly interesting: Anxiety isn’t a purely mental or spiritual illness. In fact, many aspects of it are entirely physical.
Panic attacks, common among people with anxiety disorder, happen when the brain perceives immediate danger. Our sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response, a cascade of hormones that cause rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, and various other physical symptoms.
Fr. Stephen Freeman, a priest who suffered from panic attacks for years, explains that the physical reality of anxiety can’t be distinguished from the mental and spiritual reality:
Somewhat problematic, I think, is the not infrequent distinction made between anxiety and depression as physical/medical problems and as so-called “spiritual” problems. There is no such distinction. We do not have “spiritual” problems that are not also physical problems, simply because we do not exist as some sort of divisible creatures. We could say that the whole thing is spiritual (including medicine). We do not have a “spiritual” life that is not connected with our body. We are human beings.
There are many articles on how to address and remedy the spiritual and mental causes of anxiety. I’ve written a few on how to combat the physical aspects of anxiety, primarily through exercise and getting outside. But it turns out there’s another way to reduce the physical effects of anxiety — by changing what we eat.
Dietician and author Ali Miller wrote the literal book on what to eat and what to avoid to ease anxiety. There’s a lot of hard science behind nutrition and the under or over-production of neurotransmitters, but I’m going to boil it down to the top 5 foods to eat and the top 5 to avoid if you’re struggling with anxiety:
- Fatty fish: Fish high in omega-3’s like wild salmon and anchovies boost the production of neurotransmitters that help our brain function and regulate our emotions. Not a fan of fish? Try grass-fed beef and lamb instead.
- Apples: An apple a day really does keep the doctor away–the soluble fiber in apples produce a short-chain fatty acid that reduces inflammation, a common culprit in anxiety.
- Avocados: Yay, guacamole! The B vitamins in avocados boost neurotransmitters, and the potassium they contain help lower blood pressure.
- Leafy greens: Kale and spinach are rich in magnesium, which regulates serotonin levels in the brain. If you’re a salad-hater like me, add a handful of greens to a smoothie–I promise, you can’t taste them at all.
- Bone broth: The soothing power of soup isn’t just in your imagination–the glycine in bone broth inhibits neurotransmitters that spike anxiety levels, soothing pain and helping us relax.
DON’T EAT THAT
- Caffeine: Sorry y’all–that cup of joe might wake you up in the morning, but it does so by increasing adrenalin levels and ramping up your heart rate.
- Sugar: The sugar high is a thing. Processed foods and simple sugars cause your blood pressure to spike and crash quickly, which releases adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol.
- Alcohol: I know, I know…that glass of wine at the end of a long day feels relaxing. But it actually disrupts serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion.
- Dairy: Turns out that glass of warm milk is also chock full of the protein casein, which not only causes inflammation but also affects opioid receptors in a similar way that Facebook does.
- Salty foods: That pile of French fries is admittedly delicious, but scarfing them down will strip your body of potassium and increase your blood pressure.
Whether you’re battling chronic anxiety or just feeling burned out from the stress of life, it’s important to address all the causes and symptoms — spiritual, mental, and physical. So go for a run, spend some time in Adoration, and at the end of the day, unwind with a cup of bone broth instead of wine. This kind of self-care will help you be at more peace – physically, mentally, and spiritually.