Feeling anxious? How your nutrition can help
Remember when we just used to worry about the banana shortage? There's nothing like a new virus going on an unauthorised rampage around the globe to shake things up a little.
Whether you're nervous about your own health, worried for relatives, feeling fear over finance or claustrophobic in lockdown, many people are struggling to adjust.
To a lot of people, this new normal, doesn't feel so normal. (Although I do have some introvert friends who are in their element!) There will always be varying degrees of human reaction to this kind of crisis. The people in panic mode may not be the ones you expected — to be fair, they probably didn't expect it either — and it's worth remembering, that many often self-silence in loneliness or anxiety.
So if people you know have gone quiet — reach out, send a little message and a check in. The little gestures will mean more than you think.
I've written a lot about anxiety before. Now's not the time for the back story! But if you struggle to understand it, imagine what it must feel like, when from the very second you open your eyes, you feel like a racehorse that's just gone out of the gate. Except there's no gate, and no race … and no reason at all for feeling so incredibly highly strung and on edge. Or, even if there is a reason, it doesn't feel “big” enough to justify such physical and all-consuming symptoms. You become aware of every heartbeat and every breath. Not in a yoga-class good way, but in an impending-sense-of-doom way. It's awful.
One of the most frustrating things is that logic and perspective often don't help. Other people have worse problems or risks. People with anxiety recognise that, but they still feel the same. I'm good now, I have been for a long time, but I've noticed the issue bubbling up for a lot of clients and friends, so let's go over some key things that help.
Nutrition often plays a major role and it was a game changer for me — partly because of the physical impact on my biochemistry, and partly because it provides an element of control. There's something you can do about it. And that helps a great deal.
Anxiety and panic — nutrition and lifestyle tips to calm you down:
1, Professional help
Checking in with your doctor is a really important step to help you decide if counselling or medication might be helpful. When people have anxiety, they often get anxious about the stigma of mental health issues or side-effects of medications. Fortunately, we're living in an increasingly compassionate world when it comes to mental health and Bermuda has some amazing options — Solstice, Equilibrium, Tina Arorash and Amanda Marshall to name a few.
If your case isn't too severe, then you might find that natural supplements can do the trick. One of the most effective natural anti-anxiety aids is the amino acid L-theanine, which helps with calm and focus.
You can take it as a stand-alone supplement or — if your mood is blue, too — it's often combined with 5-HTP. Both options are usually at Phoenix pharmacy in town which should be open under lockdown. Rock On is a great source once the shops are back open.
Important: L-theanine and 5-HTP shouldn't be taken at the same time as pharmaceuticals for anxiety or depression. In addition, many people find that magnesium powder helps too (magnesium is depleted by stress and is often deficient in our diets). There's a fantastic Garden of Life magnesium powder at Miles (Nutrifit section) and the Natural Calm magnesium powder works wonders, too (most other grocery stores and pharmacies).
Just note that magnesium can be a laxative, so I suggest you start with half the dose and see what kind of impact that has unless you need a laxative, in which case go for it, but stay close to home!
Magnesium can be taken at the same time as L-theanine/5-HTP. If you are on any meds, please check with your pharmacist or doctor.
3, Make sure you eat enough
This one can be tricky if anxiety has robbed you of your appetite. The problem is that becoming underweight can affect cognitive ability, so it's hard to make rational or sensible decisions, which only fuels anxiety further.
It's important to recognise that healthy food will help provide essential nutrients that contribute to recovery — so make healthy eating your focus and your job! Make it easier on yourself by eating little and often so you aren't over faced. This ties into the next step ….
4, Blood-sugar balance
If anxiety is making you lose too much weight, it's tempting to focus on sugary carbs as these may lift your mood and usually contribute to weight gain. However, it's crucial to recognise that refined sugars also fuel anxiety, mainly because the subsequent sugar lows can trigger the fight-or-flight stress response — which feels like panic. Not to mention that refined carbs then often take the place of more nutrient-dense options that could have been nourishing your nervous system.
I've found that a protein-heavy diet often works well for anxious clients, so that means looking for protein at every meal and snack. Some slower-releasing carbs are fine — such as quinoa, beans/lentils, oats, butternut squash and low-sugar fruit such as berries, kiwi, peach and pear — but these are still best paired with protein.
5, Avoid caffeine
Caffeine is a huge no-no if you are having anxiety issues as it can disrupt blood sugar and trigger your fight-or-flight mechanism. It's also diuretic after 500mg of caffeine, meaning that it can deplete your body of the B vitamins that are so important for nourishing the nervous system. Switch to herbal teas instead. If you must have caffeine, try green tea, which does actually contain some naturally occurring L-theanine.
6, Sleep — break the cycle
Getting enough sleep is important for rest and recovery, but it can be tricky if anxiety is interfering! Medication or natural supplements can be useful here in terms of breaking the cycle.
It's important to get professional advice though, so see your GP for guidance regarding meds or a nutritionist for help with more natural alternatives. The magnesium powder mentioned above usually helps with sleep. Also try the 4-7-8 breathing technique (I'll post to Facebook) and the Insight Timer app for guided meditations.
7, Rest, but stay busy
Resting is important, but wallowing never did anyone any good. Push yourself to try to do a little more each day. Getting out for a walk, going for a run, meeting up (virtually) with friends, reading, working — whatever it is that will keep you busy and prevent you from getting too far into your own head.
This is hugely important for good mental health and it doesn't have to be much — just 30 minutes a day has been proven effective for reducing anxiety and depression.
Get outside if you can, soak up the sun (safely) and breathe in some fresh ocean air for a little while. Just note that if you are trying to gain weight avoiding intense exercise is best — just pick something more gentle!
• Catherine Burns is a qualified nutritional therapist. For more details: natural.bm, 505-4725, Natural Nutrition Bermuda on Facebook and @naturalbda on Instagram