Functional nutritionist Vinka Wong on how diet can help to alleviate anxiety.

It comes as no surprise to learn that cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders have increased by more than 25% worldwide, according to a world-first study of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health by The University of Queensland. Our functional nutritionist Vinka Wong makes a case for using nutrients as ammunition… Kel

Anxiety: that heavy weight that pushes down on us, racks our shoulders and turns our tummies inside out. Most of us have experienced it at some stage, but for some living with anxiety is a constant and continuous battle.

There is no denying that there are very real existential challenges facing all of us right now. These are all genuine, stressful and overwhelming and can often lead to various levels of anxiety.

Anxiety differs for all of us: for some people it doesn’t even register; for many others it can consume our life, halting conscious momentum, making normal, simple daily tasks difficult to near-impossible and reducing our quality of sleep.

But it doesn’t have to go unchecked. Thankfully, in most cases we can establish a calm and happy self, and one easy way to treat anxiety is through food. When we are anxious, our body quickly becomes depleted of certain nutrients as they are used up in producing stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, the chemicals that are released when feeling anxious. When we are low in those nutrients we are more prone to anxiety, because these particular nutrients are what we need to make our calming neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Also, our body can become super- sensitive to certain foods that induce stress. So, to combat anxiety it’s helpful to make sure we’re eating the right foods.

Magnesium and zinc are my anxiety warriors and foods naturally rich in these minerals are critically important in this fight. Magnesium-rich foods include almonds, spinach, avocado and dark chocolate. Zinc-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, lamb, oysters and pinenuts. Starting your day with a chocolate (cacao) smoothie with spinach, nuts and seeds is a great way to get these nutrients into your diet. One tip is to add frozen cauliflower to the smoothie to make it nice and creamy – if my fussy kids love it, you know it’s a winner!

However, certain foods can act as ammunition for negative emotions. By being aware of how these may increase or decrease our stress, we can better manage anxiety when it arises. One common food trigger for this is coffee (sorry, coffee-lovers). Coffee is a powerful stimulant that increases your heart rate, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones. Caffeine consumption can more than double your blood levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Also, caffeine hinders the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which increases your chances of anxiety and panic attacks.

Another key to success is to feed our gut bacteria, the little legends (microorganisms or bacteria) that are collectively known as the microbiome. I can’t tell you how hugely integral these are to immune function, digestion and brain health and we now know that there are more happy-hormone receptors in our gut than in our brain (serotonin particularly). My mantra: “If happy is the destination, we gotta start with good digestion!”

If you are experiencing bloating, gas, reflux, diarrhoea or nausea these are clear indications of inflammation or fermentation in the gut. All these symptoms will affect your microbiome then eventually your mood and happiness ultimately leading to anxiety.

To help your microbiome out, include probiotic-rich foods in your diet a few times per week and go for options such as miso, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh or natto. Making your own water kefir is simple and is an effective way to re-establish healthy live probiotics. Play around with flavours such as ginger and lemon or whatever fruit flavours are in season, to make this a refreshing drink.

You may also find it helpful to take a probiotic that includes Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. In studies, these two strains of bacteria have demonstrated the ability to improve mood, reduce anxiety and enhance cognitive function. While addressing the topic of foods that help affect our mood and reduce anxiety, it’s also important to include the amino acid glutamine in your diet. Glutamine packs a punch when it comes to promoting good moods, because it helps stabilise our blood sugar (more on this later), improves nutrient absorption in the gut and helps us make our calming neurotransmitter, GABA. Glutamine is in foods such as animal protein, seafood, dairy products, nuts, and eggs.

When you have stable blood sugar, you’ll feel grounded, experience less anxiety and feel less overwhelmed by stress. There is also a good chance you will have fewer sugar cravings. Simple diet changes can help control your blood sugar levels and one of the most important of these is to eat enough protein. We all have unique needs, but a good rule of thumb is to have 1g of protein per kilo of body weight, so if you weigh 70kg then try to consume 70g of protein a day. Note that protein in meat is not the whole weight, for example, a 100g steak has approximately 26g of protein.

As we know, food is life and making smart food choices almost certainly leads to better health and wellness outcomes. But, anxiety is real. If you are feeling overwhelmed, make sure you reach out and talk to someone you trust.

Think. Eat. Heal. vinka.co.nz @vinkanutrition