Your to-do list is too long and the time to complete those tasks is too short. Sound familiar? That’s when stress rears its ugly head. There are many ways to manage stress – exercise, breathe deeply, meditate, talk to a friend, or do something relaxing. However, what you eat matters too. Diet affects all aspects of physical and mental functioning. Sometimes we inadvertently eat in a way that makes stress worse. Here are some dietary habits that make it harder to manage stress.
You Don’t Get Enough Magnesium
You need magnesium to run over 300 chemical reactions in your body, including those that influence brain, nerve, heart, and muscle function. Mouse studies show that consuming a diet low in magnesium boosts anxiety and “the jitters” in the tiny creatures. There’s also evidence magnesium reduces anxiety and helps with insomnia in humans.
Some people under stress develop depressive symptoms. One human study found that supplementing with 450 milligrams of magnesium daily reduced depressive symptoms in elderly adults with diabetes as much as a tricyclic antidepressant.
Are you getting enough calming magnesium in your diet? The best sources are whole grains, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and legumes. Eat up! Also, be aware that certain medications, like diuretics and proton-pump inhibitors used to treat acid reflux, can reduce your body’s magnesium stores. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re taking a medication that lowers magnesium.
You’re Eating Too Much Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Can junk food worsen stress? Sugar and refined carbohydrates cause blood sugar swings that trigger anxiety. After you eat a sugary or ultra-processed food, your blood sugar shoots up and your insulin level does too. The extra insulin in your bloodstream then drops your blood sugar as rapidly as it rose. This blood sugar roller coaster ride can worsen anxiety or even bring on a panic attack if you’re prone to them.
The fix? Skip the junk food and include a healthy source of protein with your meals and snacks to stabilize your blood sugar level. Don’t skip meals though. Skipping meals can cause a blood sugar drop that triggers anxiety.
You’re Getting Too Much Caffeine
People equate caffeine with energy and focus. Yet some people experience anxiety and irritability after a trip to Starbucks. Other reactions to caffeine include headaches and a racing heart. Try reducing or eliminating caffeinated products for a period, to see if you notice any changes in your mood.
Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks are the most common sources of caffeine in Western diets, but there are small quantities of caffeine in other foods, like chocolate. Some medications, including pain meds and medications used to treat headaches contain caffeine too. Substitute a herbal tea with calming properties. Chamomile tea, lemon balm, and passionflower tea both calm the body’s stress response and help relieve anxiety. These herbal tisanes also help you get a better night’s sleep.
You’re Not Getting Enough Omega-3s
Omega-3s are a type of dietary fat abundant in fatty fish, like salmon and sardines. Some people who don’t eat fish get omega-3s by taking a fish oil supplement. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory activity and may offer some protection against cardiovascular disease, although studies are conflicting. Research also links diets high in omega-3s with brain health, and that includes mental health and well-being. A study of medical students found omega-3s help reduce anxiety. It’s best to get omega-3s from food sources, like fatty fish, rather than taking a supplement since you get other nutrients, like protein, from fish.
Plant-based foods like walnuts sesame seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed, and chia seeds are also good sources of omega-3 but they’re in short-chain form that may not have the same benefits as the long-chain omega-3s in fatty fish. Your body can only convert about 10% of the short-chain omega-3s you consume from plant-based sources to the long-chain form. Also, be aware that fish oil supplements can interfere with the activity of some medications, including blood thinners. So, let your doctor know if you take them.
Your Gut Microbiome Needs a Reset
Scientists now link the gut microbiome, the ecosystem inside your intestines, with mental health too. The tiny organisms that live in your gut interact with your brain through a giant nerve called the vagus nerve and may play a role in your mood. An analysis of multiple studies that looked at the effects of probiotics on anxiety found probiotics reduced anxiety in rodents exposed to stress. One bacteria, in particular, called Lactobacillus rhamnosus (L. rhamnosus) was the most effective. You can get probiotics by eating fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables, or get these healthy gut bugs by taking a probiotic supplement.
The Bottom Line
The diet you eat can affect how anxious you feel. Try keeping a food journal for a few weeks as you make each dietary change and see how it affects your symptoms. Also, don’t forget to drink water throughout the day. Mild dehydration can have a negative effect on your mood. Studies show that people are often mildly dehydrated and aren’t aware of it.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety”
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19. PMID: 21784145; PMCID: PMC3191260.
- “Can Probiotics Help Reduce Anxiety? | Psychology Today.” 28 Sept. 2018, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201809/can-probiotics-help-reduce-anxiety.
- Slyepchenko A, Carvalho AF, Cha DS, Kasper S, McIntyre RS. Gut emotions – mechanisms of action of probiotics as novel therapeutic targets for depression and anxiety disorders. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2014;13(10):1770-86. doi: 10.2174/1871527313666141130205242. PMID: 25470391.
- “Could “Relative” Hypoglycemia Be Causing Your Anxiety ….” 10 Oct. 2018, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prescriptions-life/201810/could-relative-hypoglycemia-be-causing-your-anxiety.
- Boyle NB, Lawton C, Dye L. The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress-A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017 Apr 26;9(5):429. doi: 10.3390/nu9050429. PMID: 28445426; PMCID: PMC5452159.
- “Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Health Professional Fact Sheet.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/.