Managing Stress Levels with Proper Nutrition

I recently began working with a young woman who was experiencing extreme anxiety and sleeplessness, seemingly out of nowhere. She was referred to me by her therapist as an adjunct to her weekly sessions to explore whether or not dietary changes would be beneficial for her in her quest to feel grounded again, steady in her life and comfortable in her skin.

Nutritional therapy may not be the first thing one thinks about when looking to manage emotional issues like anxiety disorder, but you’d be amazed at how many people I see with this problem. In today’s world, stress is inescapable, but it does not mean that anxiety and depression have to follow. Stress is a part of life, but anxiety and depression are its unwelcome relatives visiting from out of town, making you feel less at home in your own life than you thought was ever possible. For this young woman, let’s call her Marie, it was time for these unwelcome visitors to go back to where they came from. She wanted her life back.

After going through the various facets of her lifestyle, what we discovered is that like so many other people in the throes of anxiety, Marie was relying heavily on sugar and refined carbohydrates to fuel her body during these times of stress. While she was not ignorant about healthy eating and could recall a time in her life, not too long before where she relied on salads, healthy soups and fruit, she now was running to and from appointments, often skipping meals and when she did manage to eat, she was grabbing food on the run. As we all know, unhealthy foods are everywhere, tantalizing us to eat even when we know we shouldn’t. She was struggling and it was apparent.

Recognizing that cooking for her was a little unrealistic at the moment, given the pace of her daily routine, we mapped out the healthiest food options in her area. Starbucks offered oatmeal, which is a great complex carbohydrate that helps promote serotonin production, producing a sense of calm, so we had her pick up some on her way to work, had her include fruit and nuts (typically they offer one or the other), go to the coffee bar and add cinnamon. At work she would keep some ground flax seeds and add that as well, providing some healthy essential fats that would also help calm her brain.

Lunch and dinner would be healthy salads with lots of vegetables, perhaps salmon or chicken. Or she could do a lean protein with a side of broccoli, kale or cauliflower with some rice or sweet potatoes. The greens and vegetables are excellent antioxidants, providing a good amount of nutrients to nourish her brain and help control free radical damage that occurs when one is under stress. She could also opt for lentil or bean soup for a smaller meal that would provide more complex carbs to help promote her serotonin.

It’s easy enough to eat fairly well even in our face paced, fast-food world. It just comes down to scoping out your area, knowing what your healthier options are and where to get them and then following through. It takes a little planning but once you have your healthy food map in hand, it can become your new routine.

A couple of weeks after our first session Marie came back reporting that she was feeling much better. She was enjoying her food options, had more energy, which in turn helped her manage her stress levels better and was also sleeping better and all around feeling great. While she was still tempted to eat sugar for quick hits of energy, and she confessed that on one occasion she did, she quickly saw that it made her crash and the rest of her day was impacted by her lethargy. This was a great thing for her because now she saw first hand how much her diet had been aggravating her situation before. Once she experienced this dynamic, there was no turning back. She would choose feeling good over a candy bar anytime!

Stress happens. If you live in this world, you’re going to experience stress. But it should not get the better of you or take you down the road of anxiety and depression. You can begin now by taking a few small steps towards your well being by changing the way you eat. Remember to include lots of vegetables and some fruit, lean protein, essential fats like the ones found in salmon, flax, nuts and seeds and complex carbohydrates like beans, whole grains or sweet potatoes. What you will find is that you’ll feel more grounded and steady, and from there, great things can happen.

Additional tip: Vitamin D for a Calm Mind

Typically associated with bone density, vitamin D has additional benefits to your body and your life overall. Studies show that low levels of vitamin D is linked to depression. Additionally, Vitamin D is necessary for heart health and immune function as well as other important functions in the body. Best way to know how much you need? Take a blood test to see where your level is at and then supplement accordingly. Another option, especially as summer is around the corner, spend 15 minutes out doors around 3 or 4 in the afternoon with arms, chest and legs exposed (no sunscreen) and that can deliver as much as 10,000 units of readily assimilated vitamin D!