food and mental health

Eating to Combat Stress and Anxiety

We know what we eat impacts our health, but did you know that your diet also impacts your emotional health? Here we explain the connection between diet and mental health.

The human gastrointestinal system is incredibly sophisticated, comprising a network of millions of neurotransmitters lining our guts so extensive that scientists have dubbed it the second brain. Anyone who has experienced ‘butterflies’ or a ‘knot’ in their stomach when under stress will understand.

The gut-brain axis is connected via the vagus nerve, extending from the brainstem to the lowest viscera of the intestines. Think of this as a superhighway of connectivity between the gut and brain.  Therefore, when looking to support mental and emotional wellbeing it is important to consider how the food we eat impacts our ability to respond positively to stress.

Psychobiotics: Can gut microbiota influence emotions?

In 2014 researchers at UCC discovered that people who are clinically depressed have less diversity in the bacteria in their gut than people who are not depressed. They went on describe specific bacteria that when consumed have a beneficial impact on cognition and mood.  

The vagus nerve terminates in the brain stem; but has specific neural links to other regions of the brain. These are areas associated with mood regulation, emotions and stress responses. One animal study found that the microbe Bifidobacteria infantis was shown to significantly increase tryptophan levels. A precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin which contributes to wellbeing and feeling good.

Another study discovered that mice fed with L. rhamnosus exhibited less cortisol secretion in response to stressors as well as an increase in GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid). A neurotransmitter that calms the nerves and increases gamma brain waves, which are associated with balanced brain activity.  

Probiotics are available as a supplement or may be found in yoghurt and certain cheeses, sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir, tempeh and fermented drinks.

Foods that destress

Chronic stress can lead to a host of adverse health effects including elevated blood pressure, digestive problems and adrenal fatigue. It is important to limit certain foods and drinks that act as powerful stimulants. These can include caffeine, alcohol, sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats, red meat and processed foods.

Increasing intake of complex carbs as well as protein-based foods may boost the amount of tryptophan in the brain. This is necessary for serotonin production and will also insure a steady supply of glucose to the brain.

Sunflower seeds are rich in potassium, B vitamins (B6 and pantothenic acid) and zinc. This plays a critical role in the health of the adrenals – the stress hormone producing glands. Celery has long been touted as an anti-hypertension food. It’s rich in compounds known as phthalides which may improve circulatory health as well as lowering stress hormones in the blood.

Presenter and nutritionist Gillian McKeith recommends celery to stressed out clients. She suggests that a stalk or two before bedtime could even improve sleep. Almonds are rich in magnesium essential to maintain the health of the adrenal glands. Magnesium relaxes the nervous system and may reduce irritability and anxiety. Avocados, asparagus, cucumbers (i.e. cool as a cucumber), garlic, sesame seeds and berries also contain stress busting minerals and vitamins. Food for thought!

Ruth Kelly is a researcher and nutrition and wellness adviser.  She holds a Ph.D in science from the University of Limerick as well as advanced diplomas in nutrition and weight management and emotional freedom techniques. She is a qualified stress management coach and is currently self-employed at Essence Wellness which offers a range of services to private clients and the corporate sector.  

READ: The biggest questions on gut health