Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt so anxious, your hands started to shake, your heart felt like it was about to jump out of your chest and you could barely breathe.
Now, raise your hand if you’ve tried traditional treatments for anxiety – typically, looots of medication…and they didn’t work.
Well, guess what? My hand is high up in the air…and a lot of my past clients would be raising their hands, too. Over forty million people in the US struggle with anxiety disorders. Every. Year. Yet, clients constantly come to me saying, “My anti-anxiety medicine is working, but all of the side effects are ruining my life. Why can’t I just feel better already!?!”
Usually? It’s because you aren’t addressing the underlying causes of your anxiety in the first place.
I found this out from personal experience. Sure, anti-anxiety medications helped numb my pain. But it was only when I started digging deep inside myself and asking why I was so happy and anxious in the first place that I actually started to heal.
Which is why today’s post is all about how three dietary habits can actually be the key to beating anxiety without medication and putting your health and wellbeing back into your own hands.
You Are What You Eat…No, Really
If you love food like I do, I know you’re probably already thinking, “Just, please, Caitlin, don’t tell me I have to give up chocolate! Or Friday night drinks out on the town!”
And I get it. Food can play a big part in enjoying life…and shifting your food choices can be hard. However, the best part about this alternative treatment for anxiety is that your diet is completely under your control. And since more and more research is connecting mental health to certain dietary choices, this means that your anxiety is, to a point, under your control too.
So what core dietary habits should you adopt to help heal your anxiety? There are three main dietary habits I suggest when crafting the best diet for anxiety:
1. Have a consistent eating routine that you follow. Every. Single. Day.
We all know what happens when we get hungry: our stomach starts to growl (sometimes in the middle of that uuuber important work meeting) and we may even get a little “hangry.” But do you actually know what happens in your body when hunger cues start popping up?
Let’s flashback to high school biology class for a quick refresher. When your body starts telling you it’s hungry, that means it’s not getting the food or nutrients it needs. In fact, hunger is actually a stress signal to your body and it causes your body to go into a mini “emergency” or “survival” mode. What’s the big deal about that? Well, think about how you feel when you accidentally run into your ex around town. Your heart rate quickens. Your breathing gets rapid and shallow. And your anxiety levels? They hit the roof!
The same kind of feelings can happen when you get super hungry and your body isn’t sure when the next meal is coming. Why? In fight-or-flight mode, your body releases chemicals like cortisol and other stress hormones…and you feel anxious as a result.
Luckily, it’s easy to prevent this kind of hunger-triggered “survival mode.” Just nail down an eating schedule! When you have a steady eating routine, your body knows when to expect food and gets it at that time. So it has no reason to stress out over a few stomach growls.
“But Caitlin!” you might be saying. “I have such a crazy schedule, I never know when I’ll have time to eat next!” And I totally get it. A lot of people never eat at regular times. They skip breakfast or skip lunch or are trying to diet and reduce their calories.
But deciding when you will eat breakfast, lunch and dinner is in your power. If your job keeps you from eating regularly, schedule breaks for meals or stash snacks in your desk for emergency fuel. If you’ve been skipping breakfast because you’re in a rush and can “get by” on coffee until lunch, realize that taking the time to eat a nourishing breakfast will actually help you be even more kick-ass throughout the rest of the day. Once your body knows when it will be nourished and trusts you to do that, your stress hormones will go down…along with your anxiety!
2. Avoid inflammatory foods and add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet.
Like I’ll explain more in dietary habit number three, everyone is different and everyone thrives on a different diet. However, there is a TON of research out there (like, more research than Kim Kardashian has shoes) connecting inflammatory foods to worsening anxiety. Why? Because of the crazy effects inflammation has on the body.
In particular, inflammation can throw your gut health totally out of whack. This can then trigger nutritional deficiencies that prevent your nervous system from properly doing its thang. In fact, research reports that the foods you eat can actually alter your brain chemistry and the formation of certain neurotransmitters. Just take serotonin, for example. This neurotransmitter influences your GI activity and your mood…and 95% of it is created by your gut bacteria. So if you’re eating foods that inflame your body, and your gut bacteria can’t do its job, how can you expect to feel happy and calm?
I always try to focus on the foods you should eat MORE of, rather than the foods you should cut out. However, if you really want to beat anxiety without medication, it’s important to know about the inflammatory foods to leave off your plate. Things like canola oil, processed meats and bread, high fructose corn syrup – basically, anything super processed or sugary is out. Alcohol and caffeine are also problematic because of how they stimulate and depress the nervous system.
And before you start freaking out – I know. Cutting out these foods are hard. When I first tell my clients about inflammatory foods, they often reply with something like, “Then what the heck can I even eat!?!”
My answer? Tons of delicious food! There are countless “neutral” foods out there that won’t necessarily lower your inflammation and anxiety but won’t increase it either. Enjoy foods like soaked legumes, soaked and sprouted wheat products, natural dried fruit, fermented soy sauce and even organic cheese from grass-fed cows in moderation. To really start slayin’ your anxiety, also incorporate lots of anti-inflammatory foods. These will help calm down your nervous system and your anxiety. Some examples of anti-inflammatory foods include wild salmon, cauliflower, free range eggs, wild rice and spices like cinnamon and fennel.
Right now, all this information might sound suuuper overwhelming. You might even be thinking, “Caitlin, you’re crazy for thinking I can make all these dietary changes all on my own!” But here’s the thing: you aren’t on your own. In fact, you can get all the guidance you need to start an anti-inflammatory diet from my Anti-Anxiety Diet Book. In it, I share 30 days worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners that are not only super delicious but also super helpful for reducing inflammation and anxiety. Click here for more information or to get your copy today!
3. Have an intimate relationship with your food.
So you’ve thought about when you eat and what inflammatory foods you might stop eating. Now, I just need you to be 100%-swear-on-your-mama’s-grave honest when you answer this final question: How often do you eat while doing a million other things at the same time?
For most people, the answer is, “All the time!” We’re scrolling Facebook, talking with friends, staring at our phones – the list goes on and on! The problem with that? All those distractions keep us from paying attention to what food we’re eating and how that food makes us feel. For example, I enjoyed 26 glooooriously cheesy years before I started paying attention to how cheese actually made me feel. The taste of cheese made me want to do a happy dance…but then I noticed immediate inflammation in my sinuses, gas that night and heightened anxiety the next day whenever I ate it. Was that grilled cheese sandwich really worth all the icky side effects I had later? Nope! But I couldn’t have made that decision without examining how food affects me in the first place.
There are soooo many different factors that can impact how a food makes you feel, too. For instance, you could have an allergy to a certain food. Or you could be genetically prone to not digesting certain foods very well because it wasn’t something your ancestors regularly ate. If you have a hormone issue or a gut issue, how food affects you can get even more complicated.
You can certainly get a lot of tests done to see which foods are “ideal” for you, but those are suppper expensive. (Like no-Friday-nights-out-for-a-month kind of expensive). Plus, your body changes with time, and so do the foods it needs and does well with.
So to actually realize what foods make you feel (mentally and physically!) good, it’s vital to have an intimate relationship with your food. And, no, I don’t mean “relationship” as in taking yourself out on fancy solo dinner dates! I mean:
Being intentional about what you’re eating.
Plan your meals around ingredients that make you feel good. For Sarah, this could involve eating vegan five days a week because she thrives on plant-based protein. Meanwhile, Josh might regularly eat grass-fed red meat with cauliflower rice and veggies because a paleo diet works well for his body.
Reflecting on how you feel during and after eating.
Once you eat that burger ask yourself, “How do I feel? How does my stomach feel? My nose? Has my energy gone up or down?” Reflect on these questions right after you eat, but also the following morning. Are you more anxious? Depressed? Tired? Any kind of negative feeling? Food plays one of the biggest roles in how you feel the next day, and if you’re eating foods that are not healing for your body, you’ll know if you start paying attention. To really track what foods feel good for you, make a journal entry of your food every single night so you have a record to look back on and check for patterns.
Listening to your own body – not what everyone else says you “should” eat.
There is a TON of information out there about the best diet for anxiety. And, like I mentioned earlier, anti-inflammatory foods like avocados, kale or turmeric are considered especially helpful for people with anxiety. But for a lot of people out there, turmeric is actually too heating and it makes them feel nauseous. That then increases their anxiety since they aren’t feeling well! So when you are planning your meals (or trying my meals from My Anti-Anxiety Diet Book) keep inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods in mind. HOWEVER, also make sure to listen to your own body and notice how those foods actually affect you and your unique anxiety.
Food shouldn’t make you feel bad or increase your anxiety. Food is intended to nourish us and make us feel good! Without paying attention to how food makes you feel in the first place, though, you’ll never discover which foods best fuel the happy, kick-ass person you know you can be.
What I Hope You Now Know About Overcoming Anxiety Without Medication
I’ve been there. I know that when you go to the doctor complaining about anxiety, the doctor often names a long list of medications as the first treatment plan. But I also know that anti-anxiety medication isn’t for everyone – and that it doesn’t work for everyone either.
Which is why I loved discovering how controlling my food choices could actually help me – and many others! – control our anxiety.
After all, anxiety can be super disempowering. You want to give an epic presentation at work? Anxiety makes your voice as quiet and squeaky as Minnie Mouse’s. You want to ask that cute guy or gal out on a date? You can’t stop imagining the worst case scenario (like total public humiliation), so you decide that love just isn’t for you.
But once you start connecting the dots between how and what you eat and how you actually feel, you have the power to heal your anxiety.
Who knew overcoming anxiety could taste so good?
Which of these dietary habits do you think would help your anxiety the most? Tell me in the comments!