By Sarena-Rae Santos, Natural Health Blogger
Tired but restless. Nervous but impatient. Ready for an adventure but also want to run for the door? Anxiety comes in so many ways. At some point, we all feel it to some degree. Many people feel conflicted by feeling anxious. While it is stressful, know that it is something we all feel sometimes. It is a reaction that our body has for a reason, and there are things that we can do to help!
What is Anxiety
When the body is stressed, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) contributes to what is known as the “fight or flight” response (1). The fight, flight or freeze response is an evolved survival mechanism that protects us from perceived threats (2). Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to everyday stressors, resulting in many of us being stuck in fight-or-flight mode.
Aside from everyday stressors, we sometimes deal with particularly high-stress situations, such as the death of a loved one, long-term emotional abuse, chronic illness, or job loss. The variety of stressors can keep our cortisol levels up all day long, resulting in difficulties calming down after high-stress situations, becoming easily stressed, or even more prone to anxiety.
Evidence suggests that acute and chronic stress is associated with increased inflammatory activity and how someone focuses on negative thoughts or events (3). If this is not taken care of, long-term and chronic inflammation can lead to many health complications, such as cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, heart disease, periodontitis, and much more (4).
Let’s take a moment and digest this information, so we don’t become overwhelmed. Before we continue, let’s count down from 10.
10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… and 1.
Happy to have you back. Now we will discuss the not-so-well-known gut-brain connection.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Our guts are extremely sensitive to chronic stress. High-stress situations can deplete the protective mucous layer in the gut and increase bacterial risks causing inflammation (5). In other words, stress can destroy your gut health. Let’s dig a little deeper into this.
The brain directly influences the gut and the intestines, associating anxiety with stomach problems and vice versa (6). It does this through the millions of nervous system cells that help make up the walls of our digestive tract. When something causes us to feel substantial mental or emotional pain, it’s called a “gut-wrenching” experience for a reason! How could the mainstream deny the gut-brain connection and only propose pills to solve mental health battles like stress and anxiety?
Disguised in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut,” also referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS), is revolutionizing medicine’s interpretation of the links between digestion, mindset, health, and even the way you think. The ENS may activate substantial emotional changes overlooked by individuals struggling with irritable bowel syndrome. For example, the brain and the gastrointestinal system are informally connected, which can result in heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools (7).
The gastrointestinal tract is hypersensitive to emotions such as anger, anxiety, sorrow, and contentment — all of these feelings, amongst many others, can initiate symptoms in the gut. Therefore, an individual’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the reason or the consequence of anxiety, stress, or even depression (8).
This new knowledge of the enteric and central nervous system linkage helps establish the effectiveness of IBS and bowel-disorder medicines such as antidepressants and mind-body therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medical hypnotherapy (9). But what if these matters could be treated naturally by healing the gut?
To learn more about the gut-brain connection and how to heal your gut, check out Earthley’s Gut Health Support Guide.
Before we continue, let’s take a few minutes to breathe deeply and ensure we are ready to continue.
Breathe in… hold for a few seconds… and breathe out. Repeat until you’re ready to proceed.
Mental Health Foods
For now, let’s discuss how diet directly correlates with mental health issues such as stress. Like always, what you eat highly depends on how you will feel. If your diet is poor, chances are your health will be poor. So what foods can help you overcome mental health struggles such as stress?
Beta carotene is the pigment in a plant that gives it a vibrant red, orange, or yellow color. Beta carotene is considered a provitamin A carotenoid, which means that the body can convert it into vitamin A. Beta carotene reduces stress hormones and improves emotional health (10).
Additionally, beta carotene is also a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants can help fight damage from harmful free radicals. The buildup of free radicals has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Beta carotene has been linked to better cognitive function (11), better skin health (12), protection against lung cancer (13), and protection against age-related macular degeneration (14). Foods rich in beta carotene include:
- Sweet potato
- Red and yellow peppers
- Romaine lettuce (15)
Vitamin C is the safest and most effective nutrient you can add to your diet. Evidence indicates high levels of Vitamin C in the adrenal gland, and its release in response to adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) provides further evidence that vitamin C plays a role in the stress response (16).
Aside from stress benefits, vitamin C can protect against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease, and even skin conditions (17). Vitamin C is another powerful antioxidant that can help fight damage from harmful free radicals, which have been linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Foods rich in vitamin C include:
- Cherries (18)
Although vitamin D is not actually a vitamin at all, but a pre-hormone. It helps the body make all the other hormones it needs (chemical messengers), which impact mood regulation and decrease the risk of depression.
Unfortunately, many people are deficient in vitamin D. A 2009 study showed that 42% of teens and adults had a level under 30 mg/ml (19).
A review of 7,534 people found that vitamin D supplementation improved the symptoms of those experiencing negative emotions (20). Another study identified low vitamin D levels as a risk factor for more severe anxiety, depression, and even fibromyalgia (21).
The best way to get more vitamin D is to get sun exposure. Most skin should be exposed (such as wearing a bathing suit) for 10-15 minutes or until the skin turns slightly pink. Sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM is the best because that is when the UVB rays are the strongest (22). This will likely take 15-60 minutes, depending on the amount of skin exposed, age, and skin tone. Darker-skinned people may need up to 2 hours of sun exposure per day.
While the sun is the best source of vitamin D (23), it is also found in a few foods, like cod liver oil and certain mushrooms. Mushrooms grown in sunlight contain about 450 IU per 100-gram serving (24). The best mushrooms for vitamin D are portobello, maitake, morel, button, and shiitake.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant required for the proper functioning of many organs and slows down the process of damage from harmful free radicals, which has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease (27). High-dose vitamin E decreases oxidant stress (28), but it also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative pathways that play a role in depression and anxiety (29). Foods rich in vitamin E include:
- Vegetable oils
- Wheat germ
- Red peppers
- Spinach (30)
I am sure that was a lot to process; let’s take a moment and be mindful of our surroundings.
Take a moment, stand up, and go outside. Take your shoes off, and stand on both feet. Keep your feet flat on the floor and feel the ground supporting your weight. Notice if the ground is warm or cool, hard or soft. Breathe the air and the flowers as you take a moment and appreciate your surroundings. Look at the grass, trees, and maybe even your garden. Cherish what you have now instead of what may come later.
Natural Ways to Lessen Stress
Now, let’s say diet isn’t the problem, and you simply need more support for your body. That’s where herbs and essential oils may come in. Lowering stress is easier said than done, but it’s worth it. Some of my favorite ways to minimize stress include
- Take advantage of herbs. Herbs have been used for centuries in traditional and folk medicine practices. Looking for stress-reducing herbs? Check out 7 Herbs to Reduce Stress.
- Try essential oils. Looking for stress-reducing essential oils? Check out 5 Essential Oils to Reduce Stress.
- Mindful meditation is a set of techniques designed to encourage your ability to train the mind to focus and redirect your thoughts. When mindful meditation is done correctly, it leads to a heightened state of awareness and consciousness with many positive impacts on your health and overall well-being. Check out my blog, 10 Reasons to Meditate For Self-Care.
- Practice deep breathing. Start by taking slow, deep breaths to help you lower your cortisol levels and give you time to clear your head. Here is a simple Qigong breathing practice for stress, relaxation, and energy.
- Yoga is a form of Ancient Indian philosophy that combines physical postures, breathing techniques, meditation, and relaxation to aid in spirituality as your body and mind become one. Yoga is a stress outlet that’s great for mental health and a way to exercise and boost heart health. It’s said that practicing yoga may help lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood glucose levels. Check out my blog for 10 Yoga Poses For Your Mental Health.
- Create an exercise routine. This can help increase fitness, lower cortisol, and move the lymphatic fluid to help clear out excess hormones!
- Learn to say NO! You don’t have to be everything to everyone. Setting boundaries is important, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so.
- Finding a better work-life balance. Everyone needs time to decompress. Find a hobby or something that simply makes you happy, whether it’s art, gardening, writing, video games, or just relaxing; take a moment to enjoy yourself.
- Venting with a trusted friend or family member. Take time to go out with friends or family. Develop new friendships, and find a willing ear when you need one. For some, physical contact, like hugs, is very important, too.
- Try to get more sleep. Prioritize it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an adult, so you’re likely expected to get 7-9 hours of sleep. Chances are you’re not, so if you’re struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, check out The 5 Key Nutrients that Promote Quality Sleep.