Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) policy advice in July 2020 reported that COVID-19 is having a negative impact on Canadians’ mental health, with many seeing their stress levels double since the onset of the pandemic. (1) People are struggling with fear and uncertainty about their own health and their loved ones’ health, concerns about employment and finances, and the social isolation that comes from public health measures such as quarantining and physical distancing. (2) A recent poll found that 50% of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began with many feeling worried (44%) and anxious (41%). (3)
Although our individual circumstances are unique, these are stressful times for everyone and it is important to recognize when you or your family member maybe experiencing feelings or symptoms of anxiety.
What Are The Symptoms of Anxiety?
- Diarrhea or frequent need to urinate
- Rapid heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Light headedness and dizziness
- Tremors or twitches
- Excess sweating
- Unexplained pain
- Digestive issues
- Decreased libido
- Impaired immune function
If you or your family member have ticked off many of the symptoms above, it would be wise to check in with your primary care practitioner. Additionally, below we’ve outlined some strategies that you can incorporate into your diet and lifestyle to help manage and reduce your experience with anxiety.
Diet and Lifestyle Strategies To Reduce Anxiety
Balance blood sugar levels.
We are all living through unprecedented times; a pandemic and lockdown. People are out of regular routines and stretched for time with trying to work, manage a household, and – if you’re a parent – homeschooling, all while everyone is confined to their home.
When you are stressed or anxious your body naturally produces the stress hormone cortisol. However, excess cortisol can wreak havoc in the body if you are producing high amounts over a prolonged time period. High cortisol can lead to numerous health problems, which are compounded even further if you have unbalanced blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar imbalance is an extremely common issue for so many people who consume standard western diet. With the stress of a lockdown, and the impact of cortisol, blood sugar imbalance can become even more of an issue.
Skipping meals, consuming processed foods, sugars and refined grains, ordering fast food, and consuming caffeine or energy drinks can all contribute to a rollercoaster ride with blood sugar highs and lows. Unstable blood sugar levels can have a negative impact, not just on our physical health, but on our mental health as well.
When blood sugars drop (hypoglycemia), you can experience a multitude of symptoms similar to the ones described above, including insomnia, mood swings, fatigue, irritability, weakness, anxiety, depression, aggression, blurred vision, headaches, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, and frequent urination.
The problem is, after consuming processed or refined foods and sugars or consuming caffeine, blood sugar levels will rise steeply and then drop. When blood sugars drop too far too fast, your body naturally produces that stress hormone cortisol to help raise blood sugars back up into a health range. Starting the blood sugar rollercoaster cycle all over again.
For most people, cortisol also increases cravings and appetite – adding further issues to eating habits and blood sugar imbalances. Plus, cortisol has also been shown to interfere with the production of neurotransmitters to help you feel calm and relaxed. We need those feel-good neurotransmitters right now!
How To Balance Blood Sugar Levels:
- Eat within one hour upon waking to avoid a blood sugar drop
- Consume 3 meals (and 1-2 snacks if needed) during the day
- Each meal needs to include a healthy fat, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, beans/legumes, and starchy vegetables)
- Avoid all sugar and refined grains which will spike blood sugars
- Avoid stimulants such as energy drinks, caffeine and pop
- Don’t go long periods of time between eating
Consume Foods High In Calcium And Magnesium
Calcium and magnesium help to relax the mind, as well as calm the nerves and muscles. A person with a magnesium deficiency can show signs of nausea, muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, cravings for chocolate, insomnia, restlessness and muscle weakness as well as anxiety. A calcium deficiency can cause a person to experience joint pain, nervousness, irritability, anxiety, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, insomnia and muscle cramps.
Unfortunately, when your body is under stress it uses up vitamins and minerals more quickly including calcium and magnesium, along with B-vitamins and Vitamin C.
Sugar, refined carbohydrates, coffee and alcohol, salt and vinegar all interfere with calcium absorption and should be limited.
To help increase your intake of magnesium it’s beneficial to consume foods such as black beans, Swiss chard, spinach, avocados, pumpkin seeds, and whole grains such as quinoa. Whereas incorporating broccoli, almonds, kale, salmon, or sardines can help boost your calcium intake.
Support A Healthy Gut
Growing research has been showing the gut microbiome plays a role in a wide range of neurological conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, chronic pain, stress, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease as well as depression and anxiety (4).
Research has also found that “good” gut bacteria can have a marked effect on GABA levels in the brain (a neurotransmitter that is involved in regulating anxiety, digestion, sleep and relaxation), which can reduce anxiety and elevate mood (5). So supporting healthy gut function can play an important role in supporting your mental health.
Dietary fiber supports the growth of positive intestinal bacteria that are critical to maintain proper digestion. One study found the diversity in the gut microbiome was based on the variety of fruits and vegetables in a person’s diet and that the microbial composition of the gut can be rapidly altered with dietary changes. This is great news!
To help support your mental health through optimizing your gut microbiome, consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as other high fiber foods such as milled flax seeds, legumes, and whole grains. There are plenty of benefits to fermented foods such as kefir (dairy or non-dairy), sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi, and some folks choose to incorporate a probiotic into a supplementation program to boost good gut bacteria even further.
The other option to support a relaxed and clam state of mind is supplementing with GABA. Research shows that GABA helps to calm the mind and promote a sense of relaxation.
For more info on the gut-mood connection, check out our article.
Working out helps to release endorphins, which are “feel good chemicals” that act as a natural pain relievers, boost mood, burn off our stress hormones, help maintain a healthy weight, enable better sleep and help to stabilize mood and reduce anxiety. Exercise can also help to reduce fatigue, anger and tension associated with anxiety.
Although there might seem to be huge barriers to exercise – with gyms closed, kids at home, ski hills closed, and so on – there are a ton of great options for workout routines that you can do at home, even with kids! There are Avenger workouts, Pokemon yoga, dancing workouts, or indoor runs on the Wii! Although it might not be the typical exercise that you’re used to, it is a way to keep you (and your kids!) active.
Go out for family walks, nature hikes, sledding, skating, snow shoeing, or cross-country skiing. Plus, there are a plethora of apps and online workouts at your fingertips!
Our best advice is to create a schedule to establish consistency with exercise. Maybe getting up earlier to have some quiet time to exercise while everyone is sleeping could be the ideal workout time for you, or maybe you feel most energized after dinner. Whatever works for your life right now – just be sure to squeeze in some time to move your body! Your mind will thank you!
If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, depression, or high stress – we would love to assist you in rebalancing mood through diet and lifestyle changes. Balancing blood sugar levels, increasing your intake of calcium and magnesium, supporting gut health, and committing to exercise are great places to start!
Plus you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram for more tips, or book an appointment today for one-on-one support!
- MHCC, 2020a
- MHCC, 2020a;Morneau Shepell, 2020; Pfefferbaum & North, 2020; Vigo, Patten & Pajer, 2020
- Angus Reid Institute, 2020
- Mayer EA, et al. 2014
- American Society for Microbiology, 2012