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The Anti-Anxiety Diet: What To Eat To Calm Your Mind

Do you ever feel like it's 'all in your head'? Well, you might be wrong, because it might actually be 'all in your gut'.

The human gut is super sophisticated. It contains many millions of neurons -- more than a cat or dog's brain -- leading scientists to dub it the body's 'second brain.'

Or is it the first?

In 2018, a team of Aussies from Flinders University found evidence that the enteric nervous system -- a fancy word for the gut's collection of neurons -- developed before the central nervous system which comprises the brain and spinal cord.

This close relationship between the brain and the gut -- the ‘gut-brain’ connection as it's known --  has generated a lot of discussion around what we put in our gut and how it affects our brain.

READ MORE: Why Mental Health Should Be A Dinner-Table Conversation

So does Bingley-Pullin believe there's a link between what we eat and how we feel?

"What we eat can definitely impact how we feel via a number of mechanisms -- one of which is the gut-brain connection," she told 10 daily.

"The gut-brain connection essentially involves chemical messages being sent between the gut and nervous system, which helps to explain why when we are anxious it may lead to feelings of nausea or need to pass a bowel motion."

That explains where all the gut-related sayings like 'I couldn't stomach it,' 'going with my gut' and 'gut instinct' came from.

"Similarly, the balance of gut bacteria we house can impact our body’s ability to make neurotransmitters and also promote inflammation, both of which impact mood and brain function," Bingley-Pullin explained.

Therefore, when looking to support mental health it's important to consider how the food we eat impacts our gut bacteria and also gut function."

The role of diet

As there's such a close connection between our bellies and our mental wellbeing, it begs the question -- can and should diet play a part in managing mental health issues, just like medication and therapy?

Yes and no, according to Bingley-Pullin.

"This depends on the specific circumstances of the individual. Diet definitely plays a major role in managing mental health issues but some people also require medication and therapy," she told 10 daily.

"Diet lays a good foundation to help support people through treatment and also more easily maintain good mental health post therapy and medication use."

READ MORE: What Is The Actual Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

The anti-anxiety diet

Now onto the good part -- the food. There's a variety of yummy things that can assist in improving mood and managing anxiety, Bingley-Pullin told 10 daily.

Omega-3 essential fats

"The brain is 60 percent fat, so fats are critical for the proper functioning of the chemical messengers in our brain, controlling mood and emotions," she said.

Chow down on salmon and other fatty fish, hemp, chia seeds, walnuts and other healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats -- found in avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Salmon AND avocado? It's an omega-3 explosion. Image: Getty.

Lean protein

"Protein provides essential amino acids, which play a critical role in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers within the brain and are responsible for mood," Bingley-Pullin said.

Chow down on meat, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Polyphenols

"Polyphenols are natural compounds found in plant-based foods which exert antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to the body. Polyphenols are known to enhance cognitive function and aid the release of neurotransmitters necessary for a good mood. They also promote good gut health, which is helpful to mood," she said.

Chow down on berries.

Complex carbs

"Complex carbs are higher in fibre compared to refined carbs and therefore offer a more steady release of energy and better support of blood sugar levels -- symptoms of low blood sugar can often mimic anxiety. The fibre content of complex carbs also helps to feed our gut bacteria," Bingley-Pullin said.

Chow down on brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread, sweet potato, legumes, buckwheat.

Zinc

"The mineral zinc is needed as a co-factor to synthesise neurotransmitters and also for neurotransmitter transmission," she said.

Chow down on oysters, beef and pumpkin seeds.

Not just an aphrodisiac -- oysters can also assist with brain function. Image: Getty.

READ MORE: How To Eat Healthy When You're Stuck Behind A Desk All Day

Magnesium

"Magnesium helps the body adapt to stress and has a calming effect on the nervous system. Magnesium is also a co-factor necessary to synthesise neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, a deficiency in either of these can lead to poor mental health including symptoms of anxiety," Bingley-Pullin said.

Chow down on nuts, seeds, leafy greens and legumes.

Prebiotics

"Prebiotics are carbohydrate-containing foods known to resist digestion in the small intestine and therefore reach the colon where they are fermented by gut flora. In fact, prebiotics can favourably alter the composition of gut bacteria and are therefore important to include in the diet to support a healthy balance of gut bacteria by feeding the good bacteria," she said.

Chow down on leeks, onion and garlic, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, natural yoghurt.

Foods to give the flick

There any foods the Bingley-Pullin recommends we should avoid if we're looking to calm an anxious mind.? E.g. processed food

Sweets, refined cereals and grains, sugary drinks

"These have a negative impact on blood sugar levels -- and therefore likely symptoms of anxiety as well -- and they aren’t nutrient-dense food options either," she said.

Alcohol and excessive caffeine

"Alcohol and caffeine can impact blood sugar and also deplete and/or interfere with absorption of B-vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium, all of which are needed to support the nervous system," Bingley-Pullin said.

Processed, fried and fast food high in trans fats

"Bad fats like these are linked to poor health outcomes including increased risk of mental health conditions," she said.

Feature image: Getty.