Anxiety: Learning when it’s good to listen to it (and when it’s just being plain irrational)!

I know what it’s like to have an attack of Anxiety, although I didn’t know what it was at the time.  It was the kind of Anxiety that came with a sense of dread, that I was going to have a heart attack.  The thoughts of Anxiety were relentless as the odd pain in my chest wouldn’t budge, no matter how much Panadol, laying down to rest or comfort hubby provided.  My mind had been hijacked by Anxiety convincing me I might not live long enough to go on the adventure we had planned the following day.  I also remember thinking I don’t want to have a heart attack on White Island as medical help will be limited and slow.  We were on holidays in New Zealand having a wonderful, relaxing time.  But I didn’t want to worry my hubby so I walked myself to the hospital underplaying how concerned I was.  I knew the visit was going to cost a lot of money (being overseas) but I couldn’t ease my mind as long as the pain continued. 

I had a fair wait at the hospital before they ran all the blood tests you would expect as well as ECG monitoring.  I was discharged with the news that my heart was good, but just to be on the safe side they recommended follow up with a cardiologist for a stress test, back in Australia. 

White Island, November 2019

The next day my hubby and I were walking on a live volcano.  A few weeks before we arrived in New Zealand, White Island (known by its Maori name of Whakaari) was put on a Volcanic Alert Level 2 rating, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.  I learned this is the last level before eruption.  I remember feeling a little nervous hearing this, but no-one else seemed concerned, least of all the tour company taking us out there.  Before boarding the boat, I happily signed the waiver, but in the back of my mind conflicting voices were toying with each other; ‘Is this really safe?” and “Of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be going.”  The mood on the boat was jovial.  I was able to discount and push aside the lingering thoughts of “This could blow any moment!”.  A few hours later, after passing the steaming mouth of the volcano on foot, I was quietly relieved to be heading back to the waters edge, for the ride back.

Just over two weeks later White Island erupted, killing 22 people and injuring 25 others.

A few months later, I learned I had a very healthy heart and it must have been Anxiety causing my symptoms.  I got on with my life and didn’t think much of it again until recently as the 2 year anniversary of the tragedy looms.  As I’ve been learning more and more about the art of listening to the body, I’ve been wondering if the symptoms I’d experienced were actually my body’s warning system that something was imminent.  I like to think that I am in tune with my gut and it has guided me towards good fortune many a time, but sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between gut feelings and an overactive mind.  I’ve been sitting on the tarmac on a few flights and have had the thought ‘What if this plane goes down today?’  The gut was clearly not reacting in those moments.  I’ve managed to push these thoughts aside and lived.  But I have heard stories of people who’ve chosen not to board an aeroplane because ‘something’ told them not to, and they avoided a horror crash.  Perhaps they were listening to their body?

Was my heart (and my gut) trying to tell me something the day before my trip to White Island?

Looking back I wonder if my body was picking up on the heat that was bubbling away in the Earth’s core, getting ready to break the surface?  Was my body sensing Mother Nature’s unsettled energy?  Was this my body’s way of warning me not to get on that boat?  I wonder how those people who have avoided plane crashes by refusing to board, distinguished between the irrational thoughts of Anxiety and the premonition warning system that seems to be built into our bodies?  This must be the same system that my ancestors listened to when they were being hunted down by a predator.  For someone who experiences Anxiety regularly talking them out of doing things, I imagine this would be much more difficult terrain to negotiate.

I don’t have any answers.  I only feel blessed to be here telling this story.  But I am left wondering, what it would take to stop me from doing something I’d planned, if I got these symptoms again?  I’d like to think I might take more notice of my body next time.

cauliflower brain

Feed Your Brain and Feel Better

Did you know that up to 40% of the nutrients you eat goes into feeding your brain? 

The food you eat not only fuels your physical health but new research shows it affects our mental health too!

Is your brain foggy and lethargic, ruminating and making you feel depressed, or overactive and anxious?  So what is it you are putting into your body?  If we’re really going to make a difference in how we feel and think, then we have to look at what we are feeding our brain.

We need to start taking a different approach to treating mental health, because medication alone is not the answer.  If it were, then we wouldn’t be having a global mental health crisis right now. Globally, the number of people taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anxti-psychotic medication has doubled over the last five years to 17 percent of the adult population.  

So I want to shine the light on nutrition to improve your mental health.

You’re not going to like what you read because this requires a move away from ultra-processed foods which are usually cheap and convenient.  The Western diet is typically high in calories, refined grains and sugar, heavily processed, high in chemicals and low in fresh produce.  These foods are packed out with ingredients like starch, vegetable oil and sugars along with additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers so they are cheap to buy but offer no nutritional goodness.

So what is it your brain actually needs so that it can function at its best and having you thinking and feeling great?   Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that are key to good brain function.  But the real jewels for a mentally healthy diet I want to introduce you to are micronutrients.  Unlike their much bigger cousins’ macronutrients – carbs, proteins and fats – micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.

Minerals are the stable chemical compounds like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium and the trace minerals like zinc, copper, iodine and selenium.  Vitamins are organic compounds which are generally not made in the body, we have to consume them through plants.  There are about 15 essential vitamins with a variety of letters and numbers which you are probably familiar with. 

Most of us are not getting all the necessary micronutrients from real foods that is needed for a mentally healthy brain!  In a recent US study, 94 % of the US population did not even meet the daily requirement for Vitamin D, 89% for Vitamin E, 52% for magnesium, 44% for calcium, 43% for Vitamin A and 39% for Vitamin C.   Could this be the reason why so many of us are struggling with depression and anxiety?

So what is it about these micronutrient little gems that is so key to our mental health?  Well, this is where it gets a little complex because it is about understanding a bit of brain chemistry.

Micronutrients are key to our brain being able to make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, you probably know as the ‘happy hormone’.  It’s the chemical that contributes to our feelings of wellbeing, stabilizes our mood and plays a role in regulating our sleep, learning, memory and appetite.   Without it, we feel depressed.

Micronutrients are also vital in assisting the mitochondria, or energy organelles of your cells to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle, produces ATP and is completely dependent on micronutrients to function.

Take a close look at how many micronutrients are involved in this cycle? Mind blowing.

But wait there’s more.

“In every organ of our body, including our brain, compounds or chemicals go through multiple conversions.  So from chemical A to chemical B.  It’s that simple.  And to make that conversion work, you need enzymes and cofactors.  Consider enzymes as the tools needed to assemble a car.  The enzymes are the tools used to build the car, but they are dependent upon having plenty of factory workers.  Without the workers, the assembly just won’t happen, but with more of them, assembly will go faster.  Minerals and vitamins are your factory workers.  So in other words, you need to feed your brain a steady supply of micronutrients to provide the co-factors needed for brain metabolism to happen.” (Rucklidge)

So let’s use our happy hormone as an example.  We need to consume the chemical tryptophan in order for it to convert into the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  And in order to make the conversation, we also need iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B6.  For serotonin to breakdown we need niacin and riboflavin, as well as molybdenum.  Other steps required for the breakdown of tryptophan, requires calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.  So all up there are 11 micronutrients required for three steps in the chemical pathway of converting tryptophan to serotonin.  Complex isn’t it?  Makes you wonder what happens when one or more of these crucial ingredients is missing from our diet?  Is it no wonder so many of us are depressed when our diets are so poor?

These same types of complex metabolism processes are required to make all neurotransmitters. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which requires the amino acid tyrosine may have a role to play in the diagnosis of schizophrenia, ADHD and Parkinsons Disease.  GABA, the relaxing chemical, is responsible for slowing down the brain and central nervous system, creating a sense of calm, lowering anxiety and reducing mental and physical stress.  So the key message here is, we need a broad range of micronutrients in order to optimize brain metabolism and function, to operate at our physical and mental best.

So now you know why and how micronutrients are like gold for our mental health, you probably just want to know what specific foods you should be eating.  Well, here is one list.  It is considered to be the most micronutrient-rich anti-depressant foods, according to psychiatrists Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey beginning with the most beneficial.

Animals Foods
Oyster
Liver and organ meats
Poultry giblets
Clam and muscles
Octopus
Crab
Goat
Tuna
Lobster
Rainbow Trout
Salmon
Herring
Emu
Snapper

Plant Foods
Watercress
Spinach
Mustard, turnip or beet greens
Lettuces
Swiss chard
Fresh herbs
Chicory greens
Pummelo
Peppers
Kale or collards
Pumpkin
Dandelion greens
Cauliflower
Kohlrabi
Red cabbage
Broccoli
Brussel sprouts
Paw Paw
Lemon
Strawberry

Other research has shown increasing foods high in tryptophan like milk, turkey, chicken and oats reduces depression risk, and maintains appropriate melatonin levels, which aids a good night’s sleep.

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet stacks up well against the criteria for better brain health, rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  How would your diet stack up?  Are there some small changes you could make to improve your mental health, decrease the impact of stress on your body or reduce depression and anxiety?

I look forward to sharing more resources with you as we explore the role of nutrition in mental health.  If a holistic approach to mental health appeals to you, then you may like to check out my services.

References: 

Antidepressant foods: An Evidence-Based nutrient profiling system for depression, Laura LaChance & Drew Ramsey, 2018

The role of Vitamins and Minerals in Energy Metabolism and Well-Being, S. Huskisson, S. Maggini & M. Ruf, 2007

The Better Brain: The New Science of Treating, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD and Other Mental Health Disorders With Nutrition, Bonnie J Kaplan & Julia J Rucklidge, 2021

Mental Health and Nutrition, edx course, University of Canterbury, J. Rucklidge