Anxiety and depression are definite things in my life. Being a yoga teacher doesn’t make me immune to them, and they’re not something I try to hide. When I share my experience, people often seem relieved that they’re not the only one who’s had those feelings.
Since my teens, I’d always thought that I had a tendency toward depression. At 28, I went to an Ayurvedic doctor while I was in India studying yoga. Ayurveda is a holistic healing system that’s thousands of years old — basically a form of Indian traditional medicine. When I described symptoms that I thought might indicate some kind of gluten intolerance or autoimmune disorder, the doctor informed me that I had anxiety.
That was the first time anyone had ever mentioned that as a possibility, but in retrospect it was so obvious. My obsession with perfectionism, my control issues, constantly comparing myself to everyone else — all manifestations of anxiety. And essentially the source of most of my depression. Voilà! Mystery solved. Sort of.
I didn’t really know what to do with this information. Practicing yoga and meditation helped, but I wanted more. I started to experiment with elimination diets — cutting out dairy, meat, gluten and sugar at different points. None of these individual changes made a huge impact.
Modern science is beginning to recognize the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation on mental health.
I started to research foods that could affect anxiety — either reducing or triggering it. I turned to my best friend, a Columbia University-trained psychologist, and was surprised by the plethora of information available. I decided to do a 21-day experiment. I came up with a list of about 25 anti-anxiety foods that would make up 75 percent of my diet. The list included foods like salmon, leafy greens, nuts, yogurt, berries, avocado, whole grains, dark chocolate — things I already enjoyed on a regular basis. I would try to avoid (or reduce) caffeine, alcohol, added sugar and preservatives.
I enlisted the help of about a dozen friends and yoga students who were also interested in finding out whether natural measures could help reduce their anxiety. Our goal was to follow the dietary guidelines plus add 20 minutes of meditation and 20 minutes of exercise for 21 days. We used surveys and journals to record our experience. It proved to be a little bit trickier than I expected at the outset, but I learned so much.
Beets contain tryptophan — an amino acid that boosts serotonin levels in the brain.
For example, instead of total elimination, I discovered that moderation is the key (isn’t that always how it is?). Instead of changing my diet radically, I decided it was more important to identify ways I could make a few changes sustainable after the 21 days were up. So I did drink coffee and wine a few times.
Even with that moderation, I noticed several changes by the second week. I felt more patient. I was able to think before reacting in a couple of situations that would’ve normally set me off. I was sleeping better and had more energy. And my skin looked amazing — an unexpected bonus!
And I wasn’t the only one. Others experienced similar results. Taking a more mindful approach to eating translated into taking a more mindful approach in other areas of our lives. Less time overreacting meant more time feeling calm. A calmer demeanor translated to fewer feelings of anxiety overall.
Of course, I’m sure the meditation (most people averaged fewer than 20 minutes daily) and 20 minutes of exercise played a role in our enhanced mood as a group. But those were things I already did. So for me, I know that the dietary changes were a major factor.
This delicious high protein smoothie has banana, strawberries, flaxseed, greek yogurt and soy milk — all foods with anti-anxiety properties.
Three eating habits to reduce anxiety
If you’re thinking you’d like to try out some dietary changes to lessen anxiety in your own life, give these changes a try:
- Eat more protein. Try to start your day with at least 20 grams of protein at breakfast. Think about high protein snacks like nuts, hummus or low fat yogurt or cheese.
- Eat less junk. Especially preservatives. Try to eat mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unprocessed meat or fish. Read food labels and be aware of added sugars and preservatives.
- Always be prepared. Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with plenty of whole foods. Take time to plan your weekly meals and snacks before you go to the store.
Full disclosure: I’m not a nutritionist or mental health professional. These are just my suggestions based on the experience of myself and a handful of others.