Exactly What To Eat For COVID-19 Anxiety, According To A Nutritionist
Anxiety, or a general feeling of worry and unease, is at an all-time high. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, anxiety was affecting one in five people. Now with added stressors of health risks; how to manage child care, job loss, and financial stressors; a lack of community engagement or physical connection; and loss of typical routine, stress is skyrocketing.
Why is this so concerning? If chronic stress is not addressed and you're always running in survival mode, the body can't heal. By supporting the body to feel safe, we promote regulation in our system. Food isn't the only way—playing with kids, reading, drawing, practicing meditation and mindfulness, walking outside, yoga, or even sleeping in are all great ways to anchor your stress and anxiety response throughout the day, which ultimately supports your immune system.
But food is a choice you make three times (at least) a day. And with our routines thrown off, the simple healthy choices we normally make may have fallen by the wayside—from overeating or snacking for escape or distraction to neglecting intermittent fasting. This time of social isolation, though, is an opportunity to focus on nourishment and what we want our new reality to be. The right foods can reduce inflammation, support the microbiome, balance hormones, and support metabolic function—while the wrong choices can lead to bloating, inflammation, fatigue, anxiety, and further stress the body.
Here, my top three recommendations to support a reduction of anxiety and your body's immune system. It is possible to rediscover food-as-medicine—even during times of stress.
Balance your blood sugar levels.
The first suggestion I give to everyone when talking about stabilizing mood and energy levels is to follow a low-glycemic diet and avoid naked carbohydrates. The blood sugar roller coaster of highs following carb consumption paired with slumps from excessive insulin release in response to the blood sugar shock can increase a tendency toward hypoglycemic episodes, as well as diabetes. During blood sugar highs and lows, you may experience shakiness, fatigue, racing heart, sweats, and anxiety, as well as more cravings.
By keeping carbohydrate choices limited to moderate portions of whole food selections of starchy vegetables, fruits, and sprouted legumes or grains (if tolerated) rather than processed, refined-flour-based foods or high sugary products, blood sugar levels will avoid the mountain peaks and reactive valleys. If eating low-glycemic, blood sugar levels can maintain a more even-keeled metabolic response, supporting regulated mood and energy.
Beyond your selection of your carbs as whole foods and portion control, focus on pairing a protein or fat with your carbohydrate choice to blunt glycemic spikes while adding nutrient density and satiety or appetite regulation. An example of this is adding a tablespoon or two of almond butter to your apple, sautéing half a plantain in 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, or adding half an avocado on top of your beans. Pairing your carbs is another way to aid in blood sugar metabolism as well as the prevention of diabetes.
- Keep carbohydrates moderate to support optimal blood sugar metabolism. Stay within a max of 45g of carbs per meal and within a max of 75 to 90 g per day.
- Pair carbohydrates with a protein or a healthy fat.
Establish an eating window and stick to it.
The human body loves ritual and routine. Ideally you want to find at least 10 to 12 hours a day you can go without eating. (Don't worry, the goal is that you are sleeping during the majority of this time!) This means you may do an eating window of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. where you cut off eating at 8 p.m. following dinner. While even more restrictive types of fasting are popular, with longer windows between food, if you are actively dealing with anxiety, I would recommend eating within a 12-hour window and not exceeding 14 hours without food. Often epinephrine is already elevated and leptin is depressed when you're anxious, so restricting food can further drive a survival response to food insecurity.
If you're getting evening food cravings, this would be a great time to explore caffeine-free teas like rooibos, which has polyphenols shown to support antioxidant status and immune health. You may even add a wedge of lemon to support your liver detox process while you sleep.
If you've found yourself eating at your desk, in your bed, and on your couch, try to reestablish an eating ritual that includes space for nourishment. This could be the table—or outside on a blanket in the sun for a daily snack and break. This helps you to be more mindful of your intake, and you will experience more satisfaction at that meal while likely making more conscious choices versus impulse grabs. Be sure you take the time to breathe and slow down when you are eating—beyond mindfulness, your body makes more digestive enzymes and has a more optimal pH when you are relaxed versus stressed.
- Establish a food-free zone and eating window.
- Play with teas to extend your fasting window to meet 10 too 12 hours without food allowing your body rest and your immune system to optimize.
- Determine areas in the home that are eating zones; try to eliminate couch and bed.
Power up your phytocompounds and antioxidants.
Oxidative stress is accelerated in the state of antioxidant deficiency and chronic stress. In the brain, oxidative stress drives neurological dysfunction including depression, anxiety, and panic. When you consume an abundance of produce with a variety of colors, you're adding antioxidants and unique plant parts that have beneficial effects, which serve to reduce oxidative stress while stabilizing brain function and mood.
Top antioxidant-providing nutrients that protect against free radicals include glutathione, cysteine, and vitamin C. Sulfur-containing vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts provide a rich source of cysteine and glutathione to aid in both detoxification and antioxidant support while citrus fruits, berries, and leafy greens give a nice boost of vitamin C.
Vitamin C is especially important during times of stress or anxiety as it is most concentrated in your adrenal glands, which use vitamin C in the role of cortisol (your stress hormones) metabolism. Due to the cortisol connection, there is a tenfold demand for vitamin C at times of stress. The status of vitamin C is another nutrient of focus that overlaps with optimizing your immune system during this pandemic as we know vitamin C can support the body's immune function and antiviral activity.
- Aim to have 2 to 3 cups of greens; this also supports your magnesium for a relaxing nutrient boost.
- Have half to 1 cup of sulfur-containing veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) to aid in cysteine and glutathione levels.
- Ramp up your vitamin C with berries, kiwi, melons, and citrus; and zest your citrus for an added boost.
Getting going with these three shifts in your diet can giving you back control of your anxiety. You may notice going from stressed and wired or burn out mode to a more sustained regulated state while feeling more vibrant and bright.
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