My last blog listed a few of my favorite herbal remedies for managing stress and anxiety. While utilizing these products is an excellent way to combat occasional bouts of anxiety, they are not permanent solutions. The key to managing stress and anxiety is living a holistic lifestyle that prevents stress in the first place. This week we will explore the most critical lifestyle interventions for supporting your mental health and managing stress: diet and exercise.
The Role of Neurotransmitters
Our bodies produce an array of neurotransmitters that support a positive mood and decrease anxiety. Exercising is part of living a holistic lifestyle that supports the production of these neurotransmitters and, by extension, prevents stress and anxiety.
Exercising increases the production of a number of neurotransmitters. Among the most critical are endorphins, endocannabinoids, and GABA.
Endorphins are what create that post-exercise sense of euphoria (what many know as the “runner’s high”). Endorphins also promote sound sleep, which can help your body recover from physical and mental stress. Endocannabinoids, too, promote sound sleep and positive mood, but they also help to control a sneaky cause of physical stress: inflammation. Finally, exercise increases the density of GABA-releasing brain cells in the hippocampus, where we process emotion. Regular exercisers, who possess more of these brain cells, have an easier time returning to homeostasis after a stressor.
The Best Types of Exercise
Not all forms of exercise are created equal, and neither are all quantities. While I recommend lifting weights for a number of reasons, it’s not exactly your best bet for managing stress and anxiety. That’s because lifting weights increases your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol can, in turn, exacerbate anxiety. Excessive amounts of cardio have a similar effect.
If you’re living a holistic lifestyle to manage your moods, try doing moderate intensity cardio for 45 minutes 3 or 4 days a week. Doing so will help manage cortisol and inflammation without over-stressing the body. Of course, if you are newer to exercise, you may want to limit your sessions to 20 or 30 minutes instead.
Exercise and Attitude
Beyond affecting physiological factors like hormone and neurotransmitter production, exercising can also have a positive impact on human psychology.
Exercising increases concentration and mental alertness, making it easier to focus on and complete important tasks. In doing so, exercising may make your life simpler and more productive, eliminating certain sources of stress.
Exercising may also improve your self-image. Feeling more confident in your body can manifest in a whole host of ways, but the general sense of empowerment is enough to brighten your general attitude and reduce the stress of self-criticism.
Consume a Balanced Diet
I have found that following an Ayurvedic diet is a critical component of living a holistic lifestyle. I love Ayurvedic medicine because it is all about establishing balance. It’s also an amazing avenue for treating stress and anxiety precisely for that reason.
Diet quality has the ability to affect immunity, impact genetic expression, and govern the stress response. Consuming a balanced diet is critical for warding off stress and anxiety, as some nutrient deficiencies are associated with psychological ailments. Deficiencies in zinc, iron, and magnesium in particular are associated with anxiety, poor concentration, and other ailments.
An inflammatory diet can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Thus, in addition to eating a balanced, varied diet, it is essential to avoid inflammatory foods. These include sugar, processed meats, hydrogenated oils, red meat, and most processed, grain-based products. Furthermore, you should steer clear of any foods you are intolerant to, as these are considered pro-inflammatory for your unique body.
Use Food as Medicine
It’s important to consume a holistic, well-rounded diet to manage stress. But you can take your stress-management game to the next level by leveraging food as medicine. Likewise, you can work to minimize stress by avoiding harmful forms of self-medication.
Depressants and stimulants affect our psychology, hormones, and stress response. And not all depressants and stimulants come in the form of illicit drugs. Caffeine, which acts as a stimulant by inhibiting the action of the neurotransmitter adenosine, is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. Alcohol, another popular means of self-medication, is a depressant. Limiting your use of caffeine and alcohol can help reduce inflammation and regulate your stress response. By extension, it can help to stabilize your moods.
The state of your microbiome is a strong indicator of your general health. The microbiome affects every aspect of your health, from immunity and digestion to—you guessed it—mental health. If you need help managing stress and anxiety, try incorporating gut-friendly, medicinal foods into your diet. These include probiotic foods like Kim chi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and natto. To help feed the beneficial microbes in these foods, make sure to consume prebiotic foods. These include garlic, onions, asparagus, breadfruit, cassava, artichokes, dandelion, chicory, and bananas.