Diet & Exercise

This is Part Two of a six-part series called “Overcoming Anxiety.” It derives from the article Anxiety: Part II, which introduced these topics as ways to combat anxiety. The purpose of this series is to analyze these topics on a deeper level to ensure they provide you with the most meaningful information to apply towards changing your life.

Diet and exercise both correlate with your overall health. Often times, when people think about their food intake and physical activity, they associate it solely with their weight, appearance and body structure.

This we know: both have a big influence on the way you look. Healthy eating and consistent exercise will eventually lead you to your desired body.

However, their impact on the way you feel is underestimated. And let’s face it, as good as we all want to look on the outside, we can’t reach peak health without feeling good on the inside.

So, I suppose the next question would be, how could these two things make you feel better?

Diet

Along with appearance, your diet is linked to your gut health and, consequently, mental health.

Your stomach is home to a small, compact “brain” called the enteric nervous system (ENS).

The ENS, located within your digestive system, has control over swallowing, digestion, food breakdown and nutrient absorption.

This system is similar, though less complex, to the central nervous system (CNS), which features your actual brain and is tasked with function of the body and mind.

The CNS and ENS communicate on a regular basis. For reference, this communication is responsible for things such as:

  • Butterflies in your stomach prior to a nervous event
  • Stress eating when you are anxious or depressed
  • Fatigue when you overeat

Furthermore, if your diet is suboptimal, it can lead to gut inflammation and the creation of bad bacteria that upsets the stomach.

When your gut is inflamed, your digestive system becomes compromised. This can cause stomach pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.

It can also result in brain inflammation.

But how can an upset stomach affect our brain?

We have a vagus nerve that begins in our brain stem and connects all the way down to the abdomen. Basically, it connects the CNS with the ENS.

Your stomach sends warning signals upward through this nerve that release in your brain. These signals produce anxious feelings that affect your mood and alter your thoughts.

Think of it this way: the digested food begins by releasing unhealthy, toxic signals into your stomach, causing the initial uneasiness.

Once these signals travel up the nerve to the brain, your mind consumes the same rotten feelings. While your brain can’t “ache” like a classic stomachache, it’s affected in a unique, potent way – generating anxiety.

It’s the same reason why stomach issues are a common symptom of anxiety. When the mind becomes anxious on its own, it can work in reverse and send signals to the stomach that release fear down there.

A troubled gut can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. The two are intimately connected.

As you can see, it’s important to monitor your diet and the effects it has on your body.

Choosing the right diet will go a long way towards minimizing your anxiety. I opted to follow the Mediterranean diet a few years back, and it has worked quite well for me.

Image via University of New Hampshire

This diet is more of a lifestyle. It turned out to be a blueprint for my current body and nutritional health, while also flushing out many anxious thoughts.

It revolves around healthy, organic foods that are rich in antioxidants. It nourishes your body, while also building a sense of conviviality along the way.

If you think this could work for you, give it a try. If not, it’s important to find a sustainable, appealing alternative.

Many of the foods shown on the pyramid above are included in any healthy diet, but sometimes different combinations work better for certain people, especially those with food intolerances or allergies.

Regardless of what diet you choose, there are foods that carry universal risks to your mental health.

Below are some simple dos and don’ts when it comes to your diet and anxiety.

Foods to Avoid or MonitorFoods to Eat and Enjoy
Excessive caffeineVegetables
Artificial/Refined sugarsFruits
Gluten/GliadinLean meats
DairyFatty fish
Processed foodsEggs
Fried foodsNuts
High-acidic foodsWater

A diet that is made up of the foods on the left will interfere with your brain-gut connection, leaving your gut with no time to heal and enhancing your anxiety symptoms.

(According to healthline, here are five additional, more specific foods known to trigger anxiety symptoms: alcohol, coffee, aged/fermented/cultured foods, sneaky added sugar and conventional nondairy creamer)

A diet that includes the foods on the right is clean and healthy. This will combat stress, prevent against symptoms and translate to a healthier mind.

(According to healthline, here are six additional, more specific foods known to reduce anxiety symptoms: salmon, chamomile, turmeric, dark chocolate, yogurt and green tea)

Moral of the story? Mental stability is essential, and there’s a way to aid the process by eating healthy.

Cleaner gut = cleaner mind.

Eating poorly has a greater impact than you think. If you have anxiety, try adjusting your diet to make sure you’re consuming the right foods.

Exercise

Exercise is a natural form of therapy to anxiety. When you put your body through a workout, you release endorphins, which are chemicals that bring on feelings of happiness and create a good mood.

According to the ADAA, scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

A commitment to being active every day will provide you with an escape to divert your anxious thoughts that surface. Working out takes your mind off your thoughts altogether, shifting your focus to the effort required to complete a productive session.

If you incorporate an effective fitness routine into your life, your body and mind will thank you later.

According to a study, regular exercise works as well as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the effects can be long lasting. One vigorous exercise session can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time.

Another study from Harvard revealed that getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry over time, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids.

Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival. Consistent exercise builds up resources that bolster our resilience against stormy emotions.

One thing I suggest is making exercise fun. If you dread it and view it as a chore, it won’t last. Make a playlist of your favorite songs, put on a motivational podcast or listen to an audiobook to take your mind off the task at hand.

Also, as beneficial as intense weight and cardio workouts are, there are other forms of exercise that can be just as beneficial to your mind. Some of these include swimming, biking, running, brisk walking, dancing, basketball and tennis.

Creating and sticking to an exercise routine for eight to 12 weeks will cement it as a habit and a lifestyle. Once this point is reached, it becomes part of you. It turns into something you do without hesitation because you understand the benefits it has on your life.

The Wrap Up

Maintaining a diet and exercise plan can be quite the challenge. People experience ups and downs with it throughout life. And that’s okay. I am one of these people.

The journey is ongoing. Adopting the mindset of seeking better is a reward in itself. Remember: recognizing your progress and appreciating all the steps you take towards change is part of the process.

The key is persistence and realization. Once you understand the benefits and grow weary of your current lifestyle, it will give you a purpose to change and make it that much easier to put in the work.

And when these benefits materialize and come into fruition before your eyes, you’ll be hooked and never look back.

The result is the sweet feeling of liberation; the feeling of flourishing.

Stay tuned for next week’s article, where the importance of a sleep schedule will take center stage and encourage you to prioritize good sleep to increase your quality of life.

3 comments

  1. Hi Mike Loved your writings on diet & exercise. Will try a little each day to make me a better person. Cant wait for the next Flourish article Thanks Granny

    Liked by 1 person

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