In part 1, we saw that anxiety is the result of a dysfunction in our nervous system with an over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system to the detriment of the parasympathetic one. We learned that through the gut-brain connection, we can manage the symptoms of anxiety by strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system.
Simple steps to strengthen and activate the parasympathetic nervous system
There are a number of ways available to strengthen and activate your parasympathetic nervous system and toning up your vagal nerve. These will allow increased relaxation and will calm both your gut and your mind. Both dietary and lifestyles changes can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to quiet down your mind, thus reducing the symptoms mentioned previously, increasing your energy and improving the quality of your life and general wellbeing.
Lifestyles changes to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system
It is important to give yourself some “me” time by exploring ways you can relax so you can deal with your internal thoughts and be less critical of yourself.
- Practice meditation: search online for a course or use app such as Headspace, Petit Bamboo or Calm
- Practice deep abdominal breathing exercises a few times each day
- Go and walk outside everyday, even if only for 10-15 minutes and ideally in nature if that is possible
- Book yourself a massage
- Pray – if that is a way for you to unwind and increase focus
- Practice yoga, pilates, chi kung, or tai chi
- Exercise: aim for at least 20 minutes everyday and ideally outdoor. Find an activity that you like so you can implement it in your daily schedule and it becomes a habit
- Play, have fun, laugh
- Look for activities you enjoy: go to the theatre or the cinema, meet up with friends and family, have a soothing bath, read, listen to music…
As well as these lifestyle changes, it is essential to tackle the thoughts and behaviours that increase your anxiety. Please refer to our previous blog “10 habits that worsen anxiety (& solutions to lessen it)” for further information.
Dietary changes to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system
Using food as medicine to reduce anxiety is a powerful tool. What we feed ourselves has a direct impact on our gut and through the gut-brain axis, on our mind, our thoughts and the way we feel.
Food to avoid to manage anxiety
There are many foods that can trigger inflammation in our gut and through the gut-brain axis, inflammation in our brain. Avoiding them or keeping them to a minimum is therefore the first action to take.
These foods include:
- Sugar (all forms of sugar but also white/processed carbohydrates, fizzy or energy drinks, artificial sweeteners…)
- Caffeine: think coffee but also tea. Opt for green tea instead which has proven antioxidant effects
- Gluten/wheat*. Avoid gluten completely if you have an allergy to it. If you believe you may have non-gluten coeliac sensitivity (NCGS), consult a Nutritional Therapist for best advice
- Dairy products*. Avoid dairy completely if you have an allergy to lactose. Opt for fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, kefir & unprocessed cheeses
- Food additives (aspartame, MSG, polysorbate 80…)
- Saturated fats and/or transfats found in hydrogenated oils, processed foods such as ready-made meals, cakes, biscuits, ice cream, takeaways…
*Please seek the advice of a Nutritional Therapist before eliminating these foods from your diet
Food to increase to manage anxiety
In contrast, there are foods that can reduce inflammation and support the gut-brain axis. Including these foods in your diet can help with the symptoms mentioned in this blog. These foods have antioxidant properties thus helping reduce oxidative stress.
These foods include:
- Whole foods, rich in fibre such as fruits & vegetables, wholegrains, legumes…
- Foods rich in omega-3 such as oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel…), nuts & seeds
- Good quality complex carbohydrates (not refined)
- Good quality proteins
- Food rich in magnesium such as dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, dark chocolate, almonds
By increasing the intake of these foods in your diet, you can influence the way your gut behaves and via the vagus nerve, the health of your brain.
Anxiety is a debilitating issue and affect many people. It has an enormous impact on the quality of your life and must be addressed so it does not evolve into more complex conditions. The good news is that there are strategies available to manage it and we hope this blog has given you a few ideas that you can simply implement in your daily life. Don’t forget to be patient with yourself: it can take time for you to find the strategies that will work for you and if you are really struggling to manage, please seek advice from a healthcare professional / Nutritional Therapist. You can get in touch with me here or call me on 07788 444 199.