Another night of grilled chicken breasts is good for your diet, but it’s also kind of boring. Spicing up a plain-but-healthy meal is good for your taste buds and your health. Reach for your spice rack and you’ll not only up the flavor of your food, but you’ll also get a boost of antioxidants (substances that protect cells from damage).
Nutrition researchers say that there are more than 100 common spices used in cooking around the world, and some have proven to be concentrated sources of antioxidants — substances that protect your cells from damage.
There’s no need to go on a massive hunt for exotic ingredients — some of the best spices can be found at your local market.
One note: Most studies that show benefits use supplements to control the dose of spice (or the spice’s active compound) that participants consume. Often these provide bigger doses than you’d normally eat in a day.
1. Does cinnamon lower blood sugar?
Studies say yes. This popular spice comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree and is used in everything from pumpkin spice lattes to Cincinnati chili. Cinnamon is especially great for people who have high blood sugar. It lends a sweet taste to food without adding sugar, and studies indicate it can lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Cinnamon may also provide heart-healthy benefits, such as reducing high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. That’s especially important for people with diabetes who are at greater risk for developing heart disease.
Cinnamon is not a replacement for diabetes medication or a carbohydrate-controlled diet, but it can be a helpful addition to a healthy lifestyle.
Meal tip: Try sprinkling it on yogurt, fruit or hot cereal, or use it in stews and chilis or as a meat rub.
2. Can turmeric reduce inflammation?
Turmeric is best known for its use in Indian curry dishes and has become a trendy superfood for its ability to reduce inflammation — a common cause of discomfort and illness.
One of the components of turmeric is a substance called curcumin. Research suggests it may reduce inflammation in the brain, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and depression. In a small study of adults over 50, those who consumed curcumin supplements over the course of 18 months had improvement in memory test scores. They also reported being in better spirits. Most impressive? Scans of their brain indicated significantly fewer markers associated with cognitive decline.
Because of its anti-inflammatory qualities, curcumin is also effective at reducing pain and swelling in people with arthritis. And animal studies indicate that curcumin could have powerful anti-cancer properties. A Johns Hopkins study found that a combination of curcumin and a chemotherapy drug was more effective at shrinking drug-resistant tumors than using chemotherapy alone.
Meal tip: Want to add this powerhouse spice to your diet? Rub it on roasted vegetables and meats, sprinkle it in tacos or create a curry.
3. Can ginger get rid of nausea?
Ginger is a tropical plant that’s been used in Asian cultures for thousands of years to treat stomach upset, diarrhea and nausea. In the U.S., it comes in a variety of convenient forms — lollipops, candies, capsules and teas. You can also purchase the dried powder in the spice aisle of the grocery store, or buy it fresh to make teas or grate into recipes.
Research has found that ginger is effective at calming pregnancy-related nausea and reducing tummy upset after surgery. Some studies have also found that ginger cuts the severity of motion sickness or prevents the symptoms altogether. It may even help with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting when taken along with anti-nausea medications. (Ask your doctor first before taking ginger while on chemotherapy drugs, as it can have a negative interaction with certain medications.)
Meal tip: Work this zingy spice into your diet by adding it to stir-fry dishes, smoothies or sipping it in tea. You can also add it to homemade salad dressings and baked goods.
4. Is garlic good for your heart?
Most of us are familiar with garlic, the strong-smelling bulb frequently used in cooking. But what you might not know is that eating garlic may protect your heart from changes that lead to heart disease.
As you age, some hardening of the arteries is normal. This is called atherosclerosis and occurs as fatty deposits made up of cholesterol and other substances build up on the inside of your artery walls. Factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can make it worse. As the build-up increases over time, the arteries narrow. This can make you susceptible to heart attacks and strokes.
Researchers have linked garlic intake with keeping blood vessels flexible, especially in women. In addition, studies suggest that eating garlic may reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.
Garlic is a key ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, an eating style that heart doctors often recommend. It can be used in any number of savory dishes.
Meal tip: Pair fresh or powdered garlic with olive oil and pepper to flavor vegetables or use it with rosemary to make a tasty meat rub. You can sprinkle it in soups and salad dressings, too.
5. Can cayenne relieve pain?
Cayenne is a type of chili pepper that you’ll find in Southwestern American cuisine as well as Mexican, Creole and Cajun dishes. Cayenne peppers contain a substance called capsaicin. It’s what makes them spicy and also what can provide pain relief.
Capsaicin reduces the number of pain signals sent to your brain. The result? You don’t register as much discomfort. It works on pain caused by arthritis and diabetes-related nerve damage. You can apply creams with capsaicin directly on joints and muscles.
Lab research and studies in animals suggest that eating cayenne pepper can also help with something that causes a lot of internal pain: ulcers. Although people often associate spicy foods with stomach upset, capsaicin aids in helping reduce ulcers by restricting the growth of an ulcer-causing bacteria (Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori), reducing excess stomach acid and increasing blood flow.
Meal tip: Use this spice anytime you want to add heat to your food. It’s great in chili, soups, stews and on meat. For a fun twist, add a dash to hot chocolate.
Healthiest Ways to Use Spices
Whether you use spices fresh or dried, you’ll still get beneficial compounds. Experts point out that frying or grilling can decrease spices’ antioxidants while microwave cooking, simmering or stewing foods with spices can actually heighten their antioxidant levels.
If you’re tempted to take supplements to increase your dose of these beneficial compounds, it’s important to note that commercial supplements aren’t strictly regulated, which means you can’t be certain what the pills actually contain. Certain third-party organizations do testing to verify quality and contents of supplements. If you’re thinking about taking a supplement, talk to your doctor or dietitian about what form and amount is right for you.
Regardless of the other health benefits, spices add flavor to food and can make healthy meals delicious and are a healthy way to get you out of an eating rut. Enjoying your food is key to maintaining healthy habits for the long term. Be sure to talk to your doctor or a dietitian before changing your diet.
We explore the well-known — and the lesser-known — benefits of antioxidants
What are the benefits of antioxidants? From blueberries to pumpkin, and beyond, there are many antioxidant-rich foods. Although the word antioxidant may be a bit of a mystery, what antioxidants do in the body is straightforward. An antioxidant is a compound that inhibits oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce chain reactions and free radicals, and therefore has the potential of doing damage to the body’s cells.
You may already be familiar with some of the most important antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E, selenium, and carotenoids like beta-carotene. Most of the antioxidant rich foods in which you find them – especially in high quantities – are fruits, vegetables and other naturally occurring plant foods. Berries, carrots, coffee, red grapes, green tea, turmeric, onions, peppers, avocados, radishes, kale and lemon are all great foods to consume in order to get your daily dose.
But what does your daily dose do? Even the knowledge that antioxidants are good for you and how they function in the body to benefit you isn’t enough to say precisely what sensations and improvements they are responsible for. So here are nine benefits of getting your daily serving of antioxidants.
1. THEY REDUCE OXIDATIVE STRESS
Oxidative stress is a form of physiological stress caused by an imbalance between the production and accumulation of oxygen-reactive species in the cells and tissue. This can result in a gap in a system’s ability to detoxify reactive products. While this may seem abstract, research shows that oxidative stress can be responsible for the onset of diseases like cancer, diabetes, metabolic disorders, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. By consuming antioxidants you can prevent that state of oxidative stress, which can set you up for success in many areas of your health.
2. THEY SUPPORT DISEASE PREVENTION
Most of the disease-prevention capabilities associated with antioxidants are also related to oxidative stress. A report in Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences shows that by reducing oxidative stress, antioxidants can support normal cellular function and offer additional protection against diseases. Antioxidants have been linked to lower rates of cancer, tumors, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders in many cases. Although research is ongoing, the outlook on their impact is positive.
3. THEY SUPPORT EYE HEALTH
Introducing more antioxidant rich foods into your diet can have a particularly effective impact on your risk for certain major eye concerns, specifically, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. In fact, a 2013 study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging(opens in new tab) found that it may also slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Beta-carotene and vitamin E are also quite well known for these properties.
4. THEY AID IN BRAIN FUNCTION
Did you know that due to the amount of oxygen the brain uses in daily functioning through naturally high metabolic activity, it is more susceptible than most of the body’s other systems to free radical attack? One of the major ways you can protect your brain against this attack is by consuming antioxidants. Specifically, antioxidants have the potential to delay various forms of cognitive decline, like memory loss. This is all related to oxidative stress, too, which can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss and decline in cognitive function.
5. THEY CAN CONTRIBUTE TO MENTAL HEALTH IMPROVEMENTS
Brain health and mental health are different from one another, but antioxidants can lend both a helping hand. Research in Current Neuropharmacology shows that oxidative stress is often related to anxiety and depression. Although eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes a rich array of antioxidants isn’t a replacement for proper mental health medication or care, it is among the lifestyle changes that can be of help to plenty of individuals.
6. THEY CAN REDUCE INFLAMMATION
Inflammation often gets a bad rap, but it’s not always negative or concerning. In fact, inflammation serves an important purpose in the body, within reason. Inflammation is the process of your white blood cells protecting you against infections from outside the body, such as bacteria. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable, or necessary.
Inflammation can manifest in a variety of symptoms, including headaches, joint and muscle pain. The way that antioxidants prevent inflammation is relatively simple; as they protect the cells from damage, they can prevent those unwanted inflammatory responses from occurring at all.
7. THEY SUPPORT HEALTHY AGING PROCESSES
Amid claims that a diet rich in antioxidants can slow, prevent or even reverse the aging process, it’s time to set the record straight. There’s nothing that can scientifically disrupt the aging process. However, there is evidence to suggest that antioxidants can support a healthy aging process. From the mental elements of improving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s, to general disease prevention (and even playing a vital role in the bone remodeling process), antioxidants can work to keep the body protected and agile throughout the aging process.
8. THEY CAN KEEP THE SKIN HEALTHY
Antioxidants can contribute to healthy aging on the inside, and they can also do the same on the outside. By helping to fight free radical damage, antioxidants can offer extra protection for the skin. Not only can the prevention of inflammation help to ward off things like redness, puffiness, and premature aging, but antioxidants can also protect against UV sun damage (which causes premature aging and wrinkles).
One of the most common and effective antioxidants for skin care is vitamin C. Vitamin C can help reverse and prevent discoloration, as well as aid in collagen production. And one of the best ways to use vitamin C for the skin is to apply it topically. This is why so many skin and face products contain vitamin C. In skin care products, you’ll often see it listed as L-ascorbic acid and/or ester-C.
9. THEY PARTICIPATE IN A HEALTHY GUT MICROBIOME
Your gut health has the potential to impact your body from head to toe. Everything from your mental health to your skin can be affected by the state of your gut microbiome and it really is a microbiome — complete with healthy bacteria that keeps everything in balance.
Research in the journal Antioxidants shows that antioxidants can reduce intestinal oxidative stress levels by modulating the composition of beneficial microbial species within the gut. This can help to provide a strong and balanced foundation for your gut health. Antioxidants are just one part of a healthy, balanced diet and they can give you a boost from the inside out – as if you needed another reason to eat your fruits and veggies!
Diets rich in two nutrients harm immune cells in the gut, putting people at high risk of intestinal infections.
A diet rich in fat and sugar damages particular immune cells named Paneth cells that produce antimicrobial molecules keeping inflammation and microbes under control.
Highly specialised Paneth cells are located in the small intestine where nutrients from food are absorbed and sent to the bloodstream.
Western diets are high in processed foods and fat and sugar, which cause Paneth cells to not work properly.
Paneth cell dysfunction cause abnormalities in the gut immune system which in turn leads to infections (disease-causing microbes) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a study has found.
Dr Ta-Chiang Liu, the study’s first author, said:
“Inflammatory bowel disease has historically been a problem primarily in Western countries such as the U.S., but it’s becoming more common globally as more and more people adopt Western lifestyles.
Our research showed that long-term consumption of a Western-style diet high in fat and sugar impairs the function of immune cells in the gut in ways that could promote inflammatory bowel disease or increase the risk of intestinal infections.”
IBD patients often have defective Paneth cells, which are responsible for setting off inflammation in the small intestine.
For instance, Paneth cells can no longer function in patients with Crohn’s disease, which is a type of IBD and marked by fatigue, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and anaemia.
The research team examined Paneth cells of 400 adults and found that the higher the body mass index (BMI) the worse these cells looked.
Frequent consumption of foods high in sugar and fat causes weight gain and has many health consequences.
These two macronutrients generally make up more than 40 percent of the calories of a typical Western diet.
The scientists fed mice a high sugar, high fat diet and in two months they became obese and had abnormal Paneth cells.
Dr Liu said:
“Eating too much of a healthy diet didn’t affect the Paneth cells.
It was the high-fat, high-sugar diet that was the problem.”
When a healthy diet replaced the Western diet, within four weeks, the Paneth cells were restored to normal.
Dr Liu said:
“This was a short-term experiment, just eight weeks.
In people, obesity doesn’t occur overnight or even in eight weeks.
It’s possible that if you have Western diet for so long, you cross a point of no return and your Paneth cells don’t recover even if you change your diet.
We’d need to do more research before we can say whether this process is reversible in people.”
In addition, deoxycholic acid (a secondary bile acid produce by bacteria in the gut) is involved in carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
Bile acid plays a key role regarding Paneth cell abnormality since it increases the activity of the farnesoid X receptor (involved in sugar and fat metabolism) and type 1 interferon (part of the immune system active in the antiviral responses) thus hindersing Paneth cell from working properly.
The study was published in the Cell Host & Microbe (Liu et al., 2021).
More evidence suggests the long-standing belief that eating low amounts of saturated fats to ward off heart disease may not be entirely correct.
A new study that followed more than 4,800 people over 32 years shows that a plant-centered diet was more likely to be associated with a lower risk of future coronary heart disease and stroke, compared with focusing on fewer saturated fats alone.
“It’s true that low-saturated fat actually lowers LDL [or bad] cholesterol, but it cannot predict cardiovascular disease,” says lead study author Yuni Choi, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “Our research strongly supports the fact that plant-based diet patterns are good for cardiovascular health.”
To assess diet patterns of study participants, the researchers conducted three detailed diet history interviews over the follow-up period and then calculated scores for each using the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS). Higher APDQS scores were associated with higher intake of nutritionally rich plant foods and less high-fat meats. While those who consumed less saturated fats and plant-centered diets had lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, or lower levels of “bad” cholesterol, only the latter diet was also associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke over the long term.
Choi said targeting just single nutrients such as total or saturated fat doesn’t consider those fats found in healthy plant-based foods with cardioprotective properties, such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil, walnuts, and dark chocolate. Based on study results, she recommends those conscious of heart health fill their plates with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes and even a little coffee and tea, which were associated with a low risk of cardiovascular disease.
“More than 80% should be plant-sourced foods and then nonfried fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy in moderation,” she says.
“I think in focusing just on nutrients, we oversimplify the heart [health] diet hypothesis and miss the very important plant component,” says research team leader David Jacobs, PhD, professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “If you tend to eat a plant-centered diet you will tend to eat less saturated fats because that’s just the way the plant kingdom works.”
Following a plant-centered diet is consistent with the American Heart Association’s (AHA) existing recommendations to minimize saturated fats and emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, says Linda Van Horn, PhD, professor, and chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine’s Nutrition Division at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and a member of the AHA’s Nutrition Committee.
“There is no question that current intakes of plant-based carbohydrate, protein and fat are below what is recommended and moving in that direction would be a nutritious improvement,” she says, noting, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone needs to be on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Given that plant-centered diets have been associated with lowering the risk of other diseases, the researchers are now looking to better understand how APDQS scores impact chronic conditions such obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease. They’ll also be researching how diet affects gut bacteria as they expect eating plant-based foods provides more fiber and promotes healthy microbiomes.
“I think that diet patterns provide a really solid base for the public and policy makers to think about what a healthy diet really is,” Jacobs says.
Nutrition 2021: “Which Predicts Incident Cardiovascular Disease Better: A Plant-Centered Diet or a Low-Saturated Fat Diet? The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study.”
Yuni Choi, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota.
Linda Van Horn, PhD, professor, chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine’s Nutrition Division, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.
David Jacobs, PhD, professor of epidemiology and community health, University of Minnesota.7
By Rosalind Stefanac June 10, 2021 source: Medscape Medical News WebMD
The baseline existential dread of the pandemic has made me more attuned than ever to my generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms. These days, I’m especially mindful about not only checking in with my therapist and refilling my medication on time, but also about my intake of caffeine, booze, and foods I have trouble digesting, all of which seem to worsen my anxiety.
For the past several years, researchers have also been interested in the connection between what we eat and how we feel. Along the way, anti-anxiety diets have emerged, along with lists of foods to eat and avoid to keep anxiety at bay. Ever the skeptical health journalist, though, I wonder whether we have enough evidence to conclude that certain foods can increase or decrease anxiety. Can you really manage your anxiety through diet?
According to the experts I interviewed, the general idea that what you eat can impact your anxiety levels is consistent with the research so far. But they caution that the effects of specific foods on anxiety aren’t entirely clear, and they remain wary of broad recommendations about what to eat and what to avoid in order manage anxiety. Last but certainly not least, remixing your diet can’t replace therapy or medication.
“Quite a bit of research” shows that staying hydrated and following a balanced diet, with minimal caffeine and alcohol, can affect mental health, says Sarah Adler, a clinical associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford Medicine. We know caffeine is a stimulant, while alcohol can cause a rebound in anxiety following the short-term relief it provides, and it disrupts sleep, which “really primes your body to be more anxious.” We also know your body metabolizes the complex carbs in whole foods slower than the simple sugars in processed foods, which helps stabilize your blood sugar, creating an overall sense of calm.
This is consistent with what we know about the trajectory anxiety tends to follow: it feeds on itself, growing until it plateaus, then resolves, says Petros Levounis, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “If you sustain this curve, meaning, if you stay with the anxiety, and your body experiences the plateau and the resolution, it teaches your body little by little, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he explains. “Your anxiety gets a little better.”
Aborting your anxiety, though — not only by physically fleeing the source of it, but chemically, by consuming alcohol or processed sugar, for example — makes this lesson harder for your body to learn, worsening your anxiety in the long run. These ingredients have an immediate, satisfying effect on your central nervous system. Complex carbohydrates that take time to digest allow you to sit with your anxiety.
Beyond healthy eating guidelines, though, a vast amount of literature has surfaced about the gut-brain connection, Adler tells me. Your gut, a.k.a., your intestines, “has something like 100 million neurons, and those neurons help you produce neurotransmitters,” including “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin. “Whether [the neurons are] firing properly is highly influenced by what’s inside your gut.” Specifically, the balance of the bacterial community that inhabits in your gut — your gut microbiome — “plays a really important role in the function of those neurons.”
And now, scientists are just beginning to understand how specific nutrients might directly affect anxiety. An analysis of human studies associated treatment with omega-3 fatty acid, found at high levels in fish and seafood, with reduced anxiety symptoms. Adler cites studies that have demonstrated, for example, that diets low in magnesium increase anxiety-related behaviors in mice, suggesting that magnesium-rich foods like chard, nuts, seeds, and whole grains “can potentially have an impact on anxiety.” Some foods with possibly anxiety-lowering properties have been shown to increase the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. The results are preliminary but promising.
Some anti-anxiety diets are based partly on the theory that links anxiety to inflammation, and call for eliminating supposedly pro-inflammatory foods like sugar, while upping your intake of anti-inflammatory foods like turkey and turmeric, for a few weeks. Indeed, “anxiety is generally thought to be correlated with a lower inflammation state,” Adler says. But “I think I would be really mindful of telling to people to cut out things.” Anxiety is associated with disordered eating behaviors, so heavily restrictive diets might make you more susceptible to them if you already struggle with anxiety.
Levounis is also wary of recommendations of foods based on whether they increase or decrease inflammation. “I’m not sure we’re at the point where we can pinpoint foods and how they relate to pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects,” he says. Suggesting or advising against a pro- or anti-inflammatory food to manage anxiety requires first, proving it’s pro- or anti-inflammatory, and then, whether eating it even translates to alleviating or worsening anxiety. “It’s a two-step process. I’m not sure if we’ve crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s on it.”
Adler also cautions against making “blanket recommendations for everyone,” since responses to specific foods vary from person to person. Instead, she advises being mindful of how different foods make you feel, not just in the moment, but the next day, as well. Maybe cut out a category of food, like processed foods, for a period of time, with the intention of noting how you feel. Then, gradually reintroduce them, asking yourself if you feel any differently when doing so. This way, you can identify specific foods within a category that affect your anxiety.
Particularly if you have an anxiety disorder — anxiety that impairs your ability to function as opposed to a healthy response to a stressful situation — you don’t want to address it solely through diet. “It’s concerning to think that somebody may rely on choice of food to treat bona fide psychiatric disorders while we do have treatments that have been scientifically proven to help,” like medication and therapy, Levounis says. If you have an anxiety disorder and want to experiment with your diet, he suggests speaking to a nutritionist or primary care doctor, but without neglecting tried and true treatments.
She believes therapy would ideally include talking about other factors related to emotional well-being, such as diet and exercise. “Managing your diet is a part of managing your anxiety,” she says. After all, any self-sabotaging habits you engage in beyond therapy can undermine the hard work you do within it. Rather than directing you to change your diet in a certain way, it can give you an understanding of “all the levers you can pull to help you reduce your anxiety.”
The idea of diet as one of several tools to manage anxiety really resonates. Personally, I’ll stick to my healthy-ish diet, along with therapy and medication, without getting too caught up in whether I should be eating X or Y and focusing on what makes me feel good.
How To Help A Friend With Anxiety When You’re Struggling Yourself
If you’re not in the right frame of mind to assist a loved one with their mental health, that’s OK. Here’s what therapists recommend.
Anxiety levels are through the roof, which can only be expected in a pandemic – and sadly some friendships are feeling the strain as a result.
Friends are catching up on Zoom, messaging on Whatsapp and in some cases meeting one-on-one to chew the fat over the pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and the huge life – and therefore, mental – impact it’s having.
Anxiety levels appear to remain the same as they were back in April, according to a survey by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is monitoring the social impacts of the coronavirus in Britain.
Its most recent survey revealed 76% of adults are now “very or somewhat” worried about the effect of the coronavirus on their life – this has increased gradually since the end of the summer.
It’s getting to the point where some friendships are feeling increasingly strained, and sometimes one-sided – people are playing host to their friends’ venting sessions while struggling to deal with their own anxieties – and finding it hard to juggle the two.
“My friend unloads her anxiety on me, and now I feel drained,” was the title of a Guardian advice column submission that had heads bobbing in agreement.
“It’s becoming less about having conversations and more about listening to an exhausting monologue,” the advice-seeker wrote of their relationship with an anxious friend in the pandemic. They just didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with all of that anxiety, in addition to their own.
So, how can you support an anxious friend?
It can be hard to know where to begin when supporting someone who is anxious – especially as we all experience anxiety differently, and at varying levels. Not everyone has lots of people they can rely on for support, either.
A good place to start is by stopping and specifically asking your friend (or loved one) what they might want or need, says psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, Rakhi Chand.
This could be a distraction – why not chat about something that doesn’t involve the timeframe for a coronavirus vaccine or the state of American politics? – or it could just be offering a listening ear.
Some of the best support you can offer is letting your friend know you’re there to support them, and you can understand and empathize with how they are feeling, says psychotherapist Lucy Fuller. But it can be “very difficult” to be in the presence of someone who is feeling really anxious when you yourself are feeling that way, she adds.
If this resonates with you, it might be helpful to ask yourself what you need in a given moment. Chand says, for example, that sometimes she knows she needs fresh air or exercise to take her mind off concerns, and at other times she needs to sit and dissect the issues with her loved one.
Don’t dismiss your own anxiety in the process, she adds. “I think many of us are good at subtly dismissing ourselves by ending sentences with things like ‘but I’m really lucky, lots of people have it much worse.’ Whilst perspective is good, notice where you are on a spectrum of dismissing yourself. Too much of dismissing your anxiety won’t help it ultimately.”
Be gentle on yourself if you know you just haven’t got the bandwidth at that time, on that particular day, to shoulder someone else’s concerns. And do feel free to let them know that – albeit kindly.
“I would suggest being honest and letting them know that you are sorry it is so difficult for them, but that you are also on a cliff edge and can’t cope with it all right now,” suggests Fuller. “Comfort might be gained from just being together, even not talking.”
One way of doing this might be taking a walk together in natural and beautiful surroundings (a forest perhaps, along the coast, or even around the block or park) so you’re both moving away from the biggest points of stress for an hour.
“Try to share the activity of taking in the surroundings and being in the moment,” says Fuller. “There can be comfort gained from being in the presence of someone you love or have great respect for, without sharing words, but experiencing a parallel sense of calm.”
It’s also worth noting that if you are regularly finding you simply can’t deal with a friend’s anxieties because you feel under a lot of strain, it may be a sign that you too should seek some help. “If you regularly haven’t got space to support or listen to them then maybe it’s time to speak to a professional,” says Chand.
What not to do
Therapists generally advise against trying to fix the problem for your friend – unless they specifically ask for your advice. The listening is more important.
“Often the last thing people need when they are feeling wobbly is for someone they rely on to try to fix the problem, or tell them what they ‘should’ be doing in order to make themselves feel better,” says Fuller. “It isn’t always as simple as that, so by coming supportively ‘alongside’ someone who is experiencing emotional difficulties is a very comforting way of supporting them.”
Telling a friend that you know how they feel isn’t usually helpful either, adds Fuller, “as it takes away the seriousness of the emotional condition that they are experiencing”.
Similarly, she cautions against your friendship catch-ups turning into an “anxiety competition” – which can develop, consciously or subconsciously.
“To say or suggest to someone that they don’t feel as bad as you diminishes their experience and can shame them into thinking that it isn’t safe to share their feelings with you,” she says. So best not to go down that route.
While venting is a “very healthy and important way to alleviate stress and anxiety,” ultimately if either of you need to vent more and you’re feeling totally overwhelmed by everything, doing so to a professional in person or using a mental health helpline might be a good solution.
How To De-clutter Your Life
And Reduce Anxiety In 10 Steps
You don’t need Marie Kondo to save you.
Last summer, mere months after swearing that I wasn’t going to have a second baby, I found out I was having a second baby. Oh, universe.
Of all the varied emotions (most of them happy, for the record) I felt over “li’l surprise,” as we’ve come to call him, one of the most prevalent was panic over how to fit him in our two-bedroom, already overflowing, toddler-dominated townhouse. Like, actually, where is this baby going to go? A drawer? It might be a drawer.
This panic quickly morphed to full-fledged anxiety over the clutter I find myself surrounded by on a daily basis. Toys everywhere. An entirely unusable basement thanks to boxes we never unpacked from our last move. A shame-closet so stuffed with junk we can’t even open the door.
When I was about 12 weeks pregnant, I booked an appointment with my therapist to discuss my feelings about bringing another baby into the world. I spent $160/hour crying to her about the state of my basement.
It was time to to act. For the baby, who deserves more than a drawer to call his own, and for my own mental health.
Clutter really is linked to anxiety
Clutter and anxiety go together like boozy date nights and surprise pregnancies: kind of inevitable.
“Messy homes and work spaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives,” psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter wrote in Psychology Today.
The negative effect of clutter is especially prevalent among women, the New York Times notes, citing a 2019 study that found a cluttered home is a stressful home. Another study from 2010 found that women who perceived their homes as messy or cluttered had increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) throughout the day.
But, as Carter explains in Psychology Today, clutter is actually one of the easiest sources of life stress to fix — much easier than fixing a stressful job or relationship issues, for instance. You just have to do it.
It took work. It took time. But I am pleased to say I have significantly reduced the clutter in my house and my mind over the last several months. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too:
1. Pick one project at a time
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by de-cluttering your entire house, so break it up into bite-sized pieces. Pick one project, such as going through your closet and donating everything you never wear. Then bask in the glory of finishing something.
“This will give you a sense of accomplishment as you see your successes little by little,” Carter notes.
Even just taking a single night off from Netflix will give you two to three hours, which is plenty of time to tackle that junk drawer full of used batteries and dead pens.
2. Be ruthless
Adopt a stone-cold attitude. Now is not the time to weep over that genius essay you wrote in Grade 4. If you don’t use it, and there’s little sentimental value, give it away or toss it.
Here is a random sample of just some of the crap from my house I either threw out, recycled, or donated over the last few months:
About 300 books
Dozens of kitchen appliances I have never used, such as an egg steamer (??)
The elliptical machine, nicknamed “El Bastardo” that has doubled as a laundry hanger for at least five years
My ex’s guitar (sorry)
Dozens of giant photo frames or framed art we were never actually going to hang again.
All of my impractical shoes. I’m about to be a mom of two, so let’s get real
An entire cupboard full of bath and beauty products I’ve never or barely used
An antique steamer trunk from the foot of the bed that my husband tripped over every. single. night.
3. Join a ‘Buy Nothing’ group
As satisfying as it is to drop off car loads of stuff at the Salvation Army or Value Village, chances are your neighbourhood has a “Buy Nothing” group where people will come to your house and take your stuff away, no questions asked!
That antique steamer trunk I mentioned? A mom in my neighbourhood took it, gave it to her pirate-obsessed son, and now he has his own treasure trunk. YARR!
4. Donate books
Yeah, I know. This one can be controversial for book lovers. And I am one, so I get it.
If you have the space, and don’t consider books clutter, great. But if you have a basement overflowing with multiple copies of Memoirs of a Geisha and every psychology textbook from your undergrad, it might be time to let go.
And let go I did. I asked my husband to do the same and we parsed it down to a meaningful collection.
And you know what? It didn’t even hurt. I’m happy thinking about other people finding joy in the books that were just collecting dust in my basement.
5. Invest in furniture that doubles as storage
Out of sight, out of mind. Consider investing in a piece of furniture that doubles as storage. I got this storage ottoman from Ikea, and now all of my son’s toy trains and tracks have a place to live other than my living room floor.
You can also re-purpose existing furniture for storage. One of my (now-empty) square bookshelves is now a handy toy shelf in my son’s playroom.
6. Look critically at the space you do have and how it can be used better
This one was huge for me, and important for anyone living in a small space. Instead of pining for more room (we very nearly moved), look critically at how your current space can be better utilized. For me, that meant tackling the biggest stressor of all … my basement.
After, many, many trips to Value Village and weeks spent sorting, I morphed my previously unusable basement into a playroom for my toddler. This allowed us to move all of his toys cluttering my living room, thus creating usable space (for me!) upstairs.
Suddenly, I could breathe again.
I gave my bedroom a similar makeover. We don’t have a third bedroom to turn into a nursery for this little nugget, but we do have a pretty large master. After giving away the steamer trunk, half my clothes, and moving a few decorative lamps, the back end of our room is now the “nursery.”
We’re ready for you, li’l surprise!
7. Rotate toys
Did you know kids get overwhelmed by having too much “stuff,” too? A 2017 study found that kids with too many toys get easily distracted and have lower-quality playtime. Fewer toys lead to more, focused creative play.
Researchers suggest that parents pack away most of the children’s toys, and rotate them a few at a time.
8. De-clutter your schedule
Congrats, your house is looking more like a house and less like an emporium of crap! But there’s still more de-cluttering you could do.
If you’re anything like me, you spend your weekends shuttling your kids to museums, drop ins, classes … anything to keep busy! But now that I have a house I can actually stand to spend time in, we’ve started embracing slow weekends at home, and everyone is better for it.
Send your kid to the playroom. Do an art project. Make pancakes together. You’ll all feel calmer when you use your down-time to actually relax.
9. De-clutter your socials
While you’re bettering your life, how about cleaning up your social media? Unfollow any accounts you don’t really care about (like all those baby product accounts you followed just to enter free giveaways), so that you’re more likely to see updates from those you do care about.
Take stock of how many online parenting groups you’re in (I’m in about 37, no joke). Mute the ones you don’t really need nor care to see on a daily basis.
Finally, if you’re doing any hate follows (we’re all guilty of this, right?), consider letting go. You live your life, little miss perfect mommy blogger we only follow to hate, and we’ll live ours. Go in peace. Enjoy your home-grown, organic mung beans.
10. De-clutter your mind
Your house, schedule, and social media are all cleaned up. All that’s left to tackle now is your mind (oh, just that?). Embracing mindfulness is a great way to help you roll with the punches, be more present, and control your reactions, parenting expert Alyson Schafer notes.
Not sleeping enough or getting a bad night’s sleep over and over makes it hard to control your appetite. And that sets you up for all sorts of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
The link between poor sleep and a greater body mass index (BMI) has been shown in study after study, but researchers typically relied on the memories of the participants to record how well they slept.
Sleep apps on fitness trackers, smartphones and watches have changed all that. In a new study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers tracked sleep quality for 120,000 people for up to two years.
The results showed sleep durations and patterns are highly variable between people. Despite that, the study found people with BMIs of 30 or above – which is considered obese by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – had slightly shorter mean sleep durations and more variable sleep patterns.
It didn’t take much less sleep to see the effect. People with BMIs over 30 only slept about 15 minutes less than their less weighty counterparts.
There were some limitations to the study. Naps were excluded, other health conditions could not be factored in, and people who use wearable tracking devices are typically younger, healthier and from a higher socioeconomic status than those who do not wear trackers.
“These are quite pricey devices, and remember, they are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, the associate program director of the Sleep Medicine Fellowship at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California.
“The results would need to be validated by the appropriate FDA-approved devices, and because the study is likely on younger people who are more economically well off, does that really apply to older folks we worry about with poor sleep?” said Dasgupta, who was not involved in the study.
However, Dasgupta added, a major plus for the study is that it did monitor people for over two years, and the results corroborated prior research and were “not surprising.”
“While we cannot determine the direction of association from our study result, these findings provide further support to the notion that sleep patterns are associated with weight management and overall health,” the authors wrote.
“The findings also support the potential value of including both sleep duration and individual sleep patterns when studying sleep-related health outcomes.”
LINK BETWEEN SLEEP AND EATING
There is a scientific reason why a lack of sleep is linked to appetite. When you’re sleep deprived, research has shown, levels of a hormone called ghrelin spike while another hormone, leptin, takes a nosedive. The result is an increase in hunger.
“The ‘l’ in leptin stands for lose: It suppresses appetite and therefore contributes to weight loss,” he said. “The ‘g’ in ghrelin stands for gain: This fast-acting hormone increases hunger and leads to weight gain,” Dasgupta said.
Another reason we gain weight is due to an ancient body system called the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids bind to the same receptors as the active ingredient in marijuana, which as we know, often triggers the “munchies.”
“When you’re sleep deprived, you’re not like, ‘Oh, you know what, I want some carrots,'” said behavioural neuroscientist Erin Hanlon, who studies the connection between brain systems and behavior at the University of Chicago, in a prior CNN interview.
“You’re craving sweets and salty and starchy things,” she added. “You want those chips, you want a cookie, you want some candy, you know?”
A 2016 study by Hanlon compared the circulating levels of 2-AG, one of the most abundant endocannabinoids, in people who got four nights of normal sleep (more than eight hours) to people who only got 4.5 hours.
People who were sleep-deprived reported greater increases in hunger and appetite and had higher afternoon concentrations of 2-AG than those who slept well. The sleep-deprived participants also had a rough time controlling their urges for high-carb, high-calorie snacks.
GET BETTER SLEEP
Want more control over your appetite? Depending on your age, you are supposed to get between seven and 10 hours of sleep each night.
Getting less has been linked in studies to high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, weight gain, a lack of libido, mood swings, paranoia, depression and a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, dementia and some cancers.
So sleep a full seven to 10 hours a night, stick to a regular bedtime and get up the same time very day, even on weekends, experts advise.
Adding exercise to your daily routine is a great way to improve your sleep and improve your health. After finishing one 30-minute physical activity, you’ll have less anxiety, lower blood pressure, more sensitivity to insulin and you’ll sleep better that night.
You can also train your brain to get more restful sleep with a few key steps:
During the day, try to get good exposure to natural light, as that will help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Avoid stimulants (coffee, tea) after 3 p.m. and fatty foods before bedtime.
Establish a bedtime routine you can follow each night. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options.
Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and the room is cool: Between 60 and 67 degrees is best. Don’t watch TV or work in your bedroom; you want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep.
Eliminate all lights – even the blue light of cellphones or laptops can be disruptive. Dull sounds, too. Earplugs or white noise machines can be very helpful, but you can create your own with a humidifier or fan.
What if someone told you there was a magic potion by which you could prevent disease, improve your intellect, reduce your stress and be nicer to your family while you’re all cooped up together during the pandemic?
It sounds too good to be true, as if solving those problems would really require dietary supplements, workout programs, diets, meditation and a separate room to cry alone.
It turns out that sleep, according to numerous studies, is the answer. It’s the preventive medicine for conditions related to our physical, mental and emotional health. And despite how important sleep is, it can be difficult to make it a priority.
“During a pandemic such as Covid-19, there’s a potential to induce or exacerbate many sleep issues,” Dr. Matthew Schmitt, a doctor of sleep medicine at Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia, told CNN.
“A lack of quality sleep not only affects how we feel during the daytime, but can also impair our immune system function, which is vital in protecting us from common viral illnesses.”
A sleep routine is just one of the behaviors that is part of sleep hygiene, a buffet of efforts needed to sleep well that include eating healthy meals at regular times and not drinking too much coffee, said Dr. Meir Kryger, a professor of pulmonary medicine and a clinical professor of nursing at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut.
“All of these things are really interconnected in terms of their function. All of them are connected to the body clock,” Kryger said. “The body is like an orchestra where there’s an orchestra leader that’s sort of the main timer, but everybody else is playing it together and they’re optimizing what they are doing.”
Once you’ve developed your sleep routine,
here are 10 benefits you could gain from the regimen.
1. Helps your body heal and repair itself
Our nightly shut-eye is our bodies’ time for healing and repairing itself from performing its taxing daily functions.
“Imagine you’re a car or something that’s running for 16 hours during the day,” Kryger said. “You’re going to have to do stuff to get back to normal. You just can’t keep on running.”
During sleep is when we produce most of our growth hormone that ultimately results in bone growth. Our tissues rest, relaxing our muscles and reducing inflammation. And each cell and organ have their own clock that “plays a really important role in maximizing or optimizing how our body works,” Kryger added.
2. Lowers risk for disease
Sleep on its own is a protective factor against disease.
When people get too much or too little sleep, “there appears to be an increased risk of deaths … and other diseases raising their ugly heads,” Kryger said, such as heart problems and diabetes. The healing period during sleep also factors in, as it allows cells that would cause disease to repair themselves.
3. Improves cognitive function
Sleep feeds our creativity and cognitive function, which describes our mental abilities to learn, think, reason, remember, problem solve, make decisions and pay attention.
“As you sleep, memories are reactivated, connections between brain cells are strengthened, and information is transferred from short- to long-term,” said a National Sleep Foundation article on the subject. “Without enough quality sleep, we become forgetful.”
4. Reduces stress
Slumber of great quantity and quality can enhance your mood and also encourage the brain’s ability to regulate emotional responses to both neutral and emotional events.
5. Helps maintain a healthy weight
Getting your beauty sleep can help you to maintain a healthy weight or increase your chances of losing excess fat.
Two hormones control our urge to eat: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells us that we’re full, while ghrelin communicates hunger.
When we don’t sleep enough, both hormones veer in the wrong direction, Kryger said — ghrelin spikes while leptin declines, resulting in an increase in hunger and the potential to overeat and gain weight.
Sleep helps our bodies to maintain normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well, which determines how we hang on to excess fat.
6. Bolsters your immune system
Kryger has seen the immune systems of patients with sleep disorders fail to normally function. Sleep helps our bodies to produce and release cytokines, a type of protein that helps create an immune response by targeting infection and inflammation.
Additionally, “research done actually years ago showed that when people are sleep deprived, they do not have as vigorous a response to vaccination,” Kryger added.
“As we’re thinking about vaccination that’s being developed” for Covid-19, that kind of research is going to be important.
7. May improve your social life
The emotional benefits of sleep can transfer over into your social life. “Just imagine you don’t sleep enough and you’re cranky,” Kryger said. “Who’s going to want to be around you? Another part of it is being cognitively sharp.”
Adequate sleep can help you to be more confident, be more easygoing and support your efforts to do your part at home, he added.
8. Supports your mental health
Mental health disorders are often associated with substandard sleep and a sleep deficit can lead to depressive symptoms even if the person doesn’t have the chronic disorder, Kryger said.
“Getting the right amount of sleep is really important in possibly preventing a mental illness or the appearance of a mental illness,” he added. And in addition to the benefits for mood and stress regulation, sleeping enough “may make the treatment of the mental illnesses more efficacious if the person sleeps enough.”
9. Reduces pain sensitivity
Extending participants’ sleep time during the night or with midday naps, a 2019 study found, restored their pain sensitivity to normal levels in comparison to sleep-deprived individuals, who had a lower threshold for pain.
How this happens would have to be in the realm of perception, Kryger said, which ultimately traces back to the brain. “The brain is where sleep is,” he explained.
10. Increases your likelihood for overall success
Since sleep can improve our health on all fronts, it consequently can help us be the best versions of ourselves. Healthy cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, coping and social life are all foundational to pursuing and achieving our goals and overall well-being.
People React Better to Both Negative and Positive Events
With More Sleep
New research finds that after a night of shorter sleep, people react more emotionally to stressful events the next day — and they don’t find as much joy in the good things. This has important health implications: previous research shows that being unable to maintain positive emotions in the face of stress puts people at risk of inflammation and even an earlier death.
New research from UBC finds that after a night of shorter sleep, people react more emotionally to stressful events the next day – and they don’t find as much joy in the good things. The study, led by health psychologist Nancy Sin, looks at how sleep affects our reaction to both stressful and positive events in daily life.
“When people experience something positive, such as getting a hug or spending time in nature, they typically feel happier that day,” says Nancy Sin, assistant professor in UBC’s department of psychology. “But we found that when a person sleeps less than their usual amount, they don’t have as much of a boost in positive emotions from their positive events.”
People also reported a number of stressful events in their daily lives, including arguments, social tensions, work and family stress, and being discriminated against. When people slept less than usual, they responded to these stressful events with a greater loss of positive emotions. This has important health implications: previous research by Sin and others shows that being unable to maintain positive emotions in the face of stress puts people at risk of inflammation and even an earlier death.
Using daily diary data from a national U.S. sample of almost 2,000 people, Sin analyzed sleep duration and how people responded to negative and positive situations the next day. The participants reported on their experiences and the amount of sleep they had the previous night in daily telephone interviews over eight days.
“The recommended guideline for a good night’s sleep is at least seven hours, yet one in three adults don’t meet this standard,” says Sin. “A large body of research has shown that inadequate sleep increases the risk for mental disorders, chronic health conditions, and premature death. My study adds to this evidence by showing that even minor night-to-night fluctuations in sleep duration can have consequences in how people respond to events in their daily lives.”
Chronic health conditions – such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – are prevalent among adults, especially as we grow older. Past research suggests that people with health conditions are more reactive when faced with stressful situations, possibly due to wear-and-tear of the physiological stress systems.
“We were also interested in whether adults with chronic health conditions might gain an even larger benefit from sleep than healthy adults,” says Sin. “For those with chronic health conditions, we found that longer sleep – compared to one’s usual sleep duration – led to better responses to positive experiences on the following day.”
Sin hopes that by making sleep a priority, people can have a better quality of life and protect their long-term health.
Nancy L. Sin, Jin H. Wen, Patrick Klaiber, Orfeu M. Buxton, David M. Almeida. Sleep duration and affective reactivity to stressors and positive events in daily life.. Health Psychology, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/hea0001033
University of British Columbia. “People react better to both negative and positive events with more sleep.” ScienceDaily, 15 September 2020
Materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length. September 15, 2020
It’s normal to feel anxious or worried from time to time. Work deadlines, writing an exam or giving a presentation, for example, can trigger short-lived anxiety.
People with an anxiety disorder, however, experience persistent and intense anxiety, worry or fear that’s out of proportion to everyday occurrences. Symptoms interfere with daily life, impacting thoughts, emotions, behaviour and physical health. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (excessive worry about ordinary, everyday situations). Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression.
Growing scientific evidence suggests that the foods we eat – and the ones that we don’t – play a role in developing and treating anxiety.
The diet-anxiety connection
Components in whole foods can influence mood in a number of ways. Some nutrients are used to synthesize brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that regulate emotions, while others impact how the brain responds to stress.
An imbalance of omega-3 fats, which are essential for the integrity of brain cell membranes, may alter how brain cells communicate with one another. Certain nutrients may also dampen inflammation in the brain.
While diet can’t cure anxiety – nor can it take the place of medication – research suggests that the following strategies may help reduce symptoms.
Follow a healthy dietary pattern. Studies conducted in many different countries have found that healthy traditional diet patterns, including the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diets, are associated with a lower risk of anxiety disorders.
In general, eating a diet that’s low in added sugars and emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and beans and lentils guards against anxiety. In contrast, a “Western-style” diet consisting of refined grains, highly processed foods and sugary foods increases the risk.
Include omega-3′s, fatty fish. Observational studies have linked a higher intake of oily fish and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, to a lower risk of anxiety disorders in children, adults and pregnant women.
A randomized controlled trial published in 2013 found that medical students who received omega-3 supplements (2.5 grams a day) experienced a 20-per-cent reduction in anxiety compared with the placebo group. They also had lower blood levels of stress-induced inflammatory proteins.
Salmon, trout, sardines, herring, mackerel and anchovies are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids; these fish are also low in mercury. Include them in your diet at least twice a week. DHA supplements made from algae are available for people who eat a vegetarian diet.
Try fermented foods. Preliminary evidence suggests that a regular intake of fermented foods, a source of probiotic bacteria, may reduce the risk of social anxiety in women. Fermented foods include kefir, kombucha, kimchi, unpasteurized sauerkraut and yogurt.
Probiotics may also help ease anxiety symptoms. A review of 10 randomized controlled trials, published in 2017, concluded that probiotic supplements significantly improved anxiety. However, the strain of probiotic, the dose and the duration of treatment varied widely across studies.
Once consumed, probiotic bacteria take up residence in the gut, where they help to maintain a strong intestinal barrier. When the lining of the gut becomes more permeable than normal, toxins can escape into the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory response that may interfere with neurotransmitters.
It’s also thought that probiotics in the gut increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates stress and emotions.
Increase magnesium, zinc. Findings from a number of studies have shown that a deficiency of these two minerals, needed for healthy brain cells, can lead to anxiety.
Excellent sources of magnesium include oat bran, brown rice, quinoa, spinach, Swiss chard, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, black beans, lentils, tofu and edamame.
You’ll find zinc in oysters, beef, crab, pork, chicken, pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas, yogurt, milk and fortified breakfast cereals.
Avoid triggers. Eat at regular intervals during the day to prevent low blood sugar, which could precipitate feelings of anxiety. Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can also make you feel jittery and nervous.
Drink water throughout the day to prevent becoming dehydrated; even mild dehydration can worsen your mood.
LESLIE BECK THE GLOBE AND MAIL August 23, 2020
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.
9 Foods That Calm Anxiety
(and 3 That Make It Worse)
Scientists are just beginning to recognize the connection between food and our brain. Eat these nutrients for a wave of calming feelings that keep worry away.
Omega-3 fatty acids make your brain happy
Doctors often know how to calm anxiety, or treat it, with therapy and medications, but the answer to calming the condition could be hiding in plain sight: the foods we eat. Doctors and nutritionists are starting to understand more about how certain nutrients, or lack of them, affect the brain. “Our brain has very high energy and nutrient requirements,” says clinical nutritionist and health coach Melissa Reagan Brunetti, CNC. “Nutritional deficiencies and dietary patterns can affect its function, and alter brain chemistry and the formulation of neurotransmitters—chemicals in the brain that can stimulate and calm.” These neurotransmitters influence our mood as well as our appetite, she says. A study from Ohio State University showed one nutrient that’s especially good for reducing anxious symptoms is omega 3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like wild salmon, flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. “Our brains need fat from dietary sources to function properly,” Brunetti says. “If you are not eating a sufficient amount of beneficial fats, your brain will suffer.”
Probiotics are good for the gut
Surprisingly, another calming food source is probiotics. “Your gut bacteria is needed for production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid], which all play a role in mood,” Brunetti says. “The microbiome [gut bacteria] has a direct link to the brain and the immune system, so restoring balance in the gut of good and bad bacteria through use of probiotics can benefit the brain.” Recent research has found that probiotics may actually work to treat, or even prevent, anxious feelings. You can either take a probiotic supplement or eat foods that have been fermented, a process which encourages good bacteria to grow, and has been shown in studies as a way how to calm anxiety. “I like to see patients eat more fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kefir, as the kinds of bacteria in your gut influence anxiety,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in using dietary changes to help balance moods, and author of Eat Complete. Another fermented food you probably already have in your fridge? Pickles!
Caffeine makes you anxious
Although some of us feel like we’re miserable until we’ve had our morning cup of java, coffee and other caffeinated foods and drinks actually worsen anxious feelings. Because it’s a stimulant for the nervous system, it increases heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. According to the University of Michigan, coffee can lead to symptoms of worrying like nervousness, sweating, and shaking. A study from Brazil found that caffeine actually induced panic attacks in people with an anxious disorder. Another study, from Wake Forest University, found that caffeine reduced blood flow to the brain by 27 percent. Not to mention that it can mess with sleep, which is essential for brain health. “Limiting caffeine intake can help quell inflammation and contribute to improved brain function,” Brunetti says. Likewise, Dr. Ramsey suggests avoiding energy drinks with caffeine, as well as indulging in too much dark chocolate (stick to one or two squares a day).
Water keeps everything flowing smoothly
How to calm anxiety in one step? Drink good old fashioned water. “Staying hydrated with clean water is very important,” Brunetti says. A study from the University of Connecticut showed that even mild dehydration can cause mood problems. According to the study’s author, Lawrence E. Armstrong, PhD, by the time you feel thirsty it’s too late. “Our thirst sensation doesn’t really appear until we are one or two percent dehydrated,” he says. “By then dehydration is already setting in and starting to impact how our mind and body perform.” The connection behind dehydration and anxious symptoms is not totally known; but the UConn study authors think it may be part of an ancient warning system alerting us to find water for survival. So, you should be sure to consume water throughout the day.
Stay away from refined sugar and processed foods
Sweets and processed foods all are, not surprisingly, bad for your mental health. Sugar and refined carbs cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a sudden drop. A study from Columbia University found that the more refined carbs and sugar women ate, the higher their risk for mood changes and depression. Another study, from the United Kingdom, found that eating processed meat and fried foods had similar responses, possibly because of the link with heart disease and inflammation, which are also associated with mental health problems. “Skip highly processed foods, as these are mainly simple sugars and vegetable oils,” Dr. Ramsey suggests. Instead, try eating more complex carbs like whole grains, which were linked to fewer mental health issues in the Columbia study.
Alcohol brings you down
Alcohol is a depressant but it can also worsen anxiety symptoms. And unfortunately, the two often go hand-in-hand—in a study that took place over 14 years, researchers found that people with social anxiety disorder (SAD) were 4.5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that 20 percent of people with SAD also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. Drinking can seem like a good way to calm your nerves, but in reality, it causes spikes and dips in blood sugar, dehydrates you, and causes impaired brain function—all of which can lead to anxious feelings, which then make you want to drink more, creating a vicious cycle. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking a lot can cause changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters that may induce these symptoms. For this reason, Brunetti says it’s best to reduce or eliminate alcohol.
Load up on antioxidants
Here’s another reason antioxidants are superfoods: They can help quell anxious moods. “Antioxidants protect the brain against oxidative stress [free radicals],” Brunetti says. “Oxidative stress leads to inflammation, which can impair neurotransmitter production.” Research by the State University of New York found that anxious symptoms are linked with a lower antioxidant state, and that antioxidants could actually help treat mood issues as well. So which nutrients are antioxidants, and which foods contain them? “Diets rich in beta-carotene like carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, and kale; vitamin C like citrus fruits, red peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and strawberries; and vitamin E like almonds, avocado, spinach, sunflower seeds, spinach, and sweet potatoes, are essential for supporting optimal brain function,” Brunetti says. Another powerful antioxidant Brunetti says is shown to combat anxious feelings is the trace mineral selenium, found in Brazil nuts, halibut, grass-fed beef, turkey, chicken, and eggs. Also, studies have shown that upping your zinc, which has antioxidant properties, leads to fewer anxious feelings. Cashews are a great source of zinc.
Magnesium is calming
Another nutrient that might stave off anxious symptoms is magnesium. “Magnesium is a calming mineral that has been found to induce relaxation,” Brunetti says. In an Austrian study with mice, diets low in magnesium increased anxious behaviors. Research has shown that magnesium may also help treat mental health issues in humans. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, inadequate magnesium reduces levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and antidepressants have been shown to increase magnesium in the brain—evidence of a positive link. “Magnesium can act at the blood brain barrier to prevent the entrance of stress hormones into the brain,” psychiatrist Emily Deans, MD, writes on Psychology Today. “All these reasons are why I call magnesium ‘the original chill pill.’” Dr. Ramsey suggests eating eggs and greens, like spinach and Swiss chard, for magnesium. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
We usually think of tryptophan as the nutrient in turkey that puts us to sleep after Thanksgiving—and in fact, tryptophan is an amino acid that the body needs to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate sleep and moods. According to the University of Michigan, tryptophan may help reduce anxious feelings. In one small study, participants who ate a food bar rich in tryptophan reported fewer symptoms than those who ate a bar without tryptophan. More research is needed, but it seems likely that there is a connection. Tryptophan is in most protein-rich foods like turkey and other meats, nuts, seeds, beans, and eggs. (Incidentally, protein is also important for the production on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which can benefit mood as well.)
B vitamins bump up good feelings
Harvard Medical School advises eating foods rich in B vitamins, like beef, avocado, and almonds, to help ward off anxious feelings. “B vitamins have positive effects on the nervous system, and deficiencies have been linked to anxious disorders,” Brunetti says. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, vitamin B6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influence mood. A study from Australia found that stressed-out workers who were given a high dose of B vitamins felt less strained and in a better mood after 12 weeks. Another study, from the University of Miami, found that depressed adults who took a vitamin B complex had fewer depressive and anxious symptoms after two months. “Another nutrient that seems to matter is choline, found in eggs, which is a cousin of B vitamins,” Dr. Ramsey says. More research is needed, but these results are promising.
Cozy up with herbal teas
So you might not want to indulge in too much coffee, but you can relax with a mug of herbal tea in order to feel less anxious. “Great options for herbal teas are chamomile, skullcap, and kava kava to start,” Dr. Ramsey says. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that participants who took chamomile for eight weeks experienced fewer anxious symptoms than those that didn’t. However, be aware that kava can interact with anti-anxiety and antidepressant meds, so talk to your doctor first if you’re on them. Plus, it’s so relaxing that high doses of it could impair your ability to drive, according to one study. If you’re using herbs for anxiety, steer clear of ones that are stimulating, such as ginseng, cautions Dr. Ramsey, because they might actually make anxious feelings worse.
It’s not just what you eat, but how
How to calm anxiety? Pay attention to how and when you eat. Bad habits can have a negative effect on anxious moods, which “get worse when people have low blood sugar,” Dr. Ramsey says. “A simple step people often forget is to eat regularly.” Brunetti says if low blood sugar is an issue for you (in other words, if you get “hangry”), eating smaller, frequent meals throughout the day can help. According to Harvard Medical School, there is evidence that our Western diet, with its focus on refined carbs and processed foods, might not be great for anxious moods; instead, Mediterranean or Japanese diets, which include a lot of veggies and fish, may be the way to go. But, be careful of fad diets that eliminate entire food groups. “Diets that are too low in [complex] carbohydrates can also be detrimental” for anxious feelings, Brunetti says. “Include a variety of foods in your diet to ensure you are getting a wide range of nutrients needed to calm the mind.”
Positive psychology often is passed off as pop psychology or New Age-y by those who haven’t actually looked into it.
The actual theory behind positive psychology was defined in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  and looks at all aspects of a person’s psychology. It does not discount traditional psychology, nor supersede it. Rather than viewing psychology purely as a treatment for the malign, however, it looks at the positive. Positive psychology is a recognized form of therapy and is offered by some counselors and psychologists.
Psychology has always been interested in where people’s lives have gone wrong, and what has resulted because of it . Illnesses such as depression are well-documented and patterns of depressive behavior well-known. However, until recently, what makes people happy and how they achieve inner happiness and well-being has been a mystery.
Practitioners of positive psychology study people whose lives are positive and try to learn from them, in order to help others achieve this state of happiness . It is a scientific study and not remotely hippie-ish, despite its connotations.
Positive thinking is one aspect of positive psychology. Surrounding yourself with a great lifestyle and material goods may seem to lead to happiness, but how you really feel is governed by what goes on inside your head. When you go out of your way to think positively, you actually purge yourself of negative self-talk. 
Negative self-talk is one of the biggest barriers to positive thinking. People become so accustomed to negative thinking that their conscious mind will pull them down, even when they have done nothing wrong. These people become insecure, overly apologetic and indecisive. Worse still, they open the door to numerous stress-related problems.
Negative thinkers have four common mindsets:
Many negative thinkers will pull the negatives out of a situation and focus on them. Sometimes these people will see only the negative in a situation, to the point where they deny any positive. =>Personalizing.
Some people make every tragedy about themselves. They will personalize every negative thing and assume that bad things happen because they are unlucky, or as a result of something they did or didn’t do. They will often construct negative situations with perfect logic, providing plausible reasons why negative things are either their fault or set out to hurt them. =>Catastrophizing.
This involves anticipating the worst. Some people even precipitate it. They can turn a slightly awkward interaction into an overreaction, making the situation worse. If something negative does happen, they will use it to validate their negative assumptions. =>Polarizing.
This type of negative thinker sees things as black or white. Either a situation is perfect or it is a catastrophe. This type of negative thinking can affect every area of a person’s life. Its effects can be both psychological and physical. By practicing positive thinking, you can actually stave off medical conditions and reap the benefits of having a positive outlook on life.
Depression is complicated illness with physical and mental health elements. It would be flippant to suggest that someone with a positive outlook will not encounter depressive feelings.
However, positive psychology can be beneficial in treating depression. It can equip sufferers with the tools to stop downward spirals when they begin and help them to see the positive aspects to their lives. It can also help to stop the negative thinking habits that are common in depression. 
Scientific studies also show that there is a direct link between stress and the immune system. When a person is experiencing a period of stress and negativity, his or her body is less able to mount an inflammatory response to attacks from bacteria and viruses. This results in an increase in infections such as the common cold and cold sores.  Having a positive outlook on life also equips people better for dealing with serious illness. Tackling diseases such as cancer with optimism and self-belief has shown to have a beneficial effect on recovery and ability to tolerate treatment.
Among the other health benefits listed above, positive thinkers have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. They tend to have lower blood pressure than those who do not engage in positive thinking. The health benefits extend to the emotional side, too. optimists will have better physical and psychological well-being, and better skills for coping with stress and hardship.
It is important to remember that simply having a positive mindset won’t actually stop bad things from happening. But it does give you the tools to better deal with bad situations. Sometimes your coping skills come down to nothing more than refusing to give in to your negative side and your fears. For some people, positive thinking comes quite naturally. For others, seeking professional help is necessary to get them on the right track.
Life requires that we prioritize what is important. The simple reason is that we don’t have enough time to do all – or even most – of the things that make us happier.
Part of prioritizing means saying “no” to certain people and things.
In this article, we’re going to focus our attention on 20 things that we would do well to say “no.” You’ll see many familiar things on here (T.V., anyone?) However, you may be a bit more surprised at some of the other things that can make you happier.
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND SAY ‘NO’ TO THESE 20 THINGS TO BECOME HAPPIER:
1 – ALCOHOL/DRUGS
For those made to suffer through the atrocious circa 90s “Just Say No” commercials, we apologize.
Drugs are atrociously bad for mental and physical health. Drugs ruin lives, families, and institutions. Per statistics published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug abuse and addiction cost American society alone over $700 billion per year.
It’s common for substance abuse to abuse both alcohol and drugs. There also exist correlations between substance abuse and mental health problems.
The message here is simple: stay away from drugs and limit alcohol intake.
2 – MORE WORK
Some people love what they do, and that’s a beautiful place to be. For the rest of us, however, work should be viewed as a necessity to live. You’d think that we live forever considering just how much time some people spend at the office.
Per a report by the American Institute of Stress (AIS), “job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults,” adding, “[job stress] has escalated progressively over the past few decades.” (Emphasis added)
3 – FAST FOOD
Unless you’re super careful, and the place that you eat offers healthy options, fast food can show up on your waistline quick. Statistics show that a fast food meal contributes a disproportionately high percentage of daily caloric intake.
Over 50 million North Americans eat fast food every day or about 15 percent of the population.
4 – PROCRASTINATION
It may bring some comfort to know that the cause of procrastination is solely psychological – i.e., it has little to do with your willpower. Highly anxious individuals seem to have more difficulty with the procrastination bug than others.
So what to do? Just get started. Don’t think about how much work needs to be done. Emotional pain and discomfort associated with procrastination drop precipitously after an action is taken.
5 – DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS
The era we’re now living in is the most distracted in human history. One massive reason for this is the sheer ubiquity of mobile devices.
The problem is that these distractions are both alluring and addicting. Things like “distracted driving” have become a real thing. Some research shows that our attention span is shrinking as the digital age evolves.
6 – MAKING EXCUSES
Excuses do nothing but disempower you and those around you. While the adage “You’re stronger than you think” may seem overly cliché, it’s nonetheless true.
The cool thing is that once you stop making excuses, you realize how much happier you feel. It feels as if you’re retaking control of your life, which you are.
7 – WATCHING T.V.
The amount of television that people watch is insane.
Per a Nielsen report, the average American spends about 35.5 hours watching the tube. The problem with this isn’t so much the activity in itself – but the opportunity cost.
That is, those hours you could use say exercising, building a business plan, spending time with the family, and other more meaningful things.
8 – PERFECTIONISM
Speaking of procrastination, one of the more common reasons that people put things off is fear – and this includes fear born of perfectionism. For the uninitiated, perfectionism is the unhealthy striving for, well, perfection.
Not only is perfectionism unrealistic, but it’s also unhealthy. Perfectionistic tendencies are connected to multiple clinical issues, including anxiety and depression, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
9 – SUGAR
Okay, so it may be very difficult – perhaps even impossible – to completely abstain from sugar. However, one would be well-advised to curb any intake. Per an article published by Harvard University’s health publication, “The effects of added sugar intake – higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease – are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.”
10 – OVERSPENDING
Psychologists and other behavioral experts have thoroughly debunked the idea that money can buy happiness. So why do we keep spending too much? It’s all psychological. To overcome the habit requires diligence, patience, and discipline.
The cool thing is that once the seed habit of saving is planted, people find that they enjoy it.
11 – MIND-WANDERING OR RUMINATION
Rehashing what “could’ve/would’ve/should’ve been” is a complete waste of time. Unfortunately, the human brain is uniquely wired for pointless thinking. According to a widely-cited study by Harvard researchers Gilbert and Killingsworth, our minds drift about in aimless thinking about half of our waking hours.
Unsurprisingly, this constant turning over of the mind is not conducive to becoming happier. The conclusions reached by Gilbert and Killingsworth: “(I) people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is…(ii) doing so typically makes them unhappy.”
12 – COMPARING YOURSELF
We have an unhealthy obsession with comparing ourselves with others. Such is particularly true in consumer-driven societies like the United States, where possessions and status are so coveted.
But comparing yourself to people does nothing but make us feel worse. It’s not easy to stop such an ingrained response, but we can take a step in the right direction by intentionally redirecting our focus when such thoughts arise.
13 – NOT FINISHING THINGS
We do enough things. So, this one’s not that bad, except that leaving things undone creates unnecessary mental tension and, studies show, drains our cognitive reserves.
The answer lies in a two-step process: (1) determining which endeavors are indeed worth committing to, and (2) avoiding everything else.
14 – NO OR TOO MUCH ALONE TIME
Neither too much nor too little seclusion is healthy. While we introverts may treasure our solo status, it doesn’t change the biological evolution of our brains.
On the flip side, while extroverts may despise being by themselves, such time is crucial for reflection and rejuvenation.
15 – THE MAINSTREAM NEWS
Okay, so perhaps doing away all news is unpractical – perhaps even unadvisable. But you should know that the unfortunate adage that “Bad news sells” is (a) true, and (b) media companies leverage this fact. This helps to explain why most of the news we read elicits feelings of fear and sadness.
So, don’t entirely ignore the news (though you could do worse), but watch how much attention you’re paying to it.
16 – NEGATIVITY
First off, we’re not telling you to ignore every instance of negativity, though limiting it is most certainly beneficial to your mental wellbeing. Everyone feels a bit negative from time to time.
We’re talking about limiting your exposure to consistently negative people. Sure, there are those rays of sunshine who can handle the negativity, though they’re few and far between. The rest of us need to watch how much time we’re spending amidst these folks to become happier.
17 – SHALLOW WORK
The term “shallow work” was coined by MIT-trained computer scientist and professor, Cal Newport. Instead of defining shallow work, let us note its opposite – what Newport calls (naturally) “Deep Work.”
Per Newport, Deep Work describes “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
Why engage in deep work? Because it “[creates] new value, [improves] your skill,” and, perhaps most importantly, “are hard to replicate.” Read: you’ll make more money and live happier.
18 – INCONSISTENCY
Being inconsistent in your efforts is detrimental to the achievement of the life you desire. It does little good to be filled with motivation and drive one day and then drift back into the same ole’ bad habits the next.
Inconsistency is often the byproduct of poor planning. As such, it is crucial to have a plan going into the day.
19 – SOCIAL MEDIA
Let’s bring Cal Newport back into the story. Besides being a big fan of sustained attention, Newport is a digital minimalist. In other words, he’s Facebook’s and Twitter’s worst nightmare. In one talk, he rails against the former, calling the social media platform an “entertainment product” – and, essentially, a colossal waste of time.
The fact that the average person spends 2.5 hours per day on social media does little to counter Newport’s argument.
20 – TAKING THINGS TOO SERIOUSLY
Here’s an exciting experiment: go anywhere you want, sit down with a beverage of your choice, and observe people for one hour. Watch closely. (Not too closely, lest an officer of the law intervenes.)
All joking aside: what do you see? Are people rushing around? Scrunched-up faces and tight shoulders? A seeming lack of purpose or direction?
This is how most people live their lives. Some people never stop living this way from the time they’re told to “grow up.”
Cliché time! Life is too short to take things so darn seriously. Let’s loosen up and be happier!
This gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.
Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren’t in top shape or the best of health.
In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, you go without pausing through a series of motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” — or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention — as in some kinds of meditation — on your bodily sensations. Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.
Tai chi movement
A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age. An adjunct therapy is one that’s used together with primary medical treatments, either to address a disease itself or its primary symptoms, or, more generally, to improve a patient’s functioning and quality of life.
You don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about tai chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits, but these concepts can help make sense of its approach:
Qi — an energy force thought to flow through the body; tai chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of qi.
Yin and yang — opposing elements thought to make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Tai chi is said to promote this balance.
Tai chi in motion
A tai chi class might include these parts:
Warm-up. Easy motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth, help you to loosen your muscles and joints and focus on your breath and body.
Instruction and practice of tai chi forms. Short forms — forms are sets of movements — may include a dozen or fewer movements; long forms may include hundreds. Different styles require smaller or larger movements. A short form with smaller, slower movements is usually recommended at the beginning, especially if you’re older or not in good condition.
Qigong (or chi kung). Translated as “breath work” or “energy work,” this consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy. Qigong may be practiced standing, sitting, or lying down.
The benefits of tai chi are generally greatest if you begin before you develop a chronic illness or functional limitations. Tai chi is very safe, and no fancy equipment is needed, so it’s easy to get started. Here’s some advice for doing so:
Don’t be intimidated by the language. Names like Yang, Wu, and Cheng are given to various branches of tai chi, in honor of people who devised the sets of movements called forms. Certain programs emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi rather than its potential for healing and stress reduction. In some forms, you learn long sequences of movements, while others involve shorter series and more focus on breathing and meditation. The name is less important than finding an approach that matches your interests and needs.
Check with your doctor. If you have a limiting musculoskeletal problem or medical condition — or if you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded — check with your doctor before starting tai chi. Given its excellent safety record, chances are that you’ll be encouraged to try it.
Consider observing and taking a class. Taking a class may be the best way to learn tai chi. Seeing a teacher in action, getting feedback, and experiencing the camaraderie of a group are all pluses. Most teachers will let you observe the class first to see if you feel comfortable with the approach and atmosphere. Instruction can be individualized. Ask about classes at your local Y, senior center, or community education center.
If you’d rather learn at home, you can buy or rent videos geared to your interests and fitness needs (see “Selected resources”). Although there are some excellent tai chi books, it can be difficult to appreciate the flow of movements from still photos or illustrations.
Talk to the instructor. There’s no standard training or licensing for tai chi instructors, so you’ll need to rely on recommendations from friends or clinicians and, of course, your own judgment. Look for an experienced teacher who will accommodate individual health concerns or levels of coordination and fitness.
Dress comfortably. Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice barefoot or in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. Tai chi shoes are available, but ones you find in your closet will probably work fine. You’ll need shoes that won’t slip and can provide enough support to help you balance, but have soles thin enough to allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes, designed to propel you forward, are usually unsuitable.
Gauge your progress. Most beginning programs and tai chi interventions tested in medical research last at least 12 weeks, with instruction once or twice a week and practice at home. By the end of that time, you should know whether you enjoy tai chi, and you may already notice positive physical and psychological changes.
No pain, big gains
Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence:
Muscle strength. Tai chi can improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking.
Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body. Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.
Flexibility. Tai chi can boost upper- and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.
Balance. Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.
Aerobic conditioning. Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits. If your clinician advises a more intense cardio workout with a higher heart rate than tai chi can offer, you may need something more aerobic as well.
Tai chi is a form of exercise that began as a Chinese tradition. It’s based in martial arts, and involves slow movements and deep breaths. Tai chi has many physical and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits of tai chi include decreased anxiety and depression and improvements in cognition. It may also help you manage symptoms of some chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
1. Reduces stress
One of the main benefits of tai chi is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, though most evidence is anecdotal.
In 2018, one study compared the effects of tai chi on stress-related anxiety to traditional exercise. The study included 50 participants. The researchers found that tai chi provided the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. Because tai chi also includes meditation and focused breathing, the researchers noted that tai chi may be superior to other forms of exercise for reducing stress and anxiety. However, a larger-scale study is needed.
Tai chi is very accessible and lower impact than many other forms of exercise. The researchers found it to be safe and inexpensive, so it may be a good option if you are otherwise healthy and experiencing stress-related anxiety.
2. Improves mood
Tai chi may help improve your mood if you are depressed or anxious. Preliminary research suggests that regularly practicing tai chi can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s believed that the slow, mindful breaths and movements have a positive effect on the nervous system and mood-regulating hormones. Further research is being done to establish a clear link between tai chi and improved mood.
3. Better sleep
Regularly practicing tai chi may help you to have more restful sleep.
One study followed young adults with anxiety after they were prescribed two tai chi classes each week, for 10 weeks. Based on participant reporting, the individuals who practiced tai chi experienced significant improvements in their quality of sleep compared to those in the control group. This same group also experienced a decrease in their anxiety symptoms.
Tai chi can improve sleep for older adults, too. In a study published in 2016, researchers found that two months of twice-weekly tai chi classes was associated with better sleep in older adults with cognitive impairment.
4. Promotes weight loss
Regularly practicing tai chi can result in weight loss. One study tracked changes in weight in a group of adults practicing tai chi five times a week for 45 minutes. At the end of the 12 weeks, these adults lost a little over a pound without making any additional lifestyle changes.
5. Improves cognition in older adults
Tai chi may improve cognition in older adults with cognitive impairment. More specifically, tai chi may help improve memory and executive functioning skills like paying attention and carrying out complex tasks.
6. Reduces risk of falling in older adults
Tai chi can help improve balance and motor function, and reduce fear of falling in older adults. It can also reduce actual falls after 8 weeks of practice, and significantly reduce falls after 16 weeks of practice. Because fear of falling can reduce independence and quality of life, and falls can lead to serious complications, tai chi may offer the additional benefit of improving quality of life and general well-being in older adults.
7. Improves fibromyalgia symptoms
Tai chi may compliment traditional methods for management of certain chronic diseases.
Results from a 2018 study showed that a consistent tai chi practice can decrease the symptoms of fibromyalgia in some people. Participants in the study who practiced tai chi for 52 weeks exhibited greater improvements in their fibromyalgia-related symptoms when compared to participants practicing aerobics. Learn about other alternative treatments for fibromyalgia symptoms.
8. Improves COPD symptoms
Tai chi may improve some of the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In one study, people with COPD practiced tai chi for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, they have improvements in their ability to exercise and reported an overall improvement in their quality of life.
9. Improves balance and strength in people with Parkinson’s
In a randomized, controlled trial of 195 participants, regular practice of tai chi was found to decrease the number of falls in people with Parkinson’s disease. Tai chi can also help you to increase leg strength and overall balance.
10. Safe for people with coronary heart disease
Tai chi is a safe form of moderate exercise you can try if you have coronary heart disease. Following a cardiovascular event, regular tai chi practices may help you:
increase physical activity
improve your quality of life
11. Reduces pain from arthritis
In a small-scale 2010 study, 15 participants with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) practiced tai chi for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the participants reported less pain and improved mobility and balance.
A larger, earlier study found similar results in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA). In this study, 40 participants with knee OA practiced 60 minutes of tai chi, two times a week for 12 weeks. Following the study, participants reported a reduction in pain and an improvement in mobility and quality of life.
When compared to physical therapy, tai chi has also been found to be as effective in the treatment of knee OA.
Always talk to your doctor before starting tai chi if you have arthritis. You may need to do modified versions of some of the movements.
Is tai chi safe?
Tai chi is generally considered to be a safe exercise with few side effects. You may experience some aches or pains after practicing tai chi if you’re a beginner. More rigorous forms of tai chi and improper practice of tai chi are associated with increased risk of injury to joints. Especially if you’re new to tai chi, consider attending a class or working with an instructor to reduce your risk of injury.
If you’re pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise program.
How to start tai chi
Tai chi focuses on proper posture and exact movements, something that is difficult to learn on your own. If you’re new to tai chi, take a class or get an instructor.
Tai chi is taught in studios all over the United States and other countries. Larger gyms, like the YMCA, sometimes offer tai chi classes as well.
Choosing a tai chi style
There are five different styles of tai chi, and each style can be modified to suit your goals and personal fitness level. All styles of tai chi incorporate continuous movement from one pose to the next.
Yang style tai chi focuses on slow, graceful movements and relaxation. Yang style is a good starting point for beginners.
Wu style tai chi places an emphasis on micro-movements. This style of tai chi is practiced very slowly.
Chen style tai chi uses both slow and fast movements. This style of tai chi might be difficult for you if you’re new to the practice.
Sun style tai chi shares a lot of similarities with Chen style. Sun style involves less crouching, kicking, and punching, making it less physically demanding.
Hao style tai chi is a lesser-known and rarely practiced style. This style of tai chi is defined by a focus on accurate position and internal strength.
How does tai chi differ from yoga?
Tai chi emphasizes fluid movement and has roots in Chinese culture. Yoga focuses on posing and originated in Northern India.
Both tai chi and yoga are forms of exercise that involve meditation and deep breathing, and they have similar benefits, such as:
Tai chi is an exercise that can benefit both healthy adults and adults living with a chronic condition.
The benefits of tai chi include:
management of chronic conditions
If you’re interested in trying tai chi, an instructor can help you get started. Classes are offered in specialized studios, community centers, and gyms.
Do you find that food deeply affects your mood? Science is beginning to back up such gut feelings.
The link between poor diet and mood disorders has been long known, but what has been less clear is the direction of causality. When we’re depressed, we tend to reach for lower-quality comfort foods, but can more comfort foods contribute to depression? And if we’re depressed, can improving our diets improve our symptoms?
New research is helping to pave the way toward greater clarity. One small but important trial was recently published from Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre (the center’s very name a testament this burgeoning line of research). It involved men and women who were taking antidepressants and/or were in regular psychotherapy.
All of the 67 subjects had unhealthy diets at the start, with low intakes of fruits and vegetables, little daily dietary fiber and lots of sweets, processed meats and salty snacks. Half of the subjects were then placed on a healthy diet focusing on extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, eggs, fruits, vegetables, fatty fish and grass-fed beef. The other half continued eating their usual diets and were required to attend social support sessions.
Before and after the three-month study, the subjects’ symptoms were graded on a common depression scale. After three months of healthier eating, those in the intervention group saw their scores improve on average by about 11 points. Thirty-two percent had achieved scores so low that they no longer met criteria for depression. Meanwhile, people in the social support group with no dietary intervention improved by only about 4 points; only 8% achieved remission.
What this early research demonstrates is that even for patients with major depression, food may be a powerful antidepressant. And with no negative side effects.
One way a healthier diet may improve one’s mood is through our bodies’ immune systems. The same process by which we respond to acute injuries or threats also puts out fires initiated by our diets and lifestyles. That’s why poor diet can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation, a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease. These sorts of illnesses now account for 60% of deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Though the mechanisms linking inflammation to depression are just beginning to be understood, other studies involving compounds with a known anti-inflammatory effect, such as curcumin (a component of the spice turmeric), have also demonstrated some efficacy in reducing symptoms. Though the studies are small and warrant further research, they strengthen the notion that depression may be the brain’s response to inflammation in the body, at least for some.
Whole, healthy foods also provide micronutrients that help the brain better cope with daily stress. Today, with 90% of Americans deficient in at least one vitamin or mineral, it has left our brains weaponless as it attempts to repair from the damage. Case in point: Nearly 50% of Americans don’t consume enough magnesium, a mineral involved in DNA repair. And yet it is easily found in foods such as almonds, spinach and avocado.
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, eggs and even properly raised red meat. A large study found that women who consumed less than three to four servings of red meat per week were twice as likely to have a diagnosed depressive or anxiety disorder. The study was performed in Australia, where more of their meat comes from grass-fed cows, a caveat the researchers call out as noteworthy.
What foods should we avoid consuming to maintain a healthy, balanced mood? Sugar and highly refined, processed oils, which include canola, corn and soybean oil (the use of which has skyrocketed up to 1,000% over the past century). These foods have been linked to mental health issues including depression, and both now saturate our food supply, constituting in large part the ultra-processed foods that now make up 60% of our caloric intake. These foods, when consumed chronically, drive inflammation and deplete our bodies’ protective resources, compounding the damage done.
Although the science regarding diet and mood has a long way to go before being settled, there’s little reason to wait given that switching to a healthier diet may help and is definitively better for your overall health. Research suggests that a better diet may even be easier on your wallet.
Max Lugavere is a health and science journalist and the author of “Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life.”