Laurann O'Reilly: Eating for Anxiety – Nutrition and Lifestyle Strategies

Laurann's column in this week's Nationalist

Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

In the fast paced and often challenging world that we live in, it’s important to build healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses that we face and a recent study in the Irish Medical Journal found a huge increase in anxiety disorders both in adults and children.

Read also: Reasons to avoid eating late at night - Laurann O'Reilly's tips

The past couple of years have definitely thrown a few curveballs with many having to adjust to working and studying from home, frontline workers dealing with busy hospital wards and some having to deal with loss during a pandemic.

As the world begins to open up again it’s also important to prepare for the new changes and potential challenges that life brings.

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, brings us through some key nutrition and lifestyle strategies or her ‘toolbox’ which will equip you for dealing with anxiety and stress.

1) The Importance of Routine: I probably sound like a broken record at this stage, but I can’t emphasise enough the importance of establishing a routine for your body.

For those who have a huge amount of stress in their lives and anyone who suffers from anxiety, getting into the routine of sleeping, waking and eating at the same times each day can help the body synchronise. It also helps to ensure that you don’t miss important meals.

2) Self Talk: We can often be hard on ourselves. Remember you are human and doing the best you can at any given time. Psychologist Maureen Gaffney discusses how for every negative comment we make (to ourselves and others) it takes three positives to counteract it, so remember to be kind to yourself.

3) Self-Care: During times of stress it’s important to be kind to yourself and to your body. Remember, you can’t fill from an empty cup. Tip: I mentioned the importance of a sleep and eating schedule but it’s important to make time for yourself too. Whether it’s a walk, meeting up with a friend, meditation, a workout or a 5-minute breather.

4) Exercise: Not only is exercise a great way of clearing the head and relieving stress it can also help to release valuable endorphins or ‘happy hormones’ which lift our mood, whether it’s a walk, run, cycle, swim or a more gentler form or exercise. Tip: Why not explore and find which one or combination suits you and add it/them to your daily routine.

5) Sleep: Many of us sacrifice sleep and burn the candle at both ends as a means of staying on top of our busy lives. Remember food is our fuel and sleep is our battery, it’s important to get a good night sleep to repair and recharge. I’ll be discussing sleep in more detail in a couple of weeks so be sure to stay tuned.

6) Talk: It’s so important to talk, the smallest stress when bottled up can become the biggest problem and you’ll often find when you’ve said it out loud it’s not as bad as you think it is. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know there are plenty of confidential helplines (in Ireland call Samaritans on 116 123 or Aware on 1800 80 48 48) for full support.

7) Nourish The Body: We’re all aware at this stage that we get our energy from food. But it’s important that the food we consume is also nutritious and provides us with sustainable energy which can help us manage stress, repair our bodies and keep our immune systems strong. I always say “every meal is an opportunity to nourish”.

- Carbohydrates: Are our main source of energy but it’s about choosing the correct types.

1) Avoid High Sugar Foods: These contain empty calories with little or no nutritional value. These include sugary treats, white breads, white pasta and sugar sweetened beverages - these can cause our blood sugars to crash and lead to sugar cravings.

2) Include Low Sugar & High Fibre Foods: These foods include brown and wholegrain foods such as wholegrain/brown bread, pasta and rice which slowly release sugar into our bloodstream and keep our energy sustained for longer (this is particularly important for any diabetics too and a key to stabilising blood sugar levels).

- Protein: Just like we need our carbohydrates for energy we need a variety of good quality protein for recovery and repair. In fact, virtually every cell in the body is made up of different protein combinations such as muscles, hair, skin and bones at a basic level and hormonal function, immune health, metabolism and oxygen transport to name a few.

Tip: The key here is to get a wide variety of protein to meet all the different functions. Animal Based Sources: Include lean meat, turkey, chicken, oily fish, dairy products, cheese as well as eggs (one of the most bioavailable sources of protein).

Plant Based Sources: Include lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, rice, oats, soy products and Quorn.

- Healthy Fats: Again, we need some fats in our diet to absorb our fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E & K.

Tip: Include nutritious fats in your diet such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, grains, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocados.

These nutritious fats are not only great for hair, skin and nails (which often suffer with stress) but also circulation, concentration and joint health, an allrounder for supporting your health.

- Load Up On The Fruit & Veggies: We can often underestimate the importance of fruit and vegetables in our diets. They contain valuable and essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) as well as antioxidants which protect our cells against damage as well as helping to keep our immune systems strong, which is particularly important during times of stress.

Tip: Try to squeeze fruit and vegetables into every meal including your snacks for example fruit with your cereal and yogurts and veggie sticks and hummus for snacks.

8) Nutrition Supplements: There may be times where our diet may be lacking or we’re feeling a little more challenged and nutrition supplements may be required to support us.

- B Vitamin Complex: The B Vitamins play an important role in the production of energy in our body as well as maintaining a healthy nervous system. They’ve also been shown to improve memory and concentration! Tip: Dietary sources of our B Vitamins can be found in meat (especially liver), seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes, leafy greens, seeds and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. Recommendation: I like the Solgar Vitamin B Complex, however your pharmacist can help you choose the best version for you.

- Vitamin D: As our bodies produce vitamin D from sunlight, our levels of this vitamin can seriously decrease during the dark winter months.

It has also been suggested that this drop in vitamin D may be linked to ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ or SAD, a mood disorder which is also common in individuals during this time. This is because vitamin D is involved in regulating the production of serotonin.

The Irish TILDA study also found that individuals over the age of 50 years are 75% more likely to experience depression if their Vitamin D levels are low.

Recommendation: The current recommendation based on Oireachtas report released earlier this year is that the entire Irish Adult population should take a supplement of 20-25 Ug/day or 800-1000 IU/day, whilst children should take 10Ug or 400IU/day

- Magnesium: Can play a major role in combating stress. Many of us underestimate the importance of this essential nutrient.

It plays an important role in energy metabolism and has also been nicknamed ‘the chill pill’ or ‘nature’s natural sedative’ as it’s been shown to help with anxiety, depression, irritability, headaches, sleeping issues and muscle cramps to name a few.

Tip: Dietary sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Recommendation: Magnesium can also be purchased in supplement form in your local pharmacy or health store. I like both the Pharma Nord BioActive Magnesium and the Terra Nova Magnesium Complex

- CoQ10: If you’re feeling stressed and low in energy this can give you a helping hand. CoQ10 is something we make within our bodies which plays an essential role in converting our food energy (calories) into energy our body can use (ATP), without this we can’t make energy, so it’s kind of important.

Unfortunately, our production of CoQ10 reduces as we get older resulting in a reduced metabolism (making of energy) and increased fatigue. It’s also a powerful antioxidant which can help to protect our cells from oxidative damage.

Recommendation: I like The Pharma Nord CoQ10 due to its great absorption levels.

- L-Theanine: This unique amino acid (protein building block) which can be found in green tea. It helps to support mental calmness by increasing dopamine and GABA in the brain.

It also assists the alpha brainwaves associated with relaxation and may help to reduce anxiety.
Recommendation: L-Theanine is also available in supplement form, I like the Solgar L-Theanine which is available in some pharmacies and health stores.

- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An important nutrient for those who deal with anxiety and stress as it can help to nourish the brain and nervous system.

Recommendation: According to the INDI the recommendation for adults is 250-500mg per day of pure omega 3 (unless instructed otherwise by your GP or health professional).

Food Sources: Oily fish (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines), nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts) and plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and rapeseed oil).

Supplement Sources: Omega 3 can be found in fish oil supplements or plant-based omega 3 supplements which can be found in your local pharmacy or health store.

For further information contact Laurann at or see 
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.

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