Food

6 Ways Your Diet Can Help Combat Post-Trump Stress Disorder

A healthy, balanced diet can help alleviate post-election anxiety.

President Barack Obama toasts a glass of beer to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, in Krun, Germany, Sunday, June 7, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama toasts a glass of beer to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany (Pete Souza/WhiteHouse.gov)

In her recent article, "American Women Are Suffering from Trump Traumatic Stress Disorder," Sarah Jones, the publisher of PoliticusUSA, described the negative impact Trump’s victory has had on the gastrointestinal tracts of female voters:

At first I thought it was just me. But then all of my friends told me they too were unable to stop crying and in between crying, were throwing up or so nauseated they couldn’t eat. … I can’t think of another politician who has evoked such an immediate, visceral reaction so consistently. It’s about kicking women in the guts ... Women are literally sobbing, vomiting and unable to sleep.

In the days leading up to the election, Jessica Chastain felt sick to her stomach. The actress, who plays a high-powered Washington lobbyist in the new film Miss Sloane, told TheWrap she "can barely function." She said, "I'm so depressed....As a woman, it's just shocking to me to read statistics that say 70 percent of uneducated white men are voting a certain way. It feels like such a punch in the gut."

But it's not just women who have suffering from Trump-related belly pain. As political analyst Bill Scher wrote on RealClearPolitics on November 7, "No matter what happens on Election Day, tens of millions of Americans are going feel like they got punched in the gut." Even President Obama was described by Politico as "reeling from gut punch of Trump win."

As the reality of President-elect Trump sinks in, Americans and non-Americans alike may have a hard time getting their normal appetites back—even for the long haul. That mental and emotional anxiety has a strong relationship to digestive health.

The connection between gut and brain has been well established. Specifically, the so-called gut-brain axis refers to the biochemical communication pathways that connect the central nervous system to the gastrointestinal tract, and particularly, the microorganisms that live in our stomachs.

Anthony L. Komaroff, a physician and editor-in-chief of Harvard Medical School's Health Letter, notes that "gut-wrenching" experiences and situations that make you "feel nauseous" are evidence that "anger, anxiety, sadness ... can trigger symptoms in the gut." He adds, "Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, make inflammation worse, or perhaps make you more susceptible to infection."

Stress- and anxiety-induced gut pain can make normal, daily activities—particularly eating—difficult. So what can be done? Komaroff points out that therapy to treat anxiety or depression may help patients who suffer from digestive pain. Conversely, improving one's diet may have a positive impact on one's state of mind.

"There aren't any diet changes that can cure anxiety, but watching what you eat may help," says Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic.

If you're feeling Trump-related anxiety, here are six ways your diet can help combat the post-election blues.

1. Get your B vitamins.

B vitamins play key roles in cell metabolism, helping the body convert food (in the form of carbohydrates) into energy (in the form of glucose). They also help manage amino acids, synthesize fatty acids and repair DNA. In particular, vitamins B6, B9 and B12 play critical roles in neurological health, including affecting mood.

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, helps the body produce the mood-influencing neurotransmitters serotonin (the so-called "happy hormone," which is found primarily in the gastrointestinal tract) and norepinephrine. Research has shown that low levels of B6 are associated with symptoms of depression. B6 also helps produce melatonin, which helps regulate the body's circadian rhythm. Studies indicate that the circadian rhythms of people suffering from clinical depression have been disrupted across brain regions.

Sources of vitamin B6 include fish, beef liver and other organ meats. For plant-based sources, seek out non-citrus fruits like bananas and starchy vegetables like chickpeas and potatoes.

Research has also demonstrated a link between low levels of vitamin B9, or folate, and depression. "Some studies show that 15 to 38 percent of people with depression have low folate levels in their bodies, and those with very low levels tend to be the most depressed," according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Thankfully, folate occurs naturally in a wide variety of vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens. Other plants with high levels of folate include asparagus, avocado, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, okra and peas.

Vitamin B12 helps the body produce red blood cells and build DNA. B12 deficiency is common among the general population. "Some people don’t consume enough vitamin B12 to meet their needs, while others can’t absorb enough, no matter how much they take in," writes Patrick J. Skerrett, former executive editor of Harvard Health. "As a result, vitamin B12 deficiency is relatively common, especially among older people." The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that 3.2 percent of adults over age 50 have a seriously low B12 level, and a surprising one in five may have a borderline deficiency The report states that "a severe vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to deep depression."

This is where vegans need to be careful. While there are ample amounts of vitamin B12 in animal products like lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs, plant-based sources are few. "The only reliable vegan sources of B12," writes Stephen Walsh, a trustee of the U.K.-based Vegan Society, "are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements."

2. Choose complex carbohydrates.

Scientists believe complex carbohydrates may help stimulate the brain's production of serotonin. Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that carbohydrate consumption "increases serotonin release; protein intake lacks this effect."

For the best mood-lifting carbohydrates, choose whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread and avoid processed carbs like white bread, white rice and sugar. Processed carbs are quickly processed by the body, which gives a quick energy boost, but is often followed by a quick drop in blood sugar, which brings on a sluggish feeling that can lead to depression.

"Carbohydrates are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect," says Dr. Hall-Flavin.

But managing your intake of complex carbs can be tricky, as the properties of serotonin impact people differently. Some people may feel a mood boost after eating complex carbs; others may get sleepy.

"Since each of us is unique, in order to get a 'desired effect' from food, you would need to experiment eating different foods and observing how your body reacts to each of them," according to the Go Ask Alice team of health professionals at Columbia University. "You'll also need to take into consideration your other lifestyle choices—how much sleep you get, whether or not you exercise regularly, the medications you take, your stress levels, etc.—when figuring out what affects your moods in what manners."

Before loading up on carbs, be sure to check with your doctor, as it can be a slippery slope, particularly with simple carbs. The MIT researchers warn that "many patients learn to overeat carbohydrates (particularly snack foods, like potato chips or pastries, which are rich in carbohydrates and fats) to make themselves feel better. This tendency to use certain foods as though they were drugs is a frequent cause of weight gain, and can also be seen in patients who become fat when exposed to stress, or in women with premenstrual syndrome, or in patients with 'winter depression,' or in people who are attempting to give up smoking."

3. Consume protein.

While protein may not increase the your body's production of serotonin, the brain uses protein to produce two key mood-affecting neurotransmitters: norepinephrine and dopamine (the latter is known as the "feel-good" hormone). But protein isn’t important just to feel good; not having enough of it can make you feel sad.

"Amino acids—the building blocks of protein—help your brain properly function," says Therese Borchard, founder of Project Beyond Blue, an online community for people with chronic depression and anxiety. "A deficiency in amino acids may cause you to feel sluggish, foggy, unfocused and depressed."

Healthy sources of protein include lean meats, fish, eggs and dairy. Vegans can get all the protein they need from plant-based sources like beans, nuts, seeds and quinoa. Also, soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh and edamame contain a complete protein profile that includes all amino acids.

"The ideal for mood-boosting is to combine complex carbohydrates and protein, and to spread your meals throughout the day," says nutritionist Manuel Villacorta, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

4. Eat foods containing tryptophan.

Tryptophan, a natural amino acid that the body uses to synthesize protein, can help alleviate stress because it helps the brain produce serotonin. 

According to Psychology Today:

Tryptophan achieves its effects by way of serotonin, one of the key brain chemicals involved in regulating mood. Among other functions, serotonin promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness. Lack of serotonin is associated with depression....Because the body can't make its own tryptophan, it must be taken in as part of the diet; for this reason tryptophan is known as an "essential" amino acid.

It's widely known that turkey contains a high amount of tryptophan. Other sources include chicken, beef and salmon. But in fact, several plant-based foods have a higher tryptophan content than these animal-based sources, including sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raw soybeans and dried spirulina.

4. Avoid or reduce consumption of caffeine.

There is overwhelming evidence that caffeine causes and worsens anxiety. And this psychoactive drug does it in many ways, from increasing stress hormones and depleting nutrients to lowering the production of neurotransmitters and reducing blood flow to the brain.

In 2001, according to the National Coffee Association, occasional coffee consumption rose 6 percent. "At the same time," notes WebMD, "panic and other anxiety disorders have become the most common mental illnesses in the United States."

The problem with caffeinated drinks like coffee or tea is that people don't generally regard them as substances that can have serious effects on brain chemistry. "Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world," says Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "People often see coffee, tea, and soft drinks simply as beverages rather than vehicles for a psychoactive drug. But caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders."

5. Steer clear of alcohol.

While the Trumpian gut-punch may have led many people to drink more alcohol, that may not be a good idea if you want to avoid anxiety. Since alcohol is a sedative, drinking a small amount of alcohol can reduce stress. But it is also a depressant, so too much of it can lead to anxiety and even panic attacks.

"Drinking will only make depression worse," according to WebMD. "People who are depressed and drink too much have more frequent and severe episodes of depression, and are more likely to think about suicide. Heavy alcohol use also can make antidepressants less effective."

For those who have a problem with alcohol, the impact can be worse. "A history of heavy alcohol abuse could impair a critical mechanism for recovering from a trauma, and in doing so put people at greater risk for PTSD," says Andrew Holmes of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and senior author of a 2012 study that suggests heavy drinking can increase one’s susceptibility to anxiety.

6. Stay away from junk foods.

There appears to be a link between poor mental health and processed foods like chips, bacon, sausage, breakfast cereals and cheese. A 2009 study by researchers at the University College London found that people with a diet high in processed food—such as foods high in sugars and refined flours—had a 58 percent higher chance of depression that those who ate very few processed foods. The researchers found that people who ate the most whole foods had a 26 percent lower risk of future depression than those who ate the least whole foods. Study author Archana Singh-Manoux pointed out that "a Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of depression."

"Processed junk foods, particularly those high in refined flours and sugars, feed (almost exclusively) the harmful, abnormal bacteria and microbes in our gut," notes Kristen Michaelis, a nutrition educator. "A diet rich in these staples of industrial food will allow these abnormal microbes to thrive, weakening the population of healthy, beneficial bacteria, and leading to an imbalance of gut flora."

Bottom line: Eat a healthy, balanced diet

There is overwhelming evidence that healthy, nutritious foods can help maintain mental and psychological health. But there's no one-fits-all solution. And remember to check with your doctor when considering a major change in your diet.

"Although no single nutrient or eating plan can cure depression, good overall nutrition is essential for your mental well-being," says dietician Natalie Butler, a medical reviewer at Healthline Media. "Eating foods that are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, protein and fatty acids is key to keeping your brain in good working order."

It might also help alleviate the new PTSD, post-Trump stress disorder.

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