Nutrition And Lifestyle Hacks To Help You Feel Calmer In The New Year

For 2024, according to the Forbes Health/OnePoll survey of 1000 Americans polled about their attitudes towards new year’s resolutions, mental health was a bigger focus than in years past. The most popular goals for 2024 were found to be:

  • Improved fitness (48%)
  • Improved finances (38%)
  • Improved mental health (36%)
  • Lose weight (34%)
  • Improved diet (32%)

Less popular but still noteworthy were traveling more (6%), meditating regularly (5%), drinking less alcohol (3%) and performing better at work (3%).

There is a lot of common ground between these goals, and what can help support one goal can benefit others as well. For example, if you want to feel calmer and less anxious in the new year, making specific changes to your diet and exercise routine and using the right tools to track your progress and stay on top of screenings can improve your mental wellbeing. Here’s what health experts want you to know.

Eat to calm anxiety

Dr. Uma Naidoo is a leading expert in nutritional psychiatry and the bestselling author of This Is Your Brain On Food. Her new book, Calm Your Mind with Food, focuses specifically on using nutritional approaches to manage anxiety.

The gut-brain connection plays a big role in anxiety management. She says, “The gut and the brain are connected from before we’re born because these organs arise from the exact same cells in the human embryo. In anxiety, we need to understand that these gut microbes are important.” She highlights specific foods for anxiety management as well as the effects of the breakdown products that are formed when we eat those healthy foods. “These breakdown products interact with the microbes and some of those steps of breakdown then impact even the building up of certain neurotransmitters,such as serotonin and dopamine.”

She adds, “We already know that much of the serotonin and the receptors for serotonin are produced in the gut, and we know that serotonin is not always readily available for the brain, but the precursors to the neurotransmitters we need are. Those precursors can come from food and then those precursors can interact with the microbes.”

Some of the best ways to nourish gut health through food include:

  • Eating plenty of fiber from foods like whole grains, legumes nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables
  • Consuming probiotics and prebiotics. Fermented foods that provide probiotic bacteria are best consumed with foods that provide prebiotic fibers (such as apples, artichokes, unripe banana, garlic, leeks, oats, and onions, to name a few) which act as fuel for those probiotics to help them thrive. Supplements are also available.
  • Eating food sources of antioxidants
  • Drinking adequate fluid to keep everything moving through the GI tract
  • Limiting foods that may have a negative impact on gastrointestinal health, such as ultra-processed foods, artificial sweeteners, and excessive amounts of added sugar

You may have heard that inflammation is another contributor to mental health issues. While inflammation has a biological function, Dr. Naidoo explains, such as responding to and healing an injury (like when you scrape your knee or twist your ankle), the type of inflammation discussed in nutritional psychiatry is “the chronic insidious inflammation that in this case comes on with poor lifestyle, which includes poor nutrition, where you’re just not eating the right things. If you are mostly subsisting on fast food and processed foods and not enough of foods that help fight that inflammation, through the gut-brain connection, it sets your body and brain up for inflammation.”

That doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire paycheck on high-end organic groceries, however. Some of Dr. Naidoo’s favorite brain-healthy foods like turmeric, cruciferous vegetables, oily fish like salmon (try frozen or canned if needed), beans, berries (frozen is a wonderful cost-effective option), nuts and seeds, olive oil and eggs can be found almost anywhere at a variety of price points.

Eating balanced meals that provide a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate also helps support a more stable mood because this combination of nutrients promotes stable blood sugar, another key factor in mood. Dr. Naidoo also encourages building a habit of incorporating a wide variety of produce into your meals and snacks.

If you feel you need to make a lot of changes to your diet, consider starting with one or a few small changes to make the process feel more approachable.

Move mindfully

Exercise is one of the best tools we have to support physical and mental health. In addition to supporting cardiovascular health, weight management, disease risk reduction, brain health, and strength, it also has been shown to improve mood, boost self-esteem and alleviate stress. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, and 2 days of muscle strengthening exercise, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

While almost half of Americans ages 18 and over reportedly get enough aerobic exercise, only about a quarter meet the recommendations for both aerobic and strength building exercise. The goods news is that you don’t have to hit the gym for an hour or do tons of intense exercise to reap the health benefits. When deciding what to incorporate into your routine, it’s okay to start small, and keep in mind that the “best” exercise for you is the type (or types) you like and can be consistent with in your everyday life.

While enough exercise is great, too much, especially of very intense exercise, can have negative health consequences. Pay attention to your body. Also, if you notice that you get intense anxiety about missing workouts, it may e a sign to step back.

Foster a healthy relationship with tracking tools

There are more tracking tools like wearables, at-home lab testing kits, and apps than ever before. These can help us set goals and note progress towards those goals. They also help you keep tabs on everyday metrics of health such as sleep, nutritional intake, exercise, menstrual cycles, and more. Thile these devices allow us to capture and track useful data, it’s important to foster a healthy relationship with these tools so they add to your quality of life rather than fuel perfectionism.

Brea Lofton, MS, RDN, is a Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian at Lumen, a device that helps people understand and improve their metabolic flexibility. With Lumen, specifically, one of the primary goals is for users to wake up in a state of fat burn, but Lofton wants people to remember, “throughout the day we should expect a range of results based on activity and what we eat.” For those who get overly hung-up on “wanting the A-plus-plus” and let an unexpected result trash their mindset, she offers a gentle reminder. “We are beautiful, imperfect humans,” and sometimes other factors like sleep, stress, hormone levels, or illness may be playing a role with the information you’re tracking.

She encourages taking that data in context and giving yourself some grace. “With energy levels, activity levels, and nutrition, there are going to be days where you feel like you can do more, days where you have less energy, days where you feel on track with your healthy eating goals.” Using a technology device like Lumen can help you achieve a healthy balance because you’re not just fixating on one thing.”

She adds, “Try to foster a well-rounded, balanced lifestyle throughout the lifespan and use the technology to recognize your progress and accomplishments along the way.”

Some signs that you may have an unhealthy relationship with a tracker include feeling overly effected, emotionally, if you get a reading you don’t feel good about, are overly anxious if you’re unable to use that tracker for a day or a few days, you start to look at your tracker as a boss that causes you extreme stress, it may be time to take a step back.

Stay on top of screenings

There are certain markers of health it’s important to check at regular intervals, and doing so can help alleviate anxiety by giving us a sense of agency over our health. Dr. Taz. Bhatia, a nationally recognized integrative medicine physician and author The Hormone Shift: Thriving Through Midlife and Menopause, says, “Screenings help us to be proactive about our health- and honestly, take ownership of the basic maintenance our bodies’ need. This can alleviate anxiety since we are actively pursuing answers rather than worrying and spinning in our heads.”

While every person is unique and may require specific tests each year or a few times a year, there are some general tests Dr. Taz and other providers recommend getting at least annually. “I think all women should get their hormones checked, paps, breast exams and imaging, eye and hearing exams and cardiac and cholesterol screening—especially if they have a family history—as well as diabetes screening, inflammation assessment and pelvic ultrasounds.”

She also encourages booking as many of these appointments as you can way ahead of time. “That way it’s on the calendar and no one can interrupt- or you are more likely to follow through.” You’re also more likely to get an appointment time you want. Nothing amps up anxiety like having a health concern but not being able to get in to see your provider for weeks or even months from when you call.

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