Feed Yourself Calm: The Role of Nutrition in Your Anxiety – Part Two

This is part two of a two-part series “Feed Yourself Calm”.  Click here to read part one.

Good Nutritional Choices to Consider

With such a wealth of common food items that can potentially worsen your anxiety, shopping for food can be stressful and even frightening. You might become overwhelmed with the simple thought that what you buy at the grocers might be detrimental to your health. There are, however, loads of safe alternatives to food products that negatively affect those suffering from anxiety. In fact, several food products and supplements have been known to reduce symptoms of anxiety and lessen its impact on daily life. With careful planning and a little knowledge, the trip to the grocers might go from dreaded to delightful, offering a chance to care for your health.


The world of science has yet to fully examine the role of supplementation on anxiety, stress, and mood disorders. Because this field of study has only recently acquired the attention of researchers, there exist only few well-accepted and recognized studies on the topic. One exception to this general rule is magnesium, which seems to have received a great deal of attention over the course of the last few decades.

For example, a French study conducted by Dr. Hanus and his colleagues pointed out that consuming magnesium supplements decreased anxiety and its respective effects. A similar Austrian study found that simple magnesium deficiencies induced anxious behavior. There exist countless other studies linking magnesium deficiencies to anxiety.

Interestingly, scientists remain unable to fully explain why magnesium affects anxiety in the way it does. The general consensus is magnesium works well against the condition, but we can’t understand why. We know magnesium plays an important role in biochemical reactions all over the body. It is chiefly involved in cellular transportation and energy production through aerobic or anaerobic means. Murck’s study theorizes that magnesium can suppress the hippocampus, resulting in fewer secretions of two vital stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Whatever the case may be, it appears supplementing magnesium is a good idea for those suffering from chronic anxiety or stress.

Fortunately, increasing the amount of magnesium you consume is relatively is. Rice, wheat, herbs, and oats are all great sources, but often lose much of their magnesium content when processed into food products. Certain seeds, such as those of squash, pumpkin, watermelon, sesame, flax, and sunflower plants also contain high amounts of magnesium. If you like a particular type of seed, you may want to have a small amount on hand for snacking. The same applies for a whole host of nuts and even molasses and chocolate, though the latter should be avoided because of its high sugar content.

L-lysine and L-arginine

Certain types of amino acids, L-lysine and L-arginine, have also been linked to lower levels of anxiety. Long-term anxiety causes many chemical and hormonal imbalances within the human body. According to a Japanese study published in Biomedical Research, these amino acids serve to normalize hormonal stress responses and restore homeostasis to people affected by long term anxiety. The study goes on to conclude that L-lysine and L-arginine could be used as dietary intervention for people suffering from mental stress and anxiety.

These findings coincided with a large-scale, systematic review of studies concerning the topic. These amino acids can’t reliably be received through food sources and are thus best received as supplementation. Talk to your physician about anxiety and supplementation if you’re interested in L-lysine and L-arginine.

Dietary Polyphenols

It was once believed that new brain cells are only formed during childhood, but we now know that areas like the hippocampus and the hypothalamus, which are crucial for memory and learning, form new neurons even during adulthood. Unfortunately, a person suffering from chronic stress or anxiety has slowed formation of these new neurons. In people affected by long-term stress, the hippocampus has also been found to be smaller than in healthy individuals. One likely cause is that the hippocampus is very sensitive to increases in the corticoid levels commonly seen in people suffering from chronic stress.

As long-term stress has effects like these, it comes as no surprise that learning disabilities are so common in those affected. Luckily, there is a way to diminish the effects of stress and anxiety on the development of new neurons. Dietary polyphenols, chemicals common in some plant matter and functional foods, have been shown to diminish the effects of stress and anxiety on the growth of new brain cells.

Dr. Xiuzhen Han also suggests that consuming food high in dietary polyphenols may help a person feel less stressed and anxious. Dietary polyphenols can be found in many common foods but are especially prevalent in fruits such as plums, blackberries, and strawberries. Other sources include chocolate, tea, extra virgin olive oil, as well as vegetables like broccoli, onion, and spinach.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid

Omega-3 fatty acids receive continual praise for their beneficial health effects and are recommended for a variety of reasons. They are major components of brain cells membranes. It’s also known that stress has the ability to change the phospholipid contents of brain membranes.

Animal studies have demonstrated that having a decreased level of omega-3 fatty acids is linked to hyperactivity and anxiety. The study also found giving subjects additional omega-3 fatty acid supplements increased their memory and learning capabilities significantly, as well as decreased general symptoms of anxiety.

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2005, not only is this supplement effective against anxiety, but also many other mood related disorders as well. Because of how fast the brain develops during the pre-natal period, some studies have investigated how insufficient omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy affect later development.

Naturally these kinds of studies have been conducted on animals. A study published in 2011 in The Public Library of Science found that at least in rodents, omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies during the pre-natal period caused permanent changes in the cortex, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. These areas are crucial for learning, memory, and mood regulation.

The study also found that the animals that had not received enough omega-3 fatty acids reacted more strongly to stressors and showed more anxious behavior than their normal counterparts. The authors concluded that the amount of dietary omega-3 fatty acids during early brain development affects the brain’s capacity to handle challenges later in life. This makes it crucial for expecting mothers to make sure that they consume enough omega-3 fatty acids.

In addition, these areas of the brain continue to develop late into life, so the importance of consuming enough of these fatty acids does not diminish. Unfortunately, omega-3 deficiencies are very common in the Western world because of how little fish we consume. Fatty fishes, such as salmon, are especially good sources of omega 3s.


It is well know that iron deficiency during early life alters behavioral and cognitive development in humans. This causes us to be lethargic and un-responsive to what is around us. An animal study conducted at the Pennsylvania State University found similar results in rats, hypothesizing the link to be caused by damage to central dopamine pathways. The subjects starved of iron reportedly experienced decreased activity and increased anxiety-like behaviors.

The most drastic changes to the brains of the subjects occurred at the prefrontal cortex where dopamine receptor densities and dopamine transporters were affected by the decreased availability of iron. This area of the brain is responsible for the most advanced cortical functions, such as reasoning and memory. In essence, this area is primarily what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Like magnesium, iron can also be easily added to your diet. Turkey, mollusks, chicken giblets, and red meat are all great sources of iron and can be added to meals without much effort. Many corporations have also begun enriching their grain products, such as cereals, with iron. A savvy shopper should spend a few extra minutes picking out breakfast cereals and check for iron contents of various products.

Finally, egg yolks, certain dried fruit such as prunes and raisins, dark, leafy greens, and artichokes are other great sources. You may also want to consider products rich in Vitamin C since this will not only improve your mood and overall health, but your ability to absorb and utilize iron as well.

Getting Started and Daily Nuances

Before starting any form of treatment, it’s best if you talk to your physician. Nutritional changes are hardly ever used to treat anxiety without other supporting options, such as medication or psychotherapy. There is no cure or instant fix to anxiety, so a combination of treatment options often lends the best results in curbing anxiety. What these options should be are highly individualized and should be carefully planned to meet your needs.

As with any other form of treatment, it is best to start dietary changes gradually. Turning around your diet can be stressful if done too quickly. Your digestive system needs time to adjust to the new forms of nutrition it will receive. Denying it this opportunity might induce digestive problems and lead to unwanted strain. The last thing you want to do is to have your treatment cause unnecessary tension.

Instead, you might want to see if your diet already includes beneficial products and moderately increase the amount you eat. For example, if you already eat cereal for breakfast, you might want to make sure the product you consume is fortified with iron. When it comes to new food products, a slow start is a safe start.

You may also be concerned about the time constraint of everyday life. Perhaps you have a busy work schedule and need the income to support your family. Maybe you are worried you may not have enough time to cook full meals for yourself and you will end up consuming processed foods as a result.

Cooking does take its time, but there are things you can do to prevent it from becoming a chore. You should consider planning the meals of the week in advance. Not only does this make sure you don’t purchase excess items, it also saves you from planning mid-week and having to rush to the grocers for that forgotten item.

You may also want to purchase a slow cooker or put an existing one to good use. These appliances cook meals overnight or when you’re at work safely. They require very little attending to, can be set to finish at a specific time, and will even keep the food warm after it has finished cooking. They can be invaluable for those seeking to make easy, homemade, and healthy meals. You will surely appreciate hot stews or broths after work. Having a meal ready at the house will keep you away from highly processed, premade, frozen meals, for example.

In treating anxiety by nutritional means, the most important thing to keep in mind is consistency. Small deviations from your nutritional plan won’t change much, but if you’re having trouble sticking with the diet, you won’t see any improvements. Attempt to form your diet around your favorite foods. If you actually like the foods you are eating, you will likely want to continue with the program. However, if you feel restricted or dislike what you eat, you will likely end up regressing back to old eating habits. All your hard work will be wasted if you consistently sabotage your eating plan.

This is part two of a two-part series “Feed Yourself Calm”.  Click here to read part one.

Dr. CheourThe two-part “Feed Yourself Calm” series was written by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Marie Cheour. Dr. Cheour has worked as a Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami where she received a 2002 Research Award, as a Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Turko in Finland, and as the Head of the Developmental Brain Research Laboratory, Cognitive Brain Research Unit (CBRU), at the University of Helsinki.

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