Treat your anxiety to a good meal!
Teenagers and young adults are facing an epidemic of anxiety: 25% of American 13 to 18 year olds suffer from anxiety and in Australia a study from 2008 showed that 15.4% of 16 to 24 years olds had experienced an anxiety disorder in the previous 12 months. Could nutrition have anything to do with this?
Healthy nutrition is of course the key to a healthy mind. There are several specific nutrient deficiencies associated with anxiety: the most important are magnesium and omega 3.
Magnesium is needed to produce serotonin. A deficiency in magnesium has been associated with anxiety and depression. Most of the population is magnesium deficient – the estimates vary from 50-90% of Australians and this deficiency is clearly related to our processed diet. Plenty of whole foods contain enough magnesium to cover your daily needs: nuts and seeds, legumes such as beans and lentils, and green leafy vegetables are all good sources of magnesium. They should be a daily part of a healthy diet. Signs and symptoms of low magnesium stores include muscle cramps, muscle tics, constipation, nightmares, and anxiety. Children love taking baths – the warm water has a calming effect and increases endorphin production. If you add a cup of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to the water, they will have the added benefit of absorbing the magnesium salts through their skin, which will calm them down and help them sleep.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish. The fish get their omega 3 by eating algae. Why not go to the source directly (and not contribute to the overfishing of the oceans) and at the same time avoid all the contaminants found in fish, including mercury, PCBs and dioxin? It is as easy as eating algae salads or taking an algae oil supplement. These are produced organically in big vats of clean water, not exposed to the pollution found in ocean water, and even take CO2 out of the atmosphere in the process – so you are doing your bit to fight climate change. The essential fatty acids are called DHA and EPA and both are needed for optimal brain function, including a relaxed mood. Flax and linseeds contain alpha-linolenic acid, a precursor to DHA and EPA. Some humans are better than others at converting alpha-linolenic acid into DHA and EPA – but it is hard to know who does it well and who does not. You can get a blood test done to check levels of these essential fatty acids, but it is invasive, painful and expensive. So why not just take algae oil as a safe option? What are the signs of an omega 3 deficiency? Bumpy skin on the back of the upper arms (called keratosis pilaris), dry skin, dandruff, brittle fingernails. If your child’s upper arms feel like sandpaper, try a course of omega 3 fatty acids. Their skin should become smooth and more importantly the omega 3 will be absorbed into the brain, where it is needed to build healthy cell membranes, contributing to optimal brain function and mood.
Tryptophan is an amino acid (a building block of proteins) found in oats and sesame seeds Increasing the intake of foods high in tryptophan can have a calming effect.
Avoid caffeine as it can increase anxiety – children should never have caffeine anyway as they take much longer than adults to metabolise it and therefore it can affect their sleep many hours after they had a cup of tea. Anxious teenagers should review their diet and cut out any caffeinated sodas, tea and coffee. Caffeine can also destabilize children’s blood sugar by dropping it too low, which causes anxiety and stress. The same happens when you eat a diet high on the glycaemic index. High glycaemic foods like sugar, white bread, rice and potato, raise the blood sugar level quickly; the body produces insulin to push the sugar into the cells where the sugar is converted into energy. Often the insulin will push the blood sugar level too low resulting in hypoglycaemia – with symptoms of feeling weak, anxious, followed by release of the stress hormone adrenaline. If your child eats lots of sugary foods and processed “white” grains, you can help by replacing these with unprocessed whole grains, such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, and sweet potato. These foods are low on the glycaemic index, raise the blood sugar level slowly, and keep it even, allowing for a calm mood and sustained attention.
Written by Dr Leila Masson, Pediatrician.