Nutritional Concerns for Stress & Anxiety

Author: Dr. Donna Schwontkowski (ret. D.C.), M.S. Nutrition, M.H.

If you’ve been asking the question, "What can I do nutritionally to alter my stress and anxiety?", you’ll be happy to know that there are two solutions.

You can use an herb on an as-needed basis, such as during the time you feel the stress or anxiety, or you can evaluate your diet and make broad changes.

Herbs Taken When Needed

Herbs have been used by many cultures for their ability to restore a sense of well-being in the brain after a time of stress or anxiety. Some of them include passionflower, St. John’s wort, chamomile, mint, lemongrass and lemon balm. Using any of these may quickly restore the sense that you are well and can handle the situation at hand with grace.

Broad Changes in Diet That Make Sense

Eating a good diet is paramount to the brain’s ability to deal with stress and anxiety. A good diet has several characteristics:

1. A good diet is low or devoid of processed foods. A good diet is one that is low in sugar, heated vegetable oils, trans fats, margarine, pastries, beverages containing high fructose corn syrup or other sugars, and processed meats. All of these foods will impact brain function indirectly or directly in negative ways.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers found a significant relationship between the consumption of processed foods and anxiety. This study evaluated 1,782 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 years. If anxiety is caused by processed foods, it makes sense to stop eating them if you are troubled with anxiety. However, there’s a greater gain in your health when you do give up the processed foods. You’ll feel and look better in a short period of time.

2. A good diet is rich in fruits and vegetables. When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, metabolic processes are occurring inside the brain that are potentially creating free radicals, excitotoxicity, altering calcium levels, causing inflammation, dysfunctional mitochondria, and increasing oxidative stress.

Polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables as well as grains, tea, bark and roots have protective effects on the mitochondria. They are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory in nature. Polyphenols regulate the calcium levels so that the brain won’t be damaged further.

By eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming herbs and teas, you can effectively reduce brain damage while feeling almost immediately better. In one study, researchers followed food consumption and moods of 281 young adults (aged 19 years) for 21 days. The days the volunteers felt the most positive were the ones when they reported eating more servings of fruits and vegetables. In fact, when 7 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables were eaten during the day, the volunteers felt better mentally the next day. The researchers concluded that healthy food drove their moods; their moods didn’t drive what they ate.

3. A good diet has ample servings of protein at each meal of the day. Protein contains amino acids that are used for the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain. Increasing your protein levels can make a big difference in how mentally stable you feel during the day. Experiment with this on your own; most people see effects within a day or two.

You do have more control over stress and anxiety than what you may believe. Try both of these solutions and see how good you really can feel every day.


Anxiety as a consequence of modern dietary pattern in adults in Tehran-Iran. Eat Behav 2013 Apr;14(2):107-12.

Dietary and plant polyphenols exert neuroprotective effects and improve cognitive function in cerebral ischemia. Recent Pat Food Nutr Agric 2013 Apr 26.

Many apples a day keep  the blues away – Daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults. Br J Health Psychol 2013 Jan 24.

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