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  • Denise Scott

Alimentals for Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common illness in this country. About half of those with anxiety also experience depression.


These symptoms are unnerving; they give one a sense of impending doom and loss of control. Working with a therapist to regain control and learn coping mechanisms is extremely helpful.

Anxiety is a common disorder and the cause of much stress!


The Statistics:

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 1 in 3 (32%) youth, 13-18 experience anxiety. This trend has risen steadily - from 2007 to 2012 - anxiety disorders in adolescents increased by 20%.

  • Anxiety and depression in children 3-17 have increased dramatically in the past five years.

  • The World Health Organization estimated that COVID-19 triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.

  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least 40 million adults, or 18%, struggle with anxiety.

  • Only about 50% of patients with anxiety experience successful treatment; 25% tend to have complete resolution.

  • Interestingly, the area of the brain that is hyperactive in anxiety responses, the amygdala, has receptors for peptides made in the gut. These peptides are regulated by compounds made by gut bacteria. Once again, we see the involvement of the gut microbiome.

Anxiety in youth has risen dramatically in the last decade


As a practitioner caring for children for three decades, I cannot emphasize enough the role social media plays in anxiety and depression. Teenagers’ self-esteem ties heavily to these platforms, and they rarely disconnect. They constantly compare themselves to what others are posting.


The daily barrage of senseless tragedies makes our kids feel unsafe at school and in public. We live in a world where events occur that we cannot explain to our children.


As these numbers increased, the relative shortage of mental health professionals increased. They were unable to keep up with the need. The difficulty in obtaining services makes it even more important to seek other options, such as diet and lifestyle, to improve symptoms.


Diet will not cure anxiety, unless there is a specific deficiency, but nutrition can be helpful in potentially avoiding triggers. Implementing the following guidelines may aid in decreasing symptoms.


What are some of the symptoms children with anxiety display?


You know your child better than anyone, so realize when something is amiss or will note changes in your child.


A common thread at all ages is excessive worrying, to the point of interfering with usual activities. Symptoms, however, can differ by age, so the following are guidelines for different developmental stages. Note that there is overlap with symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Infants and toddlers may have difficulty eating, sleep disturbances, appear withdrawn, or have more dramatic stress responses than seem warranted.


Toddlers, to early school-age children, may also have the above, in addition to being easily frightened, complaining of frequent physical symptoms, including gastrointestinal issues, having difficulty making friends or lack of interest in interacting with others, and having difficulty communicating with others.


School-aged kids to teens, may have what has already been listed, as well as difficulty concentrating, preoccupation with "what if" scenarios, worrying about the future, withdrawing from friends, family, and activities previously enjoyed, feeling sad frequently, or constantly trying to please others.


The following are helpful dietary components.


What to Consume:

  1. Don’t skip meals. Eat regularly to maintain a steady blood sugar.

  2. Protein with each meal, especially at breakfast.

  3. Complex carbohydrates - complex carbs combined with protein are one of the best things you can do to avoid blood sugar fluctuations. Low blood sugar can mimic the symptoms of anxiety.

  4. Water - hydrate daily by drinking plenty of water. Mild dehydration can lead to mood changes.

  5. Lots of fruit and vegetables to provide a nutrient-dense diet.

  6. Magnesium-rich foods - dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety symptoms.

  7. As in depression, omega-3 fatty acids may benefit anxiety symptoms. Omega-3s help fight inflammation in the brain. These are best obtained from fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna) but can be supplemented.

  8. Foods rich in zinc may help lower anxiety levels. Zinc is in beef, liver, oyster, egg yolks, and cashews.

  9. Probiotic-rich foods, such as fermented foods and Greek yogurt, promote the good bacteria in the gut and may help lower social anxiety.

  10. Dietary fiber from beans, whole grains, berries, vegetables, and nuts decreases inflammation and improves the gut microbiome.

  11. B vitamin foods from animal products such as seafood, beef, and dairy, and plant foods like avocado, almonds, leafy greens, legumes, citrus fruits, whole grains, and fortified cereals.

Natural sources of B vitamins


12. Vitamin D foods - dairy, mushrooms, and vitamin D-fortified foods; this vitamin commonly needs to be supplemented since it is difficult to get adequate amounts in the diet, so many people are deficient. Children 9-18 should get 600-800 IU daily.

13. Tea, such as chamomile or green tea (this has theanine), can have calming effects, especially if caffeine-free.


Since it can be hard to get adequate amounts of all the vitamins and minerals, a multivitamin with iron daily might be considered for those affected by anxiety.


What to Avoid:

  1. Caffeine - limit or avoid it since this can make you jittery and interfere with sleep. Excessive caffeine intake (beware of energy drinks) can trigger or worsen anxiety.

  2. Alcohol - adolescents with anxiety can turn to alcohol to relax and fit in. Not only is this dangerous but alcohol also interferes with sleep patterns making anxiety worse.

  3. Sugary drinks and foods, especially those with artificial sweeteners. As stated in a previous article, aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) is found to trigger anxiety symptoms.

  4. Foods high in saturated fats, including processed foods and fried foods. High fat and high carb diets are thought to change the bacteria in the gut and the chemicals in the brain, and possibly decrease serotonin levels.

  5. Be aware of food additives such as dyes and preservatives. Many people have sensitivities to these. Eat as clean as possible to minimize additives in your diet.

  6. Inflammatory foods - including refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and refined cooking oils, like corn and soybean oils, contain high concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids.

High sugar, high saturated fat, ultra-processed foods cause inflammation in the body and brain


There is a correlation between anxiety and bowel disorders. Many patients with anxiety also have irritable bowel syndrome. The dietary recommendations can help with both issues. Anxiety can also occur in patients with inflammatory bowel disease so maintaining a diet for good gut health is beneficial for both disorders.


Some specific diets, such as ketogenic and gluten-free, are being researched for beneficial effects but cannot be promoted, especially in children. A gluten-free diet can be helpful for those with celiac disease but is not advised for those without celiac. These and other specialized diets can be too restrictive and potentially dangerous for a growing child. I strive to present information that is researched, safe, and with proven benefits in my articles. I do my best to get recommendations from reliable medical resources.


While nutrition is not a cure or substitute for therapy or treatment, it empowers you to do something good for yourself. In addition, encourage your kids to have outdoor time, play, relax with friends, get enough sleep, and disconnect from social media. Doing so is beneficial for everyone!


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