It seems that not a week goes by without scientists identifying some gene or other that is believed to play a critical role in our susceptibility to a specific illness or condition. Recently, for instance, researchers in Italy announced that they had found a gene that is involved in the normal production of serotonin – a brain chemical that helps maintain a cheery disposition. It is believed that individuals afflicted with some fault in this gene will make them prone to undesirable mood states such as anxiety. The hope is that the early identification of such individuals may give them a head start in terms of finding peace of mind through appropriate psychological support.
While psychological approaches have an obvious role in calming an overanxious mind, it is also true that physiological remedies may have much to offer here too. One dietary factor that has the capacity to heighten feelings of anxiety or even panic is caffeine. While some individuals can seemingly drink several cups of tea or coffee without any ill-effect in this respect, some unfortunates can be exquisitely sensitive to caffeine. There is some evidence that individuals prone to anxiety, as little as one daily cup of coffee is enough to worsen their symptoms. Therefore, for those on the anxious side, I generally recommend complete elimination of caffeine from the diet.
Another nutritionally-related factor that can have profound effects on mood concerns sugar levels in the bloodstream. Should blood sugar levels fall below normal levels, the body may attempt to compensate for this by secreting hormones that stimulate the conversion of glycogen (a carbohydrate fuel store found in the muscles and liver) into sugar. One hormone used to stimulate this conversion is adrenaline – a stress hormone that can induce feelings of anxiety and irritability.
Stability in blood sugar levels and mood is more likely if regular meals are taken, perhaps with healthy snacks in between. Nuts are a good choice in this respect, as their relatively high protein and low-carbohydrate nature means they give a very sustained release of fuel into the system. Nuts are also a very rich source of magnesium, low levels of which in the body are thought to predispose to feelings of anxiety and nervousness. Brazil nuts are a particularly good choice for highly-strung individuals: in addition to magnesium, they also offer good levels of the trace mineral selenium, which studies suggest has the ability to quell anxiety. Just three or four Brazil nuts each day will provide quantities of selenium to the body that may help stabilise mood.
In addition to the inclusion of nuts in the diet, I generally recommend supplementation with magnesium for those on the nervy side. Taking about 400 mg of magnesium per day can have a calming effect on the mind, and does seem to help reduce feelings of anxiety when taken in the long term. In practice, a range of nutritionally-oriented approaches can help to ensure that a predisposition to anxiety is nothing much to worry about.