Is your son or daughter finding college/university overwhelming? Is he or she battling with new or worsening anxiety, worrying about results, has fears about success or fitting in, lying awake imagining the worst outcomes or maybe feeling like a perfectionist and getting stuck? Perhaps they have poor self-confidence, feel like an imposter and may even have panic attacks. These signs and symptoms are all common with the low serotonin-type of worry-in-the-head anxiety, which may also include PMS (premenstrual syndrome), obsessive tendencies and anger issues.
They may also be experiencing the low GABA type of tension-anxiety, where they lie awake at night stiff and tense and self-medicate with too much sugar, carbs, junk food and/or alcohol (and maybe even pot and other drugs). There may be intrusive thoughts too and panic attacks also triggered by low GABA.
What about focus issues/ADHD and low motivation, no ability to follow-through on tasks and projects, procrastination and missing deadlines? These are all classic signs of low catecholamine, which also includes low energy, and feeling depressed/sad/low/flat. Your son or daughter may just want to crawl up in their dorm bed and not do anything or may spend hours doing mindless activities like binge watching Netflix or scrolling mindlessly through social media.
All of these signs and symptoms point to low levels of neurotransmitters or brain chemicals: low serotonin, low GABA and low dopamine. We need the right raw materials to make these neurotransmitters and the majority of college cafeterias are not providing nutrient-dense foods and/or foods that are unique for each person’s biochemistry (more on this below).
The huge rise in anxiety and other mental health issues in college students
It’s no wonder that we are seeing a huge rise in anxiety and other mental health issues in college students. Way too many students are dropping out and so many are struggling unnecessarily.
This 2019 Harvard blog post shares some alarming stats:
Anxiety in college is very common. According to the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, 63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. In the same survey, 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year.
This article in Nature earlier this year, The problem is greater than it’s ever been’: US universities urged to invest in mental-health resources, highlights points from US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report:
- 68% of university presidents listed student mental health as one of their most pressing issues
- the dropout rate for students with diagnosed mental-health problems ranges from 43% to as high as 86%
- The students who said that they had more trouble with anxiety or depression after the lockdown also reported greater alcohol use
It states that faculty members should “receive formal training to address and support student well-being” and “students should learn about mental-health issues as part of their introductory training.” They also say “Hiring more counsellors could be an important step, but counsellors alone can’t turn the tide.” I agree with all this but recommend adding nutritional psychiatry awareness, training and resources too.
Poor diet and nutritional deficiencies are a major contributing factor even though it’s seldom discussed. The good news is that there are relatively simple solutions – amino acids as supplements for quick relief and diet as the foundation – but it does take work.
Using amino acids as supplements for quick relief
Amino acids, used as supplements, are a quick way to offer immediate relief of symptoms: tryptophan or 5-HTP (for the low serotonin worry-type anxiety), GABA (for the tension-type anxiety) and tyrosine (for the low dopamine poor-focus and low symptoms). Here are some examples:
- A 23-year-old female college student, adopted and exposed to alcohol while in the womb, has some learning struggles. She doesn’t want to miss a day of taking 5-HTP, because she says that “it keeps her on her toes,” which she says means that it “keeps me focused,” when studying.
- Tyrosine helped a young man who was learning new software: “Within an hour the stress just melted away!”, alleviating his anxiety and panic attacks and creating a feeling of calm focus.
- A newly qualified nutritionist shared how she suffered badly from imposter syndrome at the end of her nutrition degree and she felt socially awkward in so many outings and situations. Her anxiety and stress were through the roof and her sleep was poor. She said these wonderful results: “What really tipped the balance was the supplementation of tyrosine, tryptophan & GABA.”
If you are new to the amino acids, here is the Amino Acids Mood Questionnaire from The Antianxiety Food Solution and additional information on Anxiety and targeted individual amino acid supplements: a summary
This lists The Antianxiety Food Solution Amino Acid and Pyroluria Supplements that I use with my individual clients and those in my group programs.
We use the amino acids for quick relief of symptoms and then focus on the foundations like diet and address other imbalances.
Diet as the foundation for students i.e. nutritional psychiatry
I first blogged about nutritional psychiatry in 2015 when the ISNPR position statement was published in World Psychiatry, the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association. This 2019 paper, Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat provides an overview of the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry:
Does it matter what we eat for our mental health? Accumulating data suggests that this may indeed be the case and that diet and nutrition are not only critical for human physiology and body composition, but also have significant effects on mood and mental wellbeing. While the determining factors of mental health are complex, increasing evidence indicates a strong association between a poor diet and the exacerbation of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression, as well as other neuropsychiatric conditions.
The 2017 SMILES Trial is the first randomized controlled diet depression study and ONE THIRD of the dietary intervention group saw improvements in their depression symptoms. This was just diet alone and switching from processed/junk food to real food with no specific dietary restrictions. Participants also reported improvements in anxiety symptoms. And the authors even addressed the cost factor, stating it was more affordable to eat this way.
Research supports this connection in college students. This is one of a growing number of studies, Eating behavior and relationships with stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia in university students, that concludes that:
unhealthy eating patterns are common in university populations and are related to anxiety, stress, and depression. Educational interventions to reduce unhealthy food consumption in university students can also result in psychological health improvements and/or vice versa.
Unfortunately, as students get more anxious and depressed their food choices get worse (especially for male students) and it becomes a vicious cycle. This paper, Examining the Role of Anxiety and Depression in Dietary Choices among College Students, reports:
Overall, a decrease in total caloric intake and an increase in sugar consumption were found as self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression increased. In addition, there were sex differences in the relationship between depression and food choices. Men consumed more saturated fat as well as less fruits and vegetables as self-reported symptoms of depression increased. Results suggest symptoms of depression are a greater risk factor for poor nutrition in male college students than females.
It’s time for colleges/universities to recognize all this and teach about nutritional psychiatry. My book, The Antianxiety Food Solution is an excellent starting point for students, parents and educators (together with other blogs on this site).
Checking out cafeterias and cooking options
When looking at colleges are you also looking at what the cafeteria offers and if they cater for special diets (like gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo etc) and/or offer real whole food, organic vegetables and fruit, grass-fed meat, wild fish and fermented foods?
Can students use a slow cooker, blender, Instant Pot or electric frying pan in their dorms?
Is there a dorm kitchen and can they take their own pots and pans (so non-stick pans can be avoided) and any of the above appliances?
Are there nearby living options that include a kitchen and a store with quality food for purchase?
I feel colleges/universities should be rated on all of the above in addition to everything else.
It all starts at home before they leave for college
Having a good college cafeteria and dorm kitchens is one step in the right direction, but these young adults also need to understand the impact of a breakfast of bagels and coffee or not having breakfast or the fact that gluten may trigger a panic attack and make them sad. They need to know how to shop and cook if there is a shared dorm kitchen or apartment. And they need to make the right choices when they do eat in the cafeteria or nearby restaurants (assuming good options are available). This all starts at home with you before they leave for college.
Katie shares this about her daughter who plans to use the college cafeteria for some meals and also cook in the apartment kitchen on weekends:
My daughter was just saying today how glad she is that she doesn’t have to figure out [the connection between increased anxiety, fatigue, brain fog, sadness and what they are eating] while learning how to live on her own and go to college. I changed how I ate 8 years ago for my PCOS and about 3 years ago she decided to give it a try after feeling so horrible but seeing my change. I’m so proud of her for embracing a healthier lifestyle in her teen years when everyone around her is subsisting off energy drinks and vending machine food. It makes me think that if we offer them a little education, they’ll make good choices for themselves.
This mom can also feel proud that she led by example for her daughter (and I appreciate them for letting me share here).
But I believe the colleges need to play a role in this too. They are providing food and this is a perfect educational opportunity that will serve their students (and future generations), solve the mental health crisis they are struggling with and prevent drop-outs (which is having an impact on their bottom-line).
Do you believe colleges/universities should be rated on all of the above in addition to everything else? What have you done to check out cafeterias and cooking options for your daughter or son?
Has your son or daughter benefited from any of the amino acids or eating real whole food (and according to their own needs?
Do you work in a college and are you seeing this rise in anxiety and depression? If yes, how do we get these changes implemented?
How do we educate students once they are at college (other than making sure campus food is excellent):
- a lifestyle/diet/anxiety app with resources and tracking?
- online training with a nutritionist/coach and access to an online forum and live Q&As?
- one-on-one campus nutrition coaches?
- make nutritional psychiatry part of the curriculum?
- produce a documentary following the lives of students on campus and showing the transformation they experience?
Feel free to post your questions and ideas here too.[The above statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.]