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Consuming walnuts every day is the way out for varsity students from stress: Study

Researchers from University of South Australia come up with healthy findings

Consuming walnuts every day is the way out for varsity students from stress: Study
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Consuming walnuts every day is the way out for varsity students from stress: Study

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Daily consumption of walnuts prevented significant changes in mental health-related scores and those of stress and depression. This also increased protein and albumin levels. In fact, walnuts have a unique matrix of bioactive nutrients and phytochemicals

Walnut consumption has shown a protective effect against academic stress besides having the potential to improve sleep.

Being a university student is an especially stressful time in life. In fact, eight in 10 university students report experiencing frequent bouts of stress, while close to 61 per cent of varsity students seek counseling for anxiety and depression, among other such disturbances.

A novel study by researchers from University of South Australia published in Nutrients (a popular online journal brought out by MDPI) found that undergraduate students, who consumed two ounces of walnuts a day for 16 weeks, reported improved mental health indicators, a protective effect against negative impacts of academic stress and better sleep.

"We've always known walnuts to be a health-promoting food. However, the study findings paint a picture of how walnut, a simple food, can help combat stress," explains Mauritz F. Herselman, a PhD student, who worked on this study.

In this randomized clinical trial, co-funded by the University of South Australia and California Walnut Commission, the participant group also experienced increased metabolic markers linked with protection against stress. Additionally, females eating walnuts may have countered the negative effects of academic stress on the diversity of the gut bacteria.

"University students are a unique population of people who transition into their adulthood while completing degrees, which can be challenging and stressful. The pressure to complete and land up with attractive jobs is high and can adversely impact the students' mental and physical health and overall well-being. Thus, managing academic stress is important and various strategies can be adopted by students to get through their university journey. Dietary intervention is one of such strategies that can boost their brain health, which alas is often neglected by them," states Larisa Bobrovskaya, Associate Professor, Clinical and Health Sciences at the University of South Australia and the study's lead researcher.

The respondents were asked to refrain from consuming any type of nut or fatty fish for the duration. Participants provided blood and saliva samples and completed a series of self-reported questionnaires on mental health, moods, the overall well-being and sleep habits thrice during the study. A subgroup of participants also provided fecal samples during every clinical visit. A total of 60 participants, 30 in each group, completed the study.

The group eating walnuts seemed to experience a protective effect against some of the negative impacts of academic stress on mental health compared to the control group. Daily consumption of walnuts prevented significant changes in mental health-related scores and those of stress and depression. This also increased protein and albumin levels.

While academic stress did not change stress biomarkers such as cortisol and α-amylase, walnut consumption decreased α-amylase levels, further suggesting that walnuts may protect against the effects of stress.

In fact, walnuts have a unique matrix of bioactive nutrients and phytochemicals that may underlie the beneficial effects on mental health seen in these studies.

"While more supporting research is needed, evidence is becoming clear that consuming walnuts as a healthy eating pattern may have positive effects on cognition and mental health, potentially owing to their abundance in omega-3 ALA content. Furthermore, research has shown that increasing dietary tryptophan, which the brain uses to make serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer), results in reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Thus, the presence of tryptophan in walnuts may have also contributed to these findings," points out Bobrovskaya.

Commenting on the study outcomes, celebrity nutritionist Ryan Fernando states, "The prevalence of stress among students in India cannot go unnoticed. This could cause mental health issues, among other things. I recommend adding walnuts to everyday eating patterns, a versatile, simple and accessible dietary change to promote brain health and overall well-being of university-aged students."

These results are encouraging and support previous results found in similar populations, but there are limitations to the current study. Mainly, participants were not blinded to the walnut treatment. Additionally, the results could have been further influenced by the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, as clinical visits were disrupted during the lockdown.

Further work is needed to improve one's understanding of the complex pathways through which eating patterns that include walnuts, can influence the brain or affect mental health.

Sydelle Fernandes
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