New healthy brain food for stressed students

Eating two ounces of walnuts a day for 16 weeks improved self-reported mental health scores in college students, according to a new study. It also protects against the negative effects of academic stress and improves long-term sleep quality.

University life can be incredibly stressful, with 8 in 10 students reporting regular bouts of stress and 61% seeking counseling for anxiety, depression or other issues.[1]

A new study found that eating two ounces of walnuts a day for 16 weeks by college students improved self-reported mental health measures, had a protective effect against some of the negative effects of academic stress, and aided sleep quality , as they report a longer term plan. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia, was recently published in the journal nutrients.[2]

“We’ve always known that walnuts are a healthy food, but because of the design and duration of this study, the findings really paint a picture of how a simple food like walnuts can help fight stress,” explains Mauritz F. Herselmann, a doctoral student who worked on this study.

In this randomized clinical trial, the group of participants who ate walnuts also had increases in metabolic markers that are associated with protection against stress. The study was co-funded by the University of South Australia and the California Walnut Commission.

Nuts Portrait

Each ounce of walnuts contains 2.5 g of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, 4 g of protein, 2 g of fiber, and 45 mg of magnesium.

Furthermore, only in women, eating walnuts may have counteracted the negative effects of academic stress on gut bacterial diversity.

“University students are a unique population of people who are transitioning into adulthood as they complete university degrees, which can be challenging and stressful. The pressure to graduate and find attractive work is great and can affect students’ mental and physical health and overall well-being,” said Dr Larisa Bobrovskaya, Associate Professor of Clinical and Health Sciences at the University of South Australia and lead researcher on learning.

“As such, managing academic stress is important and various strategies can be adopted by students to navigate their university journeys.” “Dietary intervention is one of those strategies that can improve the brain health of students, but is often overlooked by students,” she adds.

Research overview

College students ages 18 to 35 were randomly assigned to be in either a treatment group or a control group for 16 weeks of this study.

The treatment group was given pre-portioned walnuts and asked to consume one serving (approximately 56 grams) per day. The control group was asked to refrain from consuming any kind of nuts or oily fish for the same time.

Participants provided blood and saliva samples and completed a series of questionnaires about mental health, mood, general well-being and sleep habits three times during the study. A subset of participants also provided stool samples at each clinic visit. A total of 60 participants, 30 in each group, completed the study.

Promising results for walnuts

The walnut-eating group appeared to have a protective effect against some of the negative effects of academic stress on mental health compared to the control group. A summary of the survey results can be found in the box below.

The effects of walnut consumption on the mental health and general well-being of college students.

  • Daily walnut consumption prevents significant changes in mental health outcomes and stress and depression outcomes. Walnuts may alleviate the negative effects of academic stress on students’ mental health.
  • Daily consumption of walnuts increases total protein and albumin levels, thus may protect against the negative effects of academic stress on metabolic biomarkers.
  • While academic stress did not alter stress biomarkers such as cortisol and α-amylase, daily consumption of walnuts reduced α-amylase levels, further suggesting that walnuts may protect against the effects of stress.
  • Academic stress is associated with lower gut microbial diversity in women. But daily walnut consumption may alleviate the negative effects of academic stress on gut microbiota diversity in women.
  • Eating walnuts can improve sleep in the long term.

Other emerging but consistent evidence from observational and clinical studies suggests that eating walnuts is associated with:[3-5]

  • Lower prevalence and incidence of depressive symptoms in US adults
  • Improved mood in otherwise healthy young adults and
  • Greater likelihood of achieving overall health in older age, with mental health being an area of ​​healthy aging

In fact, walnuts have a unique matrix of bioactive nutrients and phytochemicals that may underlie the beneficial mental health effects observed in these studies.[6]

“Although more supporting research is needed, the evidence is becoming clear that consuming walnuts as a healthy eating pattern may have positive effects on cognition and mental health, potentially due to their abundance of omega-3 ALA content.”* explains Bobrovskaya.

“Additionally, research shows that increasing dietary tryptophan, which the brain uses to produce serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer), leads to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.”7 Thus, the presence of tryptophan in walnuts may also have contributed to these findings,” she notes.

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. In addition, the results could have been further influenced by 2020[{” attribute=””>COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, as clinical visits were disrupted during this period.

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

Adding walnuts to daily eating patterns could be one small, versatile, simple, and accessible dietary change to promote brain health and overall well-being in university-aged students.


  1. Stress in college. The American Institute of Stress website. Accessed November 30, 2022.
  2. “The Effects of Walnuts and Academic Stress on Mental Health, General Well-Being and the Gut Microbiota in a Sample of University Students: A Randomised Clinical Trial” by Mauritz F. Herselman, Sheree Bailey, Permal Deo, Xin-Fu Zhou, Kate M. Gunn and Larisa Bobrovskaya, 11 November 2022, Nutrients.
    DOI: 10.3390/nu14224776
  3. “Consumption of nuts at midlife and healthy aging in women” by Tania-Marisa Freitas-Simoes, Maude Wagner, Cecilia Samieri, Aleix Sala-Vila and Francine Grodstein, 7 January 2020, Journal of Aging Research.
    DOI: 10.1155/2020/5651737
  4. “Lower depression scores among walnut consumers in NHANES” by Lenore Arab, Rong Guo and David Elashoff, 26 January 2019, Nutrients.
    DOI: 10.3390/nu11020275
  5. “Effects of walnut consumption on mood in young adults—a randomized controlled trial” by Peter Pribis, 25 October 2016, Nutrients.
    DOI: 10.3390/nu8110668
  6. Nutrients in one ounce of walnuts. California Walnut Commission website. Accessed November 30, 2022.
  7. “The Effects of Dietary Tryptophan on Affective Disorders” by Glenda Lindseth, Brian Helland and Julie Caspers, 9 December 2014, Archives of Psychiatric Nursing.
    DOI: 10.1016/j.apnu.2014.11.008

*Walnuts are the only nut with an excellent source of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic

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