Anxiety is our body’s natural defence mechanism against a threat. The discomfort it creates is meant to capture attention and stimulate a protective response. When you feel anxious, your brain perceives it as a threat and sends a signal to other parts of the body to prepare for fight or flight mode. However, you can also feel anxious in a stressful situation like taking a call from your manager and your body will react to this the same way it would act if you were under mortal danger. This is what causes the problem.
Anxiety Disorders occur when the feelings of nervousness and fear are excessive, counterproductive, and debilitating. Anxiety becomes problematic when a person is unable to control these responses, and it has a negative impact on their daily life.
The limited knowledge that psychiatrists have about mental health issues like anxiety and depression focuses on the chemical deficit that causes an imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters. Psychiatrists use this principle as their first line of action to correct the chemical imbalance by prescribing SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and other drugs to either boost or block particular chemicals (like serotonin).
These methods along with therapy are effective to some extent, but are a temporary fix and come with adverse side effects. The question that we need to answer is, ‘what causes an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the first place?’ Functional nutrition dives deep into the physiology of anxiety disorders and taps the root cause to be free of this nerve-wracking issue!
What causes anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders can be caused by four major factors — oxidative stress, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, and immune dysfunction. Most people are not aware, but all these four factors are affected by our diet and nutrition.
Mental disorders are essentially metabolic disorders of the brain. Metabolism is fundamental to human existence — it is how our food is converted into energy. It defines the creation and functions of our cells, tissues, organs and so much more! Our metabolism is directly affected by diet, exercise, stress reduction, and sleep management. Interventions in these areas can help us take a better approach to treating mental health issues. In this article, we take a deep look at nutrients that can help combat anxiety disorders!
How does nutrition affect our mental health
- Several Minerals are used by our body to produce neurotransmitters. For instance, Iron promotes the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that look after our emotional health. Deficiency of Iron is known to foster mood disorders. Another mineral that affects our mood is Zinc. It is responsible for increasing brain plasticity, facilitate neurotransmission, and reduce inflammation. Lastly, Magnesium is the premier 'calming mineral,' and it can do wonders for reducing anxiety and boosting mood. Magnesium supplementation has been found to reduce subjective anxiety and stress, and can also improve mild-to-moderate depression in adults.
- Antioxidants are one the most important components needed for optimal mental function. The brain is an oxygen-hungry organ. It consumes 20% of the body's oxygen, and is highly metabolically active, which means it’s producing a lot of oxidative stress as a byproduct. The reason antioxidants like Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin C and zinc, copper and selenium are this important is because they help suppress inflammation and oxidative stress that affect our brain health.
- Foods rich in fibre and other nutrients that encourage healthy gut microbiota are a must for dealing with anxiety. A lot of studies show that the health of our brain is closely aligned to the health of our gut. A lot of functional nutritionists have a saying, ‘fire in the gut, fire in the brain’. Our gut has trillions of microbes that help us. They start affecting our body from the day we are born. The relationship between nutrition and mental health is mediated by an influential pathway within our bodies called the gut–brain axis. The molecules produced by the gut send messages that influence our mental and emotional function through the gut-brain axis. These signals also travel the other way round. Meaning, our emotions and mental state can affect the health of our gut. Thus, it is imperative for us to take care of our gut health to improve anxiety.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have two distinct features that make it another important nutrient that can help fight against anxiety. One of these features is their ability to reduce inflammation. One of the reasons one can be susceptible to anxiety disorders might be inflammation in the brain. The next feature of Omega-3s is its role in producing dopamine. As it’s commonly known, dopamine is also called the ‘feel good hormone’. Many psychiatrists also supplement dopamine as a defence against anxiety. One can naturally increase the amount of dopamine produced in our body by having seafood or supplementing with krill oil which is rich in Omega-3.
- Folate or Vitamin B9 deficiency has been known to facilitate anxiety disorders amongst other mental issues. Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine helps produce dopamine along with facilitating the production of serotonin and epinephrine. All of which are clinically proven to affect mental disorders.
- Vitamin B1 or Thiamine can be really effective in treating anxiety disorders. It is an essential nutrient for a healthy nervous system as it is responsible for converting food into energy. It plays a role in transmitting impulses from one neuron to another and is also needed for synthesis of brain chemicals such as acetylcholine – that keeps our nervous system in a rest-and-digest state.
Precision nutrition with testing
We have looked at several nutrients that can help with anxiety. You can obtain them through food as well as supplements. However, let’s not forget about bio individuality! Every person will have different genetics, metabolism, nutritional deficiencies and other factors that trigger their anxiety.
Hence, it is wise to establish a precise nutrition plan through data from blood work and advanced tests. You would want to make sure you are aware of all the mechanisms in your body and their functioning in order to avoid any contradictions. So, you can visit a functional nutritionist and get a detailed diet and lifestyle plan to put your anxiety to rest!
- The biology of anxiety. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved January 19, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/anxiety/the-biology-anxiety
- Ferguson, J. M. (2001, February 1). SSRI Antidepressant Medications. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v03n0105
- Nutrition’s Role in Anxiety Disorders: Evaluating Mental Wellness | The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2023, June 6). The Institute for Functional Medicine. https://www.ifm.org/news-insights/nutritions-role-in-anxiety-disorders-evaluating-mental-wellness/
- Metabolic disorders of the brain: Brain Energy: The Metabolic Theory of Mental Illness: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/advancing-psychiatry/202211/brain-energy-the-metabolic-theory-mental-illness
- A-Cfhc, L. C. M. C. L. (2019, November 27). Nutrition and mental health: what’s the connection? Chris Kresser. https://chriskresser.com/nutrition-and-mental-health-whats-the-connection/
- Nutrition’s Role in Anxiety Disorders: Evaluating Mental Wellness | The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2023b, June 6). The Institute for Functional Medicine. https://www.ifm.org/news-insights/nutritions-role-in-anxiety-disorders-evaluating-mental-wellness/
- Gannage, J. (2023, January 24). Treating Anxiety with Omega-3 - Markham Integrative Medicine. Markham Integrative Medicine. https://integrative-medicine.ca/treating-anxiety-with-omega-3/