Anxiety and Your Brain

When You Are Struggling with Anxiety, You May Need to Balance Neurotransmitters Better

The Production and Function of Key Anti-Anxiety Neurotransmitters

There are many factors that are involved in healthy brain function and that may therefore affect anxiety:

  • The regular production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA
  • The normal function of these neurotransmitters (which requires a healthy hormone balance)
  • Low levels of inflammation

Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that help to regulate how your brain works. The most relevant ones for anxiety include serotonin (happy), GABA (calm), and dopamine (reward).

Serotonin

Surprisingly, your gut makes 80-90% of your body’s level of this chemical. It is known as the “happy” neurotransmitter because it elevates your mood and improves your happiness and sense of well-being. It also helps you feel calmer.

As a result, serotonin prevents depression and anxiety. Tryptophan is one of the building blocks for serotonin. Food sources of tryptophan include eggs, cheese, tofu, pineapple, salmon, nuts, seeds, and turkey.

Low protein diets or deficiencies of active B6, iron and magnesium may lead to serotonin deficiencies resulting in anxiety or depression (1,2).

How would you know if you were deficient in minerals? You may lack some minerals and not even notice it. There are some signs and symptoms of deficiency that you can be aware of:

  • Low iron symptoms: fatigue, hair loss, anemia, weakness, and shortness of breath.
  • Low magnesium symptoms: muscle cramps or spasms, anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia, and sensitive teeth.
  • Low B6 symptoms: nervousness, irritability, depression, seizures, and burning mouth syndrome (3).

Do you suspect a vitamin or mineral deficiency?

If you suspect a mineral deficiency, contact your naturopathic doctor for testing and customized supplement recommendations.

Vitamin B6

Studies on the babies of vitamin B6 deficient female mice show decreased activity of the enzyme used to make serotonin (tryptophan hydroxylase). (4)

Food sources for vitamin B6 include fish, beef liver, beef, poultry and other organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and non-citrus fruits.

Magnesium

Magnesium is also involved in the production of serotonin. Research shows lower magnesium levels in the platelets of suicidal patients with depression than in non-suicidal depressed patients. (5)

Magnesium is present in foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and leafy green vegetables. Our bodies need magnesium for many functions, yet we often do not get enough of it in our diets. It may be a good idea to add a supplement to your routine.

Iron

Iron is a co-factor for the enzyme that converts tryptophan to 5-HTP, which then makes serotonin. Iron-rich foods include beef, poultry, and leafy greens like spinach and kale.

Ways to increase serotonin

  • Expose yourself to bright light. We feel better on sunny summer days than dreary winter ones. Animal experiments show an increase in serotonin after exposure of the inside of the eye to bright light.
  • Regular exercise improves your mood. Research suggests that physical activity increases your brain’s serotonin activity.
  • Supplements. Natural treatments can increase dopamine levels, but you should only take them on a licensed naturopathic doctor’s advice. They can conflict with other medications, including anti-depressants. Recommended supplements may include 5HTP, Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, Magnesium Bisglycinate, or Iron Bisglycinate.

GABA

GABA is the primary calming neurotransmitter produced in your body. It blocks specific “exciting” signals that lead to mental and physical health problems. GABA and another neurotransmitter, glutamate, work together.

Glutamate’s job is to excite and motivate. Too much of this “excitement” of your nervous system results in anxiety. Healthy levels of GABA are necessary to promote balance.

Increasing GABA

  • Magnesium. As with serotonin, this mineral is vital to GABA production and calms your nervous system. It is present in foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, avocado, fish, and leafy green vegetables.
  • Yoga and meditation are calming and increase positive neurotransmitters. Research shows that GABA increases up to 27% after a 60-minute yoga session. (6)
  • Balanced Diet. Certain foods contain GABA. Tea is an excellent GABA source, with the highest concentration in white tea, followed by oolong, green, and black tea. Other food sources of GABA include cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage), spinach, shiitake mushrooms, soybeans, adzuki and lupini beans, peas, tomatoes, buckwheat, and oats.
  • Supplements. Under the supervision of a licensed naturopathic doctor, supplements such as GABA or L-theanine can increase levels.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a reward neurotransmitter that leads to feelings of happiness. It is linked to behaviours that include motivation, pleasure-seeking, and addiction. As such, it is one of the most heavily-studied neurotransmitters.

It plays essential roles in attention, learning, memory, mood, sleep, movement, and the pleasure associated with anticipation. Similar to serotonin, dopamine is produced by gut bacteria, with 50% of it found in your intestines.

Increasing Dopamine

  • Include foods that contain dopamine in your diet. Good sources are eggplants, oranges, apples, avocados, bananas, beans, peas, plantains, and spinach.
  • Have caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the release of dopamine and increases the availability of dopamine receptors.
  • Drink tea. L-theanine is an amino acid found in teas of all kinds, including black, white, oolong, and green tea. Unlike caffeine, l-theanine creates a state of calm but alert.
  • Food restriction increases the number of dopamine receptors that you have, along with numerous other health benefits. A study found that three months of restricting calorie intake to 70% of regular consumption in rats resulted in more dopamine receptor activity. (7)

Eat a balanced diet to ensure healthy levels of vitamins and minerals

  • B6 (leafy greens, legumes), folate (leafy greens), B12 (dairy, eggs, meat, chicken) and D (being outside in the sun)
  • Magnesium from leafy greens, dark chocolate
  • Iron from meat, chicken, and leafy greens
  • Fish oil from eating salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines

Consider Supplements to Improve Dopamine

Under the advice of a licensed naturopathic doctor supplements that may help dopamine levels include Ginkgo, Curcumin, Mucuna Pruriens, and L-Tyrosine.

Neurotransmitter takeaways

  1. Balance neurotransmitter levels by ensuring that you are getting enough iron, vitamin B6, magnesium and protein from your diet.
  2. Use supplements to improve neurotransmitters only under the guidance of a licensed naturopathic doctor. These may conflict with medications that you are taking.
  3. Drink black, white, oolong, and green tea.
  4. Drink calming herbal teas like chamomile, oat straw, skullcap, lemon balm, and passionflower.

By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc (Hons), Naturopath

Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor

Dr. Pamela has been in practice as a naturopathic doctor in Toronto since 1999. She has been the recipient of numerous “Best Naturopath in Toronto” awards. She is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario.

Dr. Pamela Frank uses a natural treatment approach that may include acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition, diet, vitamins, supplements, and other natural remedies to restore balance and provide long-term resolution of almost any health problem.

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Neurotransmitter References

  1. Yasuhito Mikawa, Satoshi Mizobuchi, Moritoki Egi, Kiyoshi Morita. Low Serum Concentrations of Vitamin B6 and Iron Are Related to Panic Attack and Hyperventilation Attack. Acta Med Okayama. 2013;67(2):99-104. doi: 10.18926/AMO/49668.
  2. Sandra P Arévalo, Tammy M Scott, Luis M Falcón, Katherine L Tucker. Vitamin B-6 and Depressive Symptomatology, Over Time, in Older Latino Adults. Nutr Neurosci. 2019 Sep;22(9):625-636. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1422904. Epub 2018 Jan 16. PMID: 29338677 PMCID: PMC6318075 (available on 2020-09-01) DOI:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1422904
  3. Claudia S Morr Verenzuela, Mark D P Davis, Alison J Bruce, Rochelle R Torgerson. Burning Mouth Syndrome: Results of Screening Tests for Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies, Thyroid Hormone, and Glucose Levels-Experience at Mayo Clinic Over a Decade. Int J Dermatol. 2017 Sep;56(9):952-956. doi: 10.1111/ijd.13634. Epub 2017 Apr 23.
  4. Mara Ribeiro Almeida, Lawrence Mabasa, Courtney Crane, Chung S Park, Vinícius Paula Venâncio, Maria Lourdes Pires Bianchi, Lusânia Maria Greggi Antunes. Maternal Vitamin B6 Deficient or Supplemented Diets on Expression of Genes Related to GABAergic, Serotonergic, or Glutamatergic Pathways in Hippocampus of Rat Dams and Their Offspring. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016 Jul;60(7):1615-24. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201500950. Epub 2016 Mar 29.
  5. Nedjeljka Ruljancic, Mate Mihanovic, Ivana Cepelak, Ana Bakliza, Katarina Dodig Curkovic. Platelet Serotonin and Magnesium Concentrations in Suicidal and Non-Suicidal Depressed Patients. Magnes Res. Jan-Feb 2013;26(1):9-17. doi: 10.1684/mrh.2013.0332.
  6. Chris C Streeter, Theodore H Whitfield, Liz Owen, Tasha Rein, Surya K Karri, Aleksandra Yakhkind, Ruth Perlmutter, Andrew Prescot, Perry F Renshaw, Domenic A Ciraulo, J Eric Jensen. Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Nov;16(11):1145-52. doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0007. Epub 2010 Aug 19.
  7. Panayotis K Thanos, Michael Michaelides, Yiannis K Piyis, Gene-Jack Wang, Nora D Volkow. Food Restriction Markedly Increases Dopamine D2 Receptor (D2R) in a Rat Model of Obesity as Assessed With In-Vivo muPET Imaging ([11C] Raclopride) and In-Vitro ([3H] Spiperone) Autoradiography. Synapse. 2008 Jan;62(1):50-61. doi: 10.1002/syn.20468.
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