In general, a healthy diet is abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, organic fresh fruits and vegetables, filtered water, and devoid of foods high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. This dietary pattern resembles the Mediterranean diet. In addition, the following nutrients may support healthy stress response and help balance brain chemistry naturally:
When the brain produces a neurotransmitter, it starts with a raw ingredient-usually an amino acid from the diet or another chemical already present in the brain. Enzymes are then used to convert the amino acid into the needed brain chemical. By understanding this process in detail, we can take measures to ensure an ample supply of the raw ingredients and enhance the activity of the enzymes. There are various cofactors that help the enzymes work faster; B-vitamins, for example:
L-tryptophan, 5-HTP. Insufficient intakes of L-tryptophan, L-phenylalanine, or L-tyrosine are associated with increased symptoms of anxiety. Supplementation with L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) has been shown to elevate brain serotonin levels and enhance both mood and one’s sense of well-being. Vitamin B6, magnesium, and vitamin C, nutrients already taken by most health-conscious people, are cofactors that facilitate the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin in the brain. As people age they produce more of an enzyme that degrades tryptophan, even if taking tryptophan supplements. Lysine, niacinamide, and anti-inflammatory nutrients such as rosemary have been shown to neutralize the effects of this enzyme and help preserve the synthesis of serotonin from tryptophan. D,L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine taken with a carbohydrate-rich meal can increase synthesis of dopamine and norepinephrine. There are no reported adverse effects, but pregnant women and individuals taking MAOIs should avoid high doses.
L-lysine. An L-lysine deficiency has been shown to increase stress-induced anxiety in humans. L-lysine binds to a serotonin receptor, acting as a serotonin antagonist by inhibiting serotonin reuptake in the synapse. When presented with a stressful situation, supplementation with L-lysine reduced anxiety in human subjects.
L-Theanine. Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, produces a calming effect on the brain. Theanine easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. It increases the production of GABA and dopamine and protects the cells of the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory in the brain from damage. In an 8-week study involving 60 schizophrenic patients, 400 mg of theanine was added to standard antipsychotic therapy. The addition of theanine significantly reduced anxiety and improved several other measures of mood beyond what was achievable with pharmaceuticals alone.
S-Adenosylmethionine (SAM-e). SAM-e occurs naturally in the body. It is concentrated in the liver and brain and is a major methyl donor in the synthesis of hormones, nucleic acids, proteins, phospholipids, and catecholamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. SAMe facilitates glutathione usage and maintains acetylcholine levels, helping to preserve cognitive function while aging and possibly attenuating neurodegeneration. In an 8-week clinical study involving depressed individuals with HIV/AIDS, supplementation with up to 1,600 mg of SAM-e considerably improved disposition on multiple standardized assessments. The effects of treatment with SAM-e became evident in as little as one week.
Magnesium. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxiety disorders in several clinical studies. Several human trials have supported the link between magnesium deficiency and anxiety. When taken for one month in combination with a multivitamin, zinc and calcium, magnesium dramatically decreased symptoms of distress and anxiety compared to a placebo. Further, supplementation with magnesium and vitamin B6 effectively reduced premenstrual-related anxiety. In a placebo-controlled study, dietary supplementation with magnesium reduced generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In community-based studies, a small reduction in mood disorders was seen in those with higher magnesium intakes.
Groundbreaking research has recently shed light on a new preparation, magnesium threonate, which may overcome a longstanding obstacle in magnesium supplementation – blood-brain barrier permeability. High magnesium levels in the brain have been linked with superior cognitive function. However, conventional magnesium supplements are not efficient in raising these levels because they do not penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that magnesium threonate effectively elevates magnesium levels inside the central nervous system. The scientists also discovered that magnesium threonate improves cognitive function significantly better than other forms of magnesium.
Selenium. Selenium has been shown to reduce anxiety. In double-blind randomized clinical trials, subjects given 100 mg of selenium daily for 5 weeks reported improved mood and less anxiety. The same treatment regimen also reduced post-partum depression. Selenium supplementation reduces anxiety in elderly hospitalized patients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and HIV patients receiving Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART). The role of selenium in supporting positive mood is quite complex. Selenium is a critical component in a variety of important enzymes whose action can significantly impact overall health. For example, the enzymes that help synthesize thyroid hormones. In a selenium deficient state, thyroid hormone synthesis may deteriorate, which can lead to poor mood and many other negative conditions.
Omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are necessary for proper brain function. The typical Western diet has an overly high ratio of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a variety of health benefits, most recently being improved mood and reduced anxiety. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled and randomized clinical trial, medical students were given either 2.5g/day of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) or placebo capsules containing the fatty acid profile of a typical American diet. Compared to controls, those students receiving the omega-3 capsules showed a 20% reduction in anxiety. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 3 months reduced anxiety and anger in substance abusers. Reduced test anxiety and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol have also been associated with omega-3 supplementation.
Botanical herbs have been shown to manage many psychiatric disorders, including anxiety. Being that the quality, composition, conditions for growth & extraction processes of herbal products can vary greatly, care should be taken in choosing an herbal remedy. The following herbs either have anti-anxiety effects or target key molecular sites associated with neurotransmitters in the central nervous system:
Ginkgo biloba. Several double-blind placebo-controlled studies showed that Ginkgo biloba binds to and activates the GABA receptor, and like a benzodiazepine, reduces anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety disorders without side effects.
Valerian (Valeriana officiaonalis). This temperate herb has been used for medicinal purposes since the time of Hippocrates. Components of valerian root have been shown in laboratory studies to bind to GABA receptors, increase the release of GABA, and decrease its reuptake. Valerian root extracts have also been shown to activate glutamic acid decarboxylase, an enzyme involved in the synthesis of GABA. In recent clinical studies, psychiatric rating scales have shown that a daily dose of 400-900 mg of extracts from valerian root is as effective as diazepam at reducing anxiety.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, sometimes used as a culinary herb and flavoring agent. The plant also has several anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) actions. In some studies, extracts from lemon balm have been shown to suppress levels of stress hormones (glucocorticoids) while also promoting the growth of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis. Moreover, lemon balm contains compounds that strongly suppress the breakdown of GABA, which may prolong the anti-anxiety effects of the neurotransmitter. In a human clinical trial, it significantly suppressed anxiety when combined with valerian root, another anxiolytic herb.
Rhodiola. Rhodiola rosea is a known adaptogen, an herb that helps improve one’s resistance to stress. It has also shown promise in alleviating anxiety disorder. Ten subjects receiving a daily dose of Rhodiola rosea extract for 10 weeks demonstrated significant improvement in symptoms of anxiety. Another similar 10-week study found that a 340 mg daily dose of Rhodiola rosea extract significantly eased symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Some studies have found that compounds in Rhodiola rosea help ameliorate the anxiety associated with smoking cessation.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, has long been used by Ayurvedic practitioners as a rejuvenating tonic. The herb has anti-inflammatory, antitumor, anti-stress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and rejuvenating properties. Ashwagandha has also been shown to reduce anxiety in humans. In a clinical trial, patients with significant anxiety were divided into two groups, and for twelve weeks were provided either psychotherapy or treated with naturopathic treatment including ashwagandha. The ashwagandha treated group demonstrated a greater reduction in anxiety parameters.
GABA, a neurotransmitter made from the amino acid glutamate, can be taken in the form of a dietary supplement. GABA is the chief inhibiting, or calming neurotransmitter in the brain, functioning as a brake on the neural circuitry during stress. Low GABA levels are associated with restlessness, anxiety, insomnia and a poor mood. Clinical studies have shown that the use of GABA as a dietary supplement relieves stress, anxiety, and increases the production of alpha brain waves (associated with relaxation.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) shows promise for alleviating mood disorders through a variety of mechanisms. It acts as a precursor to glutathione, a potent cellular antioxidant that may help ease neuronal oxidative stress. Furthermore, in contributing to glutathione synthesis, NAC uses up excess glutamate stores. This might lessen the excitatory transmission triggered by glutamate.
Vitamin D. The impact of this hormone-like vitamin on mood disorders is complex. There are receptors for vitamin D throughout the brain, and data indicates that lower vitamin D signaling leads to increased anxious behavior. There is a considerable association between low vitamin D levels and depression, but the connection with anxiety is less clear. Nonetheless, maintaining a vitamin D level between 50 – 80 ng/ml is suggested for everyone to promote optimal health and protect against the ravages of aging.
Our bodies are truly elegant in their design. This is especially apparent with brain function. A common element of this design is the brain’s binary systems, wherein one chemical activates a process while its partner turns it off again. One example is glutamate and GABA, which together account for over 80 percent of brain activity. Glutamate accelerates brain activity (excitatory), while GABA puts the brakes on (inhibitory). Together, they keep the brain humming along at just the right pace—not too fast, not too slow. If you have developed anxiety, then the balance of these two chemicals has been thrown off. As a result, the brain’s activity level is turned up too high, at least in some areas. The balancing supplements for glutamate and GABA include but are not limited to the amino acids GABA, and L-theanine; the antioxidant NAC; vitamins B6 and D; the minerals magnesium and zinc; and omega-3 fatty acids.