Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness, affecting 18% of the American population alone. They develop as the result of a complex set of factors, including personality, brain chemistry, genetics, and life experiences. Anxiety disorders often accompany depression. (1) Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. Panic attacks occur spontaneously and often when there’s no real threat, only a perceived one.
It is characterized by the following physical symptoms (2):
- Fast heartbeat/palpitations
- Chest or stomach pain
- Breathing difficulty – shortness of breath or feeling smothered
- Weakness or dizziness
- Feeling hot or a cold chill
- Tingly or numb hands
We often cannot change things that happen to us but how we handle life’s curve balls dictates our quality of life. However, if we could change things, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity.
Studies into the causes of anxiety and depression have found that diet directly affects your mental state.
Unlocking Brain Chemistry
Serotonin is a chemical produced by the brain and gut, often called “the happiness hormone” because it promotes calm and a feeling of well-being. Many common anti-depressant medications have been specifically formulated to stimulate serotonin production. Serotonin acts as a hormone in the gut and a neurotransmitter in the brain. (3)
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid required for the synthesis of serotonin. It’s found in fruits, vegetables, seeds, and food from animals. It has been shown that inadequate tryptophan intake reduces serotonin production, directly lowering mood and impairing memory. (4) Without serotonin, many unpleasant symptoms may appear.
Other co-factors in the synthesis of serotonin are vitamin B6 and iron. A study at the Okayama University Graduate School of Medicine, Dentistry, and Pharmacological Sciences demonstrated that significant deficiencies in these two nutrients existed in all of the sample patients who presented at a hospital emergency department with panic attacks and with hyperventilation. (5)
Vitamin B6 is an essential nutrient (we get it from the food we eat), critical for enzymes that metabolize proteins (whose components are amino acids like tryptophan). B6 also contributes to the synthesis of heme, an iron-containing component of hemoglobin. Without enough of both B6 and iron, therefore, the blood may not produce enough hemoglobin, a vital component of red blood cells. (6) Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen through the blood; if your red blood cell count is low, you can feel tired and experience shortness of breath.
Nutrition & Mental Health
The correlation between nutrition and mental health is very real and measurable.
To ensure proper nutrition to minimize anxiety, following are some foods to include in your regular diet. You’ll notice that some foods are rich in all three essential nutrients that you need to produce serotonin. Nature is pretty smart. Vitamin C and magnesium are tryptophan co-factors; some of these foods contain all of these nutrients but a variety of foods taken together will optimize the precursors to serotonin, so important for mental health and quality sleep!
- Chia seeds
- Fish, including shellfish
- Leafy greens
- Oat bran
- Pistachio nuts (with B6, too)
- Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds
- Quenepa (ackee) fruit
- Sesame seeds
- Soy (in small amounts and make sure it’s organic, to avoid genetically modified organisms)
- Sweet potatoes
- Turkey and other poultry
- Warm milk
With vitamin B6:
- Herbs and spices: dill, bay leaf, paprika, chili powder, turmeric, tarragon, sage, spearmint, marjoram, oregano
- Meats: beef, pork, poultry, fish
- Red bell pepper
- Sweet potato
- Sunflower seeds
- Turnip greens
- Wheat germ
- Dried apricots
- Dark leafy greens: kale, turnip and beet greens, spinach
- Raw cocoa
- White beans
Diet is only one shade in the intricate mental health picture. But it is the one thing over which we have absolute control. Improve your diet and your mental health will follow!