Although some of us (the unlucky ones) may be more susceptible to one too many anxiety attacks, there is a way to build up our strength against them: nutrition! How can food be our antidote to anxiety? Well, a number of brain chemicals are out of balance during an anxiety attack, so the solution is to find nutrients that break down into these very important chemicals that we’re in dire need of. Serotonin is one of the major brain-calming chemicals often in deficit in those anxiety-prone people like me.
An interesting experiment done on two groups of rats helps explain why serotonin is our saviour: one group had the gene for the transportation of serotonin back into neurons to be used for sending chemical messages, whereas the other group did not have this gene. Rats of the former group not only have insufficient availability of serotonin but they also have less emotional control and anxiety-like personalities.
The same holds true for human subjects. This genotype for abnormal serotonin transporter gene correlates with a hyperactive amygdala, an area of the brain known for its role in processing fear and other emotions. This abnormality seems to lead to lower stress resilience (i.e., inability to cope or “bounce back” after stress). To further test how a low or high level of 5-HT transportation contributes to anxiety, researches fed the two groups of rats a specific diet of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), B vitamins, and phospholipids (soy lethicin): three nutrients shown to decrease anxiety (especially PUFAs).
When rats with low serotonin transporter activity were fed a regular diet not rich in the three key nutrients mentioned above they displayed higher anxiety-related behaviour and could not stop their fear response. However, these effects reversed when rats with the same low serotonin were fed a diet rich in the nutrients. In other words, with the specific diet, rats’ anxiety behaviours were reduced! The diet did nothing to rats that had normal functioning serotonin, however, showing that diet has therapeutic benefits only when animals were genetically compromised.
B vitamins exhibit most of their benefits by elevating mood (i.e., are sometimes used as anti-depressants), which may also help anxiety by contributing to a “feel good” mood. PUFAs increase some serotonin receptors, which make binding of serotonin more efficient and increases serotonin levels in the brain. This leads to decreased anxiety.
Other brain chemicals often deficient in anxiety-prone people are GABA (the brains biggest calming chemical), magnesium (prevents against substance P toxicity), potassium (not enough allows too much sodium to enter channels in the brain causing an “overactive, over electrified, anxious” brain), taurine (enhances GABA effects), estrodial (enhances serotonin receptivity), and progesterone (converts into a compound that activates GABA).
On the other hand, excess dopamine and glutamate (the brain’s stimulating neurochemicals), as well as histamine (a chemical that activates dopamine receptors) and caffeine can lead to a more anxious, over stimulated brain. In summary, the problem is easily solved at least from a neurochemical perspective: boost your levels of these calming compounds, and avoid the stimulants!
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