by Darby Christopher, LMSW
Please note: This article should not be taken as advice for how to treat any particular condition. Individuals should always consult with their doctor before making any lifestyle or dietary changes, as some natural substances are harmful to specific medical conditions. Never stop taking any prescription medication without the advice and care of your doctor.
The decision of whether or not to take prescription medication for anxiety or depression is a personal choice an individual makes based on many factors. This choice is made in conjunction with a doctor and often with the help of a therapist. For many individuals, prescription medication is not only a good fit, but the best fit for their particular constellation of life experiences, genetics and environment.
This article is written for individuals who, with the help and consultation of their doctor and therapist, would like to try to use diet and dietary supplements to manage their issues with anxiety and depression without, or in conjunction with, prescription medication. It is also intended to provide information for individuals to explore more fully on their own and with their doctor and therapist.
There are many factors that can affect a person’s mood and energy level, such as diet, proper rest, psychotherapy, exercise, spiritual practices, environment and relationships. This article will focus on diet and biochemistry, while acknowledging that each of these areas are interconnected and equally important.
Why Nutrition Matters
Our bodies need well functioning neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, to experience enjoyment, relaxation, focus and motivation. From a holistic perspective, many factors aside from nutrition can affect how well our bodies are able to produce these chemicals. Yet, inadequate nutrition will result in a diminished ability to produce the chemicals we need to feel good. (Inadequate nutrition may result from a tainted food supply, lack of affordable healthy food, absorption problems in the body, and misinformation or inattention to diet.)
What our Bodies Need Nutritionally to Make Feel Good Chemicals
According to Dr. Charles Gant, author of End Your Addiction Now: The Proven Nutritional Supplement Program That Can Set You Free, there are four primary groups of neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings of well being, relaxation and focus. They include endorphins and enkaphalins, serotonin, GABA, and dopamine and norepinephrine. (Serotonin also contributes to an ability to sleep well.) What our bodies need is to ingest the nutrients necessary to manufacture these items. So, what are these nutrients?
Let’s start with serotonin. Specific cells in our bodies manufacture serotonin using the amino acid tryptophan, working in conjunction with vitamin b6, vitamin c, folic acid and magnesium. Some foods that contain tryptophan include cheese, soy products, seafood, meat, poultry, whole grains, eggs, beans, peanuts and sunflower seeds. Some foods that contain vitamin b6 include tuna, bananas and a variety of green vegetables.
GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation, is produced from the amino acid glutamine, working with vitamin b6, vitamin c and magnesium, among others. Foods that contain glutamine include chicken, fish, eggs, beef, beets, dairy, beans and cabbage. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables contain vitamin c, and magnesium is found in specific beans, seeds, fish and green vegetables.
Tyrosine is an important amino acid that contributes to the production of dopamine. Food sources of tyrosine include fish, chicken, pork, whole grains, dairy, beans, nuts and seeds.
The reader may have already noticed that the common admonition to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins applies to managing anxiety and depression. As the intention of this article is to provide a broad overview, the above examples are illustrative. The reader is encouraged to research and explore more of the specific proteins, vitamins and minerals that manufacture the various neurotransmitters and which foods support their production.
The Benefit of Whole Foods
Because many of the nutrients that our bodies need to manufacture neurotransmitters now come for sale in a bottle at our neighborhood stores, a word about eating whole foods is in order. In their book Paradox & Healing, Dr. Michael Greenwood and Dr. Peter Nunn discuss the Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) concept of “Qi,” or, energy, that is a part of whole foods. They contend, “ …it is the “whole” herb or food which has the Qi and its strengthening properties, not any isolated extract which is called for. In other words, the difference between taking vitamin C in capsules and eating fruit which contains the vitamin is profound.” Recent research into the benefits of phytonutrients found in whole fruits and vegetables corroborates the concept of Qi.
Likewise, in his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan says that, “Foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts, and those nutrients work together in ways that are still only dimly understood.” Pollan is a reporter who set out to investigate all of the competing dietary claims in the media. He discovered a very simple truth, which is that the Western diet, with all of its processed foods that he calls “edible foodlike substances,” makes people sick, and traditional diets, no matter what whole, natural foods they consist of, promote wellness. Pollan sums up his discovery of what we should eat in what he calls seven simple words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Having made a case for the benefit of whole foods, our attention will now turn to the possible benefits of nutritional supplements that come in bottles. Just as in some cases prescription medicine is indicated, there are cases also where nutritional supplements, under a doctor’s supervision, are beneficial. These situations might include cases of nutritional deficiency, attempting to overcome an addiction, as advocated by Dr. Gant, or as a personal preference to combat the effects of anxiety and depression.
Many studies have shown and proven the efficacy of treating various conditions with nutritional supplements. Conversely, concern for supplement use may include the body subsequently under producing the item being supplemented, or other imbalances. (Always consult a doctor when considering nutritional supplements, as they can be harmful or even fatal in excess amounts or when combined with certain conditions.)
Of the many supplements on the market today, a few examples will suffice here. If increased serotonin is desired, a product called 5 HTP may be indicated. The amino acid tryptophan turns into 5HTP in the body along the way to making serotonin. GABA can be purchased directly, as can the amino acid tyrosine, which the body uses to make norepenephrine and dopamine. Fish oil aids in overall brain health, and multivitamins enable the chemicals in our body to do their work.
Inositol is another nutrient for sale that contributes to brain health and helps the body metabolize nutrients. Dr. Fred Penzel reports success in his studies with inositol and trichotillomania (hair pulling), to cite one example.
Herbs, such as St. John’s Wort and hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone and thyroid, are also sometimes indicated in the treatment of depression. As with any supplement, careful attention must be paid to combining herbs and hormones with other treatments, and should take place only under a doctor’s supervision.
SAM-e and Methylation
A popular and increasingly well known product on the market today is SAM-e, which is a naturally occurring substance in the body whose function is to act as a catalyst promoting the chemical reactions that allow the body to produce desired substances. These chemical reactions are known as methylation pathways. SAM-e’s benefit is in taking the raw materials available in the body and producing the desired result, including the regulation of neurotransmitters. Many studies have shown the benefit of SAM-e to alleviate depression.
Individuals who are seeking ways to address their anxiety and depression without or in conjunction with prescription medication may find that a well balanced regime of exercise, meditation, proper rest, social support, work with a therapist, and attention to diet may give them the help and relief they are looking for. For the diet portion of this plan, whole foods are essential. Supplements can be added under a doctor’s care and may be beneficial, but do not take the place of whole foods. Informed consultation with a doctor or therapist may help determine an individual’s best course of action, and some trial and error may be expected along the way to discovering what combination of elements will work best.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading:
Food Rules, by Michael Pollan
End Your Addiction Now: The Proven Nutritional Supplement Program That Can Set You Free, by Dr. Charles Gant and Dr. Greg Lewis
Paradox and Healing: Medicine, Mythology & Transformation, by Dr. Michael Greenwood & Dr. Peter Nunn
Web site, The World’s Healthiest Foods, http://www.whfoods.com/
Web site, The Podell Medical Practice: Merging Traditional Medical Practice and Alternative Therapies, http://www.drpodell.org