By Ellie Kempton of Simply Nourished
As the days get colder and darker and the “scent” of the hectic holidays is on the horizon, it’s all too easy to start normalizing a higher influx of tasks. It’s no wonder this time of year tends to be wrought with a bit more anxiety. Whether anxiety is cyclical or chronic for you personally, know you are not alone. And while it’s a vulnerable topic, an understanding of the biochemistry of anxiety is the most powerful “tool” you have because it’s only once you understand the imbalance that you can make targeted choices daily to restore balance and release your biochemistry from the grips of anxiety. The best place to start is by looking at the chemicals in our body that produce anxiety in the first place. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical molecules synthesized within brain cells which facilitate the transfer of messages between brain cells. There are over a hundred major and minor signaling chemicals in the brain but the most contributory neurotransmitters that pertain to anxiety include excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine as well as inhibitory [calming] neurotransmitters such as GABA, dopamine and serotonin. Each neurotransmitter does not operate in isolation. Instead there is a careful balance of overall neurochemistry where too much, or too little, of any of one neurotransmitter upsets the entire balance of the brain.
Below is an illustration of the 3 neurotransmitters necessary to experience relief, peace and calm from anxiety.
There are 3 main triggers for neurotransmitter imbalance and they stem from the following:
Inflammation stemming from chronic disease, hormone imbalance, infections and more can cause a disruption of the delicate balance of neurotransmitters. Research indicates inflammation is not only at the root cause of anxiety but also of diagnosable depression.
Common Hidden Causes of Inflammation:
Soothing inflammation starts with the complete elimination of sugar, an increase in omega 3 fatty acids and the diligent pursuit of consuming phytochemicals in the form of vegetables. Phytochemicals are nutrients that fight inflammation and are typically found in the color/pigment of fruits and vegetables.
#2 Gut Health
In functional medicine there is a saying, “fire in the gut means fire in the brain.” In other words, if your gut is inflamed don’t be too surprised if you feel as though your brain is inflamed. Infections like SIBO, bacterial dysbiosis, parasites, yeast overgrowth, and H. pylori can all be causes of inflammation. Intestinal hyperpermeability [leaky gut] and food sensitivities can also be a source of inflammation.
When the inflammatory signals from the gut travel to the brain via our vagus nerve it makes us irritable, angry and anti-social, compromising the production of calm/feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. In fact, about 400 times more serotonin is found in your gut than your brain to be exact. And if the production of this serotonin is hindered due to GI distress, it’s nearly impossible not to feel at the mercy of stress and anxiety.
So with the gut at the helm of neurotransmitter synthesis, it’s paramount to have any symptoms of GI distress tested.
Have Lab Testing Completed
Once you’ve determined the health of your gut you can understand which therapies are necessary to help you heal.
While investigating the source of GI distress consider adding in raw, cultured, organic vegetables like pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables to your diet to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. [In the case of SIBO or yeast overgrowth, avoid these foods until the infection is resolved.]
#3 Nutrient Deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies are much more common than you might think.
If you have a digestive issue that is compromising your ability to absorb nutrients then you’re at higher risk.
Adhering to a restrictive diet of any kind for too long, be it veganism, vegetarianism, keto, or autoimmune protocol, for example, can put you at risk for deficiencies. If you have anxiety, it is always important to examine if your diet is working for you or if your diet is in need of some fine tuning to meet your current needs.
If you’re taking nutrient depleting medications like the birth control pill then you’re at an increased risk for nutrient deficiencies as well. Medications that block acid, like PPIs and Tums, as well as those used in diabetics can create nutrient deficiencies that can also manifest as anxiety and depression.
Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, B6, Inositol, folate, B12, copper, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D all have a direct impact on mood and happen to alleviate common deficiencies in most people.
Additionally, if you have any issues with protein absorption then you're going to be deficient in the amino acids your body needs to make neurotransmitters. Below is a diagram of how proteins [from specific foods] contribute to the production of the 3 calming neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine and serotonin.
Here are 5 anxiety taming superstars extracted from the list because of how accessible [and delicious] they are. I encourage you to weave them into your meals daily as you unravel the root of your anxiety:
eggs - choline - supports overall brain health
dark leafy greens - b vitamins - supports neurotransmitter signaling
cocoa - magnesium - supports production of serotonin
green tea - supports suppression of excitatory neurotransmitters via amino acid l-theanine
chamomile tea - supports production of GABA
All in all, it turns out you don’t have to quietly suck it up and just "be stronger.” The absence of anxiety is a biological phenomena spurred by balanced neurotransmitters. And the balance of those neurotransmitters [namely serotonin + dopamine + GABA] stems from a combination of soothing anxiety, healing your gut and honing in on some key nutrients that you just might be missing.
Anxiety is not your fault.
Anxiety [and deep depression] can be tamed but first you need to understand the root.
To your joyful [and balanced] self,