Nutritional deficiencies can mean your brain does not have the building blocks it needs to function optimally. You need amino acids, which come from protein, to build a healthy body. Also, several of the B-complex vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12, are needed as cofactors for the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the gut.
Iron deficiency can cause anxiety because it reduces the oxygen available to body tissues.1 Lack of iron strongly affects the balance between excitatory and calming brain chemicals, such as glutamate (excitatory) and GABA (calming)—for which reason eating iron-rich foods is imperative for treating anxiety. Your doctor can test to see if you are iron deficient.
Most of these can be taken in from whole foods we eat. That said, taking supplements is also a powerful way to put the nutrients that reduce anxiety straight into your body with little effort on your part. Especially when your anxiety is related to chronic stress or malnourishment, it’s reasonable to consider enacting this strategy. In my new book, Anxiety Free with Food, I list the “Top Antianxiety Supplements,” that I recommend to try.
To function adequately, the central nervous system requires a number of amino acids found in protein, and a deficiency of these has a link to stress, anxiety, and depression. (2) One way to improve your neurotransmitters overall is simply to boost your protein intake! When we eat protein, it’s broken down into amino acids, which are then used to help your body with various processes such as regulating immune function, nourishing the brain, building muscle, assisting with mood, intestinal function, and fertility. However, be aware that too much protein can result in elevated levels of amino acids and their by-products (for example, ammonia, homocysteine, and asymmetric dimethylarginine), which may be pathogenic factors for neurological disorders, oxidative stress, and cardiovascular disease. An optimal balance among amino acids in the diet and circulation is crucial for whole-body homeostasis. (3)
The body needs nine essential amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—to function properly. (4) These foods are the most common sources of essential amino acids:
• Lysine: grass-fed meat, eggs, non-GMO soy, black beans, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds
• Histidine: meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
• Threonine: cottage cheese, wheat germ, non-GMO soy, beans, nuts, and grains
1. B. Lozoff, Jet al. “Long-Lasting Neural and Behavioral Effects of Iron Deficiency in Infancy,” Nutrition Reviews, vol. 64, no. 5, pt. 2 (May 2006), pp. S34–43, doi: 10.1301/nr.2006.may.S34-S43.
2. H.R. Lieberman, “Amino Acid and Protein Requirements: Cognitive Performance, Stress, and Brain Function,” in The Role of Protein and Amino Acids in Sustaining and Enhancing Performance, Institute of Medicine (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 1999), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
3. G. Wu, “Amino Acids: Metabolism, Functions, and Nutrition,” Amino Acids, vol. 37, no. 1 (May 2009), pp. 1–17, doi: 10.1007/s00726-009-0269-0.
4. P. Tessari, A. Lanti, and G. Mosca, “Essential Amino Acids: Master Regulators of Nutrition and Environmental Footprint?” Scientific Reports, vol. 6 (2016), doi: 10.1038/srep26074.