Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a very normal emotion that might strike before we write a test, speak publicly or make an important decision.
This is different from anxiety disorders, however. Anxiety disorders affect over 18% of the American population alone, and develop as a result of a complex set of factors, including personality, brain chemistry, genetics, and life experiences.
A panic disorder, on the other hand, affects only 2-3% of the American population, and is a type of anxiety disorder that occurs spontaneously, and often when there’s no real threat, only a perceived one (1). It may feel as though the individual has lost control.
Panic disorders are often accompanied by (2):
- Fast heartbeat
- Weakness or dizziness
- Feeling hot or a cold chill
- Chest or stomach pain
- Tingly or numb hands
- Difficulty breathing
Now, studies looking into the cause of depression and anxiety have found that diet directly affects your mental state.
The Brain, Vitamin B6, Iron and Serotonin
The study, conducted 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 (3).
Vitamin B6 (otherwise known as pyridoxine) is an essential nutrient that helps assist in the creation of serotonin, GABA and dopamine. It is also involved in several of the steps involved in carbohydrate metabolism, and is required by heme (a key section of hemoglobin) for its production. Lack of this vitamin is interestingly associated with high levels of chronic inflammation in the body, as well as symptoms of depression, skin issues like dermatitis, high blood pressure and anemia (4).
Now, researchers have found that lack of this vitamin is a major trigger for panic and anxiety attacks.
So how does vitamin B6 tie in with iron and serotonin? Let me explain below.
Because vitamin B6 contributes to the synthesis of heme (an iron-containing component of hemoglobin), it plays an important role in the health of our blood. When our vitamin B6 and iron levels are too low, the blood has a hard time producing enough hemoglobin, a vital component of red blood cells. Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen through the blood, so if your red blood cell count is low, you’ll most likely feel tired and experience shortness of breath.
Serotonin is a chemical produced by the brain and gut, and is often called the “happiness hormone,” because it promotes feelings of calm and well-being in the body. It acts as a hormone in the gut, and a neurotransmitter in the brain (5). Research has shown that vitamin B6 has a significant impact on the production of serotonin and GABA neurotransmitters in the brain (6). In fact, many prescription antidepressant medications work the same way that vitamin B6 does – by raising levels of serotonin in the brain.
GABA and serotonin are important hormones that control mood, and are needed to prevent depression, pain, fatigue and anxiety.
Serotonin is also synthesized in the body from its precursor, tryptophan. Inadequate tryptophan intake from fresh fruit and vegetables leads to (you called it) reduced serotonin production, directly impacting mood and impairing memory.
So, essentially, being low in vitamin B6 and iron creates a condition where we are most definitely prone to anxiety attacks, depression and panic disorders. With not enough healthy oxygen flow in our blood, and lower serotonin production, our brains, to say the least, get a little messed up.
Proper Nutrition and Mental Health
As a result, the key to eating an anxiety-ridding diet may be foods rich in vitamin B6, iron and tryptophan. Consuming a whole-foods diet, low in processed and packaged foods, and swapping them out for fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds is guaranteed to have an effect on how you feel in your brain and body.
Below is a list of foods that contain tryptophan, vitamin B6, and iron. Taken together, these foods become a powerful combo. Make sure you get one from each list in your diet at least every day.
- Dark leafy greens (like spinach, kale, collards, mustard greens and swiss chard)
- Lentils and beans (like kidney, black, pinto, navy, etc.)
- Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, hemp, chia)
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachio nuts (high in B6 too!))
- Sweet potatoes (also high in B6)
- Sweet potatoes
- Sunflower seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Green Peas
- Hearts of palm
- Nutritional yeast
- All squash and pumpkin
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Morel mushrooms
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Dill weed
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Medjool dates
- Sea vegetables (kelp, nori, spirulina, dulse, etc.)
- Green peas
- Black-strap molasses
- Beans and lentils