Anxiety: More Than a Mental Health Issue
Anxiety is a huge problem in our culture today. An estimated 18.1% of the U.S. population experiences an anxiety disorder, yet that number is undoubtedly higher, as many sufferers don't seek support or treatment. Additionally, approximately 33% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives (1).
Anxiety is most commonly considered a mental health disorder, and it is indeed that. However, our bodies, minds, and spirits are intricately connected: we are triune beings made after our triune Creator God. Keeping this in mind as we dive into the root causes of anxiety and anxiety disorders, we find that anxiety IS a mental health issue...but it's not JUST a mental health issue. There are nutritional, biochemical, genetic and inherited, environmental, and social/societal influences that all affect the presence (or absence) of anxiety in an individual's life. This post will focus on one of the lesser-talked-about anxiety inducers: nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrient deficiencies are, in all honesty, an epidemic in our society. With the rise of food processing, genetic modification of crops, hormone injections into cattle, and other man-made "improvements" to our God-given food supply, we have reaped undesired effects along with the convenience, preservation, and sustenance of these processed foods. As time has gone on and as herbicides and pesticides have become common, the mineral supply of our soil has greatly diminished, resulting in less-nutrient-dense foods, both plant and animal. The combination of increased consumption of processed, nutrient-void food products, and the consumption of hybridized and nutrient-depleted whole foods has, unsurprisingly, resulted in nutrient deficiencies and the health problems that they produce.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FOOD AND BRAIN FUNCTION
Our bodies produce a cascade of chemicals that are designed to motivate us into action (cortisol), keep us calm and cool (serotonin), make us feel good (dopamine), keep our pain in check, whether emotional or physical (endorphin), and help us relax (GABA). When our bodies are healthy and functioning as such, these hormones and catecholamines contribute to (and, in some ways, control) the health and wellbeing of our person. However, these chemicals aren't produced in isolation, or pulled out of a magician's hat: they require nutrients to be made. The primary nutrients needed to produce these catecholamines are amino acids, or the building blocks of complex proteins.
Each amino acid contributes to different bodily functions, by stimulating the glands associated with, or contributing to the generation of, different bodily chemicals. For example, tryptophan, the star of today's post (and the star of today's recipe inspiration, shared below), is the precursor to serotonin, which helps us to have a positive attitude, emotional stability, self-confidence, flexibility (emotional and mental), and an easygoing attitude. A serotonin deficiency, oftentimes caused by a tryptophan deficiency, can result in mid-afternoon to evening cravings, negative thoughts, anxiety and worry, social anxiety and low self-esteem, hyperactivity or physical tics, perfectionistic tendencies, heat intolerance, chronic pain conditions, and even suicidal thoughts.
All foods contain SOME amino acids; however, as noted above, due to hybridization, genetic engineering and modification, and conventionally grown crops and animals, the amino acid supply of our food has decreased, too. Once upon a time, even bananas held an impressive amino acid profile. But in today's world, with today's food, the nutrient compositions of even the most notoriously nutrient-dense foods will not be what they once were. Additionally, all foods contain different amounts of amino acids, and in different ratios. When using food as medicine (nutritional therapy), therefore, we must be careful to ensure one's diet is as nutrient-dense as possible for every gram of food consumed. As stated previously, nutrient deficiencies are a HUGE problem in America, but food deficiencies are definitely not. This is why it's extremely helpful to work with a qualified naturopath or nutritional therapist who can help to identify the best diet for you, and help you structure your diet to best fulfill your individual needs.
Expanding on our banana example, though, one would have to consume over 40,000 bananas (40,352.94, to be exact) in order to get the same amount of tryptophan that is contained in a 100 gram serving of turkey meat (0.01 g in 100 g banana, versus 403 g in 100 g turkey). The 403 grams of tryptophan found in 100 grams of turkey meat is around 150% of the RDA for tryptophan, all contained in around 150 calories. Comparing this with the 4,237,767 calories required to provide the same amount of tryptophan, it's clear that "not all foods are created equal," even HEALTHY foods. But when we are smart with the structure of our diets, food really CAN be medicine for our bodies.
As both a Naturopathic Doctor and Certified Nutrition Specialist, I always strive to remedy ailments and illnesses with FOOD FIRST, as that is the original "medicine" God intended us to use (see Genesis 1, Ezekiel 4, etc.)! Supplements are, in my practice (and should be), always a last resort, but never a first line of defense. Supplements should be just that: supplements to a healthy, nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet, consisting of ample vitamins and minerals found in natural foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, and fish. I use supplements with my patients; however, not until I have guided them through a complete dietary overhaul as needed, and am confident that we are nourishing their bodies with as many nutrients as possible with every spoonful or forkful of nutrition they put in their mouths. Furthermore, supplements alone oftentimes don't work for anxiety (or even other symptoms/conditions), until we ensure that the body is getting what it needs from food. If you are needing help assessing your current diet's nutritional density, OR in need of the next line of defense and relief provided by supplementation, email me and schedule a consult. I'd be happy to help you out!
Italian Bowtie Pasta with Turkey
As I said, turkey is one of the best sources of anxiety-relieving tryptophan. This yummy pasta dish combines tryptophan-rich turkey meat, liver-supporting broccoli, and comforting spices, all wrapped up in a tangy tomato sauce.
I made this just the other evening, and it was scrumptious! I combined cooked gluten-free pasta, chopped turkey breast, cooked broccoli florets, onion and garlic powders, sage, marjoram, thyme, sea salt, a squeeze of lemon, and jarred pasta sauce, and sprinkled it with a touch of black pepper. I wasn't intending to turn this into a recipe, so sadly I don't have measurements of instructions. All I will add is that, should I make this again (which I definitely think I will!) I would add some fresh grated parmesan, and maybe even some mozzarella. Delicious!
I hope this was helpful, and sheds some light on the multi-faceted manner of anxiety. Please always consult your doctor, therapist, and/or medical team members before undertaking natural and/or alternative approaches to treatment of a mental health or other health issue.
Until next time,
Stay happy, healthy, and hopeful.
Dr. Anna Johnson,
ND/CNS/Owner, Anna's Organics Wellness
YouTube: Anna's Organics Wellness
Bandelow, Borwin, and Michawlis, Sophie. "Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, Sep 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610617/