When you hear about anxiety, you also commonly hear about low levels of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. Because of our poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, exposure to contaminants such as heavy metals from environmental pollution, nutrient malabsorption, and chronic infections due to bacteria, fungi, and viruses, many people suffer from low neurotransmitter levels that affect the transmission of messages between nerve cells. This is sometimes referred to as neurotransmitter deficiency disorder.
Because of the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders, it is becoming more evident that neurotransmitter deficiency disorder is not only common, but may be epidemic in our modern society. The number of people who suffer from anxiety disorder, panic attacks, related depression, and mood disorders has increased in recent years.
But how do we get neurotransmitters? Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids, which are divided in two categories: 10 non-essential and 10 essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are produced by the body. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body, and must be obtained from the foods that we eat. There are 10 essential amino acids that are necessary for humans: tryptophan, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, valine, leucine, and isoleucine, histidine, and arginine. Histidine and arginine are particularly beneficial for children and seniors. A poor diet lacking in essential amino acids means that the body cannot sufficiently produce key neurotransmitters.
When you have a chronic condition, it is likely that your body is already deficient in amino acids due to an inadequate absorption of nutrients. Conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, candida, and bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, can inhibit the body’s absorption of amino acids, causing key neurotransmitters to be depleted.
Interestingly, stimulants such as caffeine, ephedra (found in weight loss products), stimulant prescription medications such as Ritalin®, and others, can dramatically reduce the effectiveness of neurotransmitters. Anxiety is often experienced after taking stimulants (such as drinking too much coffee or soda) in part due to the reduced effectiveness of neurotransmitters.
Prescription medications for anxiety (such as Paxil®, Effexor®, Zoloft®, Wellbutrin®, and a multitude of others) serve to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, but don’t fix the problem. When your body is low in serotonin, these medications work by tricking the body to metabolize serotonin. They work on serotonin metabolism, but they don’t replenish serotonin, which is actually what your body truly needs. Therefore, patients who suffer from low serotonin levels often experience withdrawal symptoms when they go off prescription medications, because serotonin is never being replenished. If you stop these medications, you will most likely return to low serotonin levels and continue to experience the same problems of anxiety and depression. In addition, these medications actually deplete serotonin with long-term use, which is exactly the opposite of what you need to do!
In addition, prescription medications that work on isolated parts of the brain can produce potentially severe side effects in other areas of the body. Many people find that they simply can’t take prescription psychotropic medications due to severe side effects. These include metabolic disorders such as hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and diabetes; weight gain and obesity; drug-induced insomnia, mania, agitation, or depression; psychosis; suicidal and/or homicidal ideation; and a multitude of other digestive symptoms such as severe constipation. Essentially, in many cases you trade anxiety for another equally troubling symptom. It is now becoming clear that children who take certain psychotropic medications such as Paxil may increase their risk for suicidal ideation.1
Amino acid therapy, on the other hand, has virtually no reported side effects to date. There have been no reported cases of overdose from amino acids either.
Note: Speak to your healthcare professional about amino acid supplementation before combining it with prescription psychotropic medications, or before stopping any medication, since sudden discontinuation may produce severe withdrawal.
If you’re deficient in amino acids, how do you replenish them? Essential amino acids are found in your diet in the form of protein, such as red meat, fowl (turkey, chicken), wild-caught fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, and milk. Oftentimes, a lack of dietary protein causes amino acid deficiency, so it’s always important to eat protein at every meal in a healthy ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% healthy fat (Read more about good fats and bad fats). During each meal, you should try to come close to satisfying this ratio. In fact, eating protein during every meal can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, especially if you eat proteins (such as turkey and milk) that are high in tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. Eating a small protein snack, instead of a sugary refined snack, can immediately help relieve anxiety attacks (panic attacks), because amino acids are being replenished by the intake of protein.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you are more susceptible to amino acid deficiency because protein in plant sources doesn’t contain all the amino acids that your body needs. Supplementing your diet with high-quality amino acids is essential to ensure that your neurotransmitter levels are replenished. Additionally, those who suffer from chronic conditions should consider supplementing their diets with high-quality amino acids, to ensure adequate amino acid levels during times of illness, particularly when amino acid deficiency is likely.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to 5-HTP. 5-HTP is made from the amino acid tryptophan (which is the precursor to serotonin). 5-HTP has been reported to help relieve anxiety and depression. Read more about 5-HTP.
Also, there are alternative therapies utilizing herbs and supplements that may produce results in curbing anxiety. Read more about living in the anxiety age.
1) “Paxil's maker adds suicide attempt warning,” ScienceDaily.com
Accessed May 2006
Jeremy E. Kaslow, M.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.C.A.A.I.
Accessed May 2006
William Nelson, NMD
Accessed May 2006
Ron Kennedy, MD
Accessed May 2006
Article ID: 170