Anxiety, panic attacks, and mental illness are all a part of who I am. For decades, doctors prescribed me different medications that depleted my energy levels and sex drive, at times, even worsening my social anxiety disorder. They never told me that my anxiety might be a lack of essential vitamins and minerals. Now, I’m mainly managing my anxiety through diet and nutrition.
How Diet and Nutrition Impact Mental Illness
Almost one in five adults has a known mental illness. Subsequently, over two billion people are micronutrient deficient. I was once a person who checked off both of these boxes. The correlation between nutrition and mental health is undeniable!
Vitamins and minerals are catalysts for all of our physiological functions. They activate genes and set off reactions, causing our body to produce hormones that regulate our mood. Here are the minerals and vitamins I used to help improve my panic attacks and social anxiety disorder.
Vitamin B Complex
B-Vitamins are essential for maintaining cellular functions throughout the body, including the brain. Vitamin B complexes are essential for energy metabolism, which helps with focus and cognitive functioning.
Standard Vitamin B complex supplements include:
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Pantothenic Acid (vitamin B5)
- Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
- Biotin (vitamin B7)
- Folate (vitamin B9)
- Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)
Benefits of Vitamin B Complex
Vitamin B1 is a cofactor of many enzymes involved in brain cell metabolism. It also works with VitaminB2 to influence glucose metabolism for energizing brain cells. VitaminB3 exhibits strong antioxidant-like properties, with one study suggesting that this vitamin might improve brain function following a stroke.
Research on Vitamin B5 indicates that pantothenic acid regulated adrenal functions. Therefore, it impacts your mood, stress levels, and sex drive.
Meanwhile, vitamin B6 is a catalyst for neurotransmitters that influence our moods. Vitamin B6 is essential for the production of dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. Dopamine is responsible for our feelings of motivation and reward, while GABA decreases over-anxious chatter throughout the central nervous system.
Vitamin B7 is a cofactor for many enzymes in the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These areas of the brain impact your memory. Meanwhile, vitamin B9 is essential for creating DNA and influences the central nervous system.
Lastly, vitamin B12 works with vitamin B9 and vitamin B6 to control our levels of the amino acid, homocysteine in the brain. Too much homocysteine may lead to oxidative stress that causes atrophying of grey matter. Therefore, a Vitamin B complex with vitamin B12, vitamin B9, and vitamin B6 may improve social anxiety disorder and obsessive thoughts.
How to Get B Vitamins in Diet
Our body can make almost all of our B-Vitamins from amino acids. However, it’s best to get an adequate amount of Vitamin B in your diet.
Many common sources of Vitamin B come from a wide range of foods, including:
- Whole Grains (Barley, Wild Rice)
- Meat (Fish, Beef, Lamb)
- Legumes (Black Beans, Soybeans)
Unfortunately, Vitamin B12 cannot be synthesized by our bodies. So, you must consume animal fats and dairy to get Vitamin B12. Vegans and vegetarians will have to drink plant milk fortified with Vitamin B12 or take Vitamin B12 supplements.
Sadly, almost half the population has a low magnesium level. Magnesium is essential for over 300 biochemical reactions. Some of these functions include muscle movement, protein production, and managing sugar levels. One of the most significant roles of magnesium is to modulate our reaction to stress.
Benefits of Magnesium
Research indicates that magnesium influences our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Our HPA axis is a neuroendocrine regulator. When we are under stress, our adrenal glands secrete cortisol. Subsequently, we experience bouts of anxiety or panic attacks.
The system relies on other neurotransmitters to know when the anxiety can cease. So, the body uses magnesium to increase GABA in the system. GABA produces a relaxing feeling, which makes all the difference for someone experiencing a social anxiety disorder.
Problem with Magnesium Supplements
When you’re choosing magnesium supplements, there are a lot of options out there. Therefore, finding the right magnesium supplements for your routine may prove difficult.
Types of magnesium supplements include:
- Magnesium Citrate – Most bioavailable, best for mood, may cause diarrhea
- Magnesium Malate – Easy to absorb, less laxative effect
- Magnesium Oxide – Short-term digestive relief
- Magnesium Chloride – Easy to absorb, used in topicals
While there are many magnesium supplements out there, you can consume enough of this mineral through diet and nutrition.
How to Get Magnesium in Diet
There are plenty of magnesium-rich foods out there to help manage your social anxiety disorder. If you have a low level of magnesium, then consider eating raw vegetables instead of cooking them. This method will preserve the nutrients in the food.
Foods rich in magnesium include:
- Dark Leafy Vegetables (Kale, Spinach, Swiss Chard)
- Seeds (Pumpkin, Flax, Hemp)
- Dark Chocolate
- Nuts (Almonds, Cashews)
- Legumes (Chickpeas, Black Eyed Peas)
- Whole Grains (Brown Rice, Millet)
You might also want to cut down on calcium intake for up to two hours if you’re trying to boost magnesium level in the blood. We rely on magnesium to monitor calcium levels. Without sufficient magnesium in the system, you might run into calcium toxicity.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. Therefore, our bodies can’t produce it on their own. This caveat can be a huge problem for someone with mental illness. That’s because tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin. So, we must consume tryptophan through our diet.
Benefits of Tryptophan
Tryptophan is a crucial cog in our gut-brain-axis. It’s the reason why we feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, which is nice after all the panic attacks caused by the political talk around the table!
When we consume tryptophan in our diet and nutrition, it gets broken down into 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). From there, it gets converted into other vital hormones, such as serotonin.
We can also thank tryptophan for melatonin production. Melatonin regulates our sleep cycle, which explains the Thanksgiving crash. Improving your sleep cycle not only helps you feel rested but reduces stress that may cause mental illness.
Lastly, tryptophan can also be converted into Vitamin B3. Here, the molecule that was once tryptophan can now be used as an antioxidant that preserves brain matter.
How to Get Tryptophan in Diet
Nobody wants to eat turkey every day. Thankfully, there are many ways to add this essential amino acid to your diet and nutrition plan.
Some of my favorite tryptophan-rich foods include:
- Soy Products (Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame)
- Fish (Halibut, Salmon, Trout)
- Seeds (Chia, Sesame, Sunflower)
- Poultry (Chicken, Fish)
- Winter Squash
Make sure to combine these foods with healthy fats. That way, your body absorbs more tryptophan. In turn, you’ll have more neurotransmitters handy to combat your social anxiety disorder.
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because its main source is sunlight. Sadly, 42% of the population has a vitamin D deficiency. This statistic is probably because a majority of us spend our days indoors. So, we must rely on diet and nutrition to ensure we get adequate vitamin D.
Benefits of Vitamin D
It’s no wonder that going outside makes us feel better. This better mood isn’t just a placebo effect. The sun is enriching you with vitamin D that can help influence your mood.
This essential vitamin also keeps your immune system robust. That’s why low levels of vitamin D are linked to autoimmune diseases. These sorts of debilitating conditions can only impede your self-esteem, adding to your social anxiety disorder.
Furthermore, vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. So, it’s a pillar in bone and teeth strength. While these are physical attributes, maintaining these parts of your body plays a large role in our perception and the development of mental illness.
How to Get Vitamin D in Diet
Vitamin D is the most difficult vitamin to get from diet. Many rely on vitamin D supplements to an adequate amount of this nutrient. However, there are some foods that are fortified with vitamin D.
Vitamin D foods include:
- Canned Fish (Sardines, Salmon, Tuna)
- Plant Milk
- Fortified Dairy Milk
Your best for getting vitamin D is to go outside. Schedule a walk around the block every day. Move your remote office outside. Spend more time in the garden. Get your skin to absorb that vitamin D!
The last vitamin I realized I need to curb my social anxiety disorder was calcium. Calcium is a mineral that gives our bones density. However, it also plays a role in mental illness.
Benefits of Calcium
Research shows that low levels of calcium are linked to increased bouts of depression. A study with mice found that calcium can have a relaxing effect on the system. Even further research helped me realize that this benefit is even more significant for women.
Estrogen is a key player in calcium production. So, by supplementing with calcium, experts believe that this mineral can alleviate PMS-related depression.
Physical symptoms of calcium deficiency include shaking, heart palpitations, tingling sensations, and numbness – all of which are also common physical symptoms of anxiety.
How to Get Calcium in Diet
Sure, you can get plenty of calcium in your diet from dairy products. However, that’s not going to work for someone who is lactose intolerant. Thankfully, there are other ways to consume calcium.
Some of my favorite calcium-rich foods include:
- Soy (Tofu, Tempeh)
- Green Vegetables (Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Collards)
- Nuts (Almonds, Brazil Nuts)
To get the best calcium absorption, you need to consume it with vitamin D and healthy fats. Everyone should have a yearly physical that includes testing vitamin and mineral levels. For some people, especially those deficient in certain nutrients such as vitamin D, one may need to test more frequently. Be sure to speak with your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen.
- Vitamin B found in meat, legumes, and whole grains are catalysts for many brain functions.
- Magnesium found in nuts and seeds influences our HPA axis, reducing stress.
- Tryptophan in turkey and fish get converted into serotonin, our feel-good molecule.
- Vitamin D found in the sun, eggs, and dairy influences our mood.
- Calcium found in dark greens and oats promote a calming effect on the system.