Eat your way to less anxiety

Jul 2, 2010 at 3:08 p.m. ET

If you are what you eat, you might as well use food to make Y-O-U feel good. However, we’re talking foods that boost your brain, not artery-clogging, instant-gratification, waist-widening fare. When it comes to brain chemistry, certain foods are known to increase serotonin, the mood-elevating, sleep-assisting brain chemical, while some foods help lower anxiety and increase focus, courtesy of their ability to elevate GABA, the brain’s natural chill pill neurochemical. Who knew food could relieve stress and bring on a sense of calm? Here’s how to eat your way to less anxiety.

Woman with banana

GABA: Your Brain's Natural Valium

GABA's role in the brain's delicate balancing act is critical. It helps regulate the body's internal rhythm while helping people manage stress and maintain mental focus.

As one of the primary neurotransmitters in the brain, GABA has an inhibitory (as opposed to excitatory) effect. It is responsible for creating the calming, rhythmic electrical impulses in the brain. GABA elevates the production of alpha waves associated with feeling relaxed, boosts mental alertness and lowers beta waves, the impulses that contribute to a state of nervousness, racing thoughts and hyperactivity.

While a balanced brain receives regular, smooth electrical impulses, a GABA-deficient brain receives them in spurts. As a result, the brain experiences arrhythmia, or dysrhythmia, which directly affects overall emotional well-being.

Naturally Increase GABA

To avoid taking prescription anti-anxiety medications or to gradually reduce the dose of prescriptions such as Xanax, Ativan or Valium, consider the following natural alternatives.

1. Gobble up green tea

Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine which is involved in the formation of GABA. The catch is you'd have to drink large amounts of this popular beverage to feel much effect. Most green tea sold in the United States contains less than 10 milligrams of L-theanine while the suggested dose to decrease symptoms is 50 to 200 milligrams. It can't hurt to sip a few cups on your way to more GABA; green tea has other health-promoting benefits.

2. Supplement with L-theanine

While the desired result is to boost GABA in the brain, GABA supplements generally do not effectively cross the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), although some manufacturers claim to have formulas that do. L-theanine supplements, however, may be most effective. Take only the Suntheanine form of L-theanine as indicated on the manufacturer's label. Suntheanine is the patented form of L-theanine created by the Taiyo Corporation, and in studies has been found to be superior to other forms.

3. Get complex

Eating complex carbohydrates increases glutamic acid/glutamate which forms glutamine, an amino acid involved in the production of GABA. Cooking destroys amino acids, so eat as many raw foods as possible.

GABA Stimulating Foods

Dr. Eric Braverman, an authority on brain chemistry and author of the book, The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity With The Balanced Brain Advantage, suggests ingesting foods high in glutamic acid/glutamate to boost GABA levels.

"The more GABA-producing foods you eat, the more GABA you will be able to create." Dr. Braverman explains. "If you can incorporate these into your diet, the occasional fast food meal or sinful dessert will have no harmful effect at all."

Feel good GABA-producing foods include:

  • Almonds
  • Tree nuts
  • Bananas
  • Beef Liver
  • Broccoli
  • Brown Rice
  • Halibut
  • Mackerel
  • Lentils
  • Oats, whole grain
  • Oranges, citrus fruits
  • Rice bran
  • Spinach
  • Walnuts

Whole wheat, whole grains, wheat bran

According to an article posted in Supplement News in December 2008, the highest concentrations of naturally occurring GABA are found in fish (particularly mackerel) and wheat bran. While it's easy to get tired of eating large amounts of fish, wheat bran can be blended into an assortment of soups, salads, cereals and even some meat dishes.

People who exhibit symptoms of low GABA can reduce anxiety, increase mental focus lower irritability and even decrease insomnia, often without the use of prescriptions by drinking green tea, supplementing with L-theanine and adding foods high in glutamine to their daily diet. Just be sure to consult with your doctor before stopping or adjusting the dose on any medications you are currently taking.

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