Neuro-Nutrition: holistic support for depression and anxiety

Mood disorders like depression and anxiety are talked about very little for how prevalent these conditions are in the U.S. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, about 18.5% adults experience a mental illness in a given year, about 21.4% of youth (13-18 years old) experience a severe mental disorder, and about half of adults who have struggled with addiction or substance abuse also had a mental illness of some variety. 

The current go-to for treatment of depression and anxiety right now is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Let me express right now that I believe that BOTH of those things can be very valuable, and they have been life-saving for me personally.  However, I also know that there are very powerful and proven nutritional therapy and lifestyle options to assist in treating these conditions. Let's take a peak....

Anatomy of the Nervous System: what affects your thoughts, mood, and mental health

The nervous system works in tandem with the endocrine system to govern our behaviors, state of consciousness, learning, emotional responses, motivation, memory, thoughts, and reasoning (Bauman, 2014). The main control center is the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. From the CNS branches the peripheral nervous system (signals from brain and spine out to muscles, skin, and glands), and autonomic nervous system (responsible for automatic processes such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and hormonal secretions).

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers responsible for communicating along these various pathways. They are what transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Most neurotransmitters are synthesized by amino acids, and are either excitatory or inhibitory- in other words; they either initiate an action within the body or prevent an action and are therefore calming. The neurotransmitters that are most prevalent in the body include:

  • · Serotonin: (inhibitory) Regulates appetite (reduces cravings), mood, pain threshold, sleep, sensory perception
  • ·GABA: (inhibitory) calming, inhibit action potential
  •  Glutamate: (most excitatory NT) enhances action potential, keeps us awake
  •  Dopamine: (Both inhibitory and excitatory) controls moto function, motivation, emotion, libido, “reward” system-the “addiction NT”
  •  Norepinephrine: (excitatory) drive, ambition, alertness, focus. Deficiencies often associated with depression, apathy, and lack of focus
  • Epinephrine: (excitatory) also known as adrenaline and raises heart rate and blood sugar, as well as prepares body for fight or flight.
  • Histamine: (excitatory) allergic reactions, wakefulness, regulates HCl secretions. Elevated histamine associated with deep depression and suicidal tendencies 
  • Acetylcholine: (excitatory) memory, learning, motor function
  • Endorphins: (inhibitory) pain reduction, pleasure

An imbalance in NT’s  can cause mental and emotional disturbances. The most common are depression and anxiety, but other nervous system-related issues include ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic inflammation/infection, fibromyalgia, headaches, metabolic syndrome, and neuropathy. Because of the complexity of the nervous system, thoughts, and emotions, one of the best nutritional steps to take toward mental health is to eat a balanced, whole foods diet.  .

Nutrition & Lifestyle Recommendations*

("D" indicates depression specific, "A" indicates anxiety specific, and "D/A" indicates useful for both.)

  •  Exercise: produces endorphins, a hormone that promotes a sense of calm and euphoria (D/A)

  • Avoid “brain toxins” such as caffeine, alcohol, toxic metals, stress, tobacco, sugar, aspartame, MSG (D/A)

  • Balance blood sugar by consuming regular meals and snacks which include 1-2 servings of both protein and fat. Also include a variety of fresh fruit and veg (D/A)

  • High tryptophan foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soybeans, milk/milk products, and cottage cheese can help increase serotonin levels in the brain.  (D)

  • Omega 3's: walnuts, fish, chia, flax, fish oil or krill oil supplements (D)

  • St. John's Wort: take 3 x daily at 300 mg (not to be used in conjunction with medication) (D)

  • Magnesium: dark leafy greens, nuts/seeds, avocado (A)

  • Kava and/or passionflower (3-5ml 3 x daily) (A)

  • Vitamin B's and Folate: nutritional yeast, eggs, whole grains, dairy, organ meats (D/A)

  • 5-htp is a precursor to serotonin and is comparable to SSRI's in treating depression. Take 100mg in divided doses (mid-afternoon and evening) on an empty stomach. 5-htp can be increased to 300mg per day, taken in divided doses (mid-afternoon and evening). (D/A)

  • L-Tyrosine increases production of noradrenaline and dopamine, and can be taken alone or with 5-htp to treat mood disorders. Take 1,000mg in divided doses (morning and mid-morning OR mid-afternoon). L-Tyrosine can be increased to 8,000mg per day in divided doses (morning and mid-morning OR mid-afternoon). (D/A)

The exciting news is that nutritional therapy has been shown to be at least as effective as medication for many people, but without the side effects. Consult a nutritionist or holistic practitioner to find out how to address your imbalances with targeted amino and nutrient supplementation. 

*The above recommendations are general suggestions and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Make sure to consult with a physician or nutritionist before beginning nutritional therapy for mental disorders. Each individual is different in their needs for vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in order to get the best results. 


"Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention." WebMD. Ed. Joseph Goldberg. WebMD, 8 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <>.

Bauman, Ed. Therapeutic Nutrition. Vol. 2. Penngrove, Ca: Bauman College, 2014. Print

 "Mental Health By the Numbers." NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016. <>.

Pizzorno, Joseph E., Michael T. Murray, and Herb Joiner-Bey. The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2002. Print.