Anxiety is something that most everyone has experienced on some level. Anyone who has stress in their lives (and who doesn't?) can relate to some amount of anxiety. The anxious feeling may come before a big meeting at work, while opening up bills, dealing with health issues, the list goes on and on.
In addition to the day-to-day anxiety, some people suffer from more serious anxiety disorders. For these people, their anxiety can impact daily activities such as work, school or interpersonal relationships. Anxiety can be a real struggle – one that needs to be taken seriously.
That is the opposite of what Dr. Oz seems to be doing in a post from his website from last month, listing "7 Anxiety-Fighting Foods You Have to Try." Those foods include: Chickpeas, dark chocolate, quinoa, chamomile, avocado, salmon, oranges.
This message that some fruit will cure anxiety is nothing new for Dr. Oz. This is a message that he has been preaching for years. Four years ago Oz invited the psychotherapist Mike Dow on his show, who claimed that food is better than medication when it comes to fighting anxiety.
The segment states, "When it comes to treating anxiety, there is nothing safer or more simple than eating the right foods. Find out what you should reach for the next time you feel a panic attack coming on!"
The entire premise is to use foods to increase the amount of neurotransmitters in your body that, when low, can lead to certain mental challenges. The examples that he uses are GABA and tryptophan (a precursor of serotonin.) During the segment, Mike Dow states that certain foods will increase the body's production of these compounds that will relieve anxiety. The only problem is that it doesn't.
Taken from a scientific review of the literature,
Although purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, foods containing tryptophan do not. (1) This is because tryptophan is transported into the brain by a transport system that is active toward all the large neutral amino acids and tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid in protein. There is competition between the various amino acids for the transport system, so after the ingestion of a meal containing protein, the rise in the plasma level of the other large neutral amino acids will prevent the rise in plasma tryptophan from increasing brain tryptophan. The idea, common in popular culture, that a high-protein food such as turkey will raise brain tryptophan and serotonin is, unfortunately, false. Another popular myth that is widespread on the Internet is that bananas improve mood because of their serotonin content. Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier.
This scientific review was written in 1980, meaning that this information has been available for about as long as Dr. Dow has been alive. Despite that, the two incredibly well groomed men with perfect skin and white teeth have no problem going on about how pumpkin seeds, edamame and kefir will cure your mental illness.
Anxiety is a general term, but can be broken into different types, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday tasks or events, or may be specific to certain objects or rituals. There are phobias regarding objects, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Thankfully, there are anxiolytic drugs that can help. Additionally, other drugs such as Beta-blockers (propranolol and oxprenolol) can lessen the physiological effects of anxiety such as increased heart rate.
Additionally, therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help relieve anxiety. One aspect of that is to introduce exposure to the object or situation that is at the root of the anxiety. In this context, the anxiety if uncoupled from the activity.
But, what cannot help an anxiety attack is a bowl of quinoa. It is just not that simple. Is it a great idea to follow a healthy diet? Of course, and it may even help you feel better on some level. But, claiming that foods high in tryptophan will result in increased serotonin production is incorrect.
To further illustrate Dr. Oz's oversimplification of this complex issue, Dr. Oz provides his own anxiety test on his website. Promoting the idea that an anxiety disorder is something that you can diagnose yourself and treat with a grapefruit is not only irresponsible - it is potentially dangerous.
(1) Wurtman RJ, Hefti F, Melamed E. Precursor control of neurotransmitter synthesis. Pharmacol Rev 1980;32:315-35.
You can watch the clip of Dr. Oz's show here. Posted on 3/18/2013