Can Social Anxiety Be Caused by a Nutritional Deficiency?

I was quoted on the topic of social anxiety and its causes. by Rheyanne Weaver |

If you don’t get the right nutrients, your body won’t function to the best of its ability. Some general health conditions can be linked to nutritional deficiency, but it’s up for debate whether the same applies to specific mental health conditions. Some nutrition experts do claim that unique cases of social anxiety can actually be caused by a nutritional deficiency. In the condition several experts refer to as pyroluria, once the nutritional deficiency is taken care of, the social anxiety is relieved. Other experts are quick to dismiss the validity of this diagnosis.

Trudy Scott, a food-and-mood expert who said in an email that she has suffered from pyroluria, is a certified nutritionist, immediate past president of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, and author of The Antianxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings.

“The person experiences shyness, inner tension, and social anxiety,” Scott said in regard to symptoms of pyroluria. “Symptoms usually start in childhood and are made worse under stressful situations. The wonderful thing is that the symptoms can be completely alleviated with taking these supplements: zinc, vitamin B6, and evening primrose oil. People typically start to feel less anxious, less shy, and more social within a week. The important thing is that if you do have pyroluria, you do need to take the supplements always.”

Generally only zinc and Vitamin B6 are recommended for pyroluria, but “gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose oil and borage oil, is also beneficial for those with pyroluria because its levels are often low, and supplementing with GLA improves zinc absorption,” she added. In her book about anxiety, mood, and food, she wrote a whole chapter about pyroluria.

“I am … very passionate about the subject because I have pyroluria myself and used to suffer terribly from social phobia and shyness, anxiety, unexplained fears, waking with a sense of doom and even panic attacks,” Scott said. “I have used the amazing healing powers of foods and nutrients to completely heal. I now help women find natural solutions for anxiety and other mood disorders.”

She has posted a questionnaire on her website for pyroluria. It includes a long list of symptoms, and if 15 or more items are checked on the list, it is likely a person has pyroluria:

She said that in research studies, pyroluria is also called “the mauve factor.” “Much of what we know about pyroluria is based on the work of Humphrey Osmond, Abram Hoffer, and Carl Pfeiffer,” Scott said. “Much of the original work was done with schizophrenic patients in psychiatric hospital settings. Although pyroluria was first identified in the 1960s, the medical and mental health communities have been slow to recognize it, and many mental health practitioners and physicians remain unfamiliar with this condition.”

She said she learned about the condition mainly from reading the following books: The Mood Cure by Julia Ross Depression-Free Naturally by Joan Mathews-Larson Nutrition and Mental Illness (1988) by Carl Pfeiffer

Her own book goes into the specific details and biological/chemical/genetic aspects of pyroluria. In her book, she cites research prevalence rates from Joan Mathews-Larson, the author of Depression-Free Naturally. Pyroluria is thought to exist in “11 percent of the healthy population” and “40 percent of adults with psychiatric disorders,” according to Scott’s book. For people with alcohol addiction, pyroluria is thought to have a 40% prevalence rate. However, the prevalence rates do depend on the source. In her own experience as a nutritionist, Scott said about 80% of her clients who have moderate to severe anxiety have symptoms associated with pyroluria.

She added that stress can be a major factor for what age pyroluria develops and that it is a genetic condition that seems to affect more women than men. In addition, people who have pyroluria tend to also have gluten sensitivity, especially if they also are dealing with other issues like depression, anxiety, autism, alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, according to the book. People with pyroluria may also have digestive problems, and they need to make sure to balance out an increased Vitamin B intake with a higher intake of magnesium.

In the book The Mood Cure by Julia Ross, the author includes a discussion of the prevalence, testing, and treatment of pyroluria, as well as a checklist similar to that offered by Trudy Scott. Ross states that the questionnaire was developed by Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, a clinician and researcher. He wrote the book Nutrition and Mental Illness: An Orthomolecular Approach to Balancing Body Chemistry in 1988.

Ross states in her book that pyroluria is fairly uncommon in the general public, but in certain groups of people (like those who have experienced alcohol addiction), it is more common. “I am just getting familiar with this condition, but I can see that it is an important one for certain people, affecting stress levels and mood generally and preventing full response to nutrient therapy until it is addressed,” Ross wrote in her book.

There are a plethora of articles dedicated to nutrition, diet, and mental health in general, as well as multiple research studies suggesting that certain mental health issues can be improved through natural supplements and a healthy overall diet. “Notably, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population in America and other developed countries and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders,” according to an abstract from a research study in Nutrition Journal. “Studies have shown that daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms.”

Another abstract from a research article in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine concludes the following: “Many patients will benefit from the use of specific dietary supplements, such as a multivitamin-mineral high in B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acid,” according to the abstract. “And no matter what the underlying cause of the mood disorder, patients should be counseled about the relationship between food and mood, for the evidence now substantiates what laypeople and medical professionals have long known intuitively: the way we eat affects the way we feel.”

The research, authored by Tieraona Low Dog, director of the fellowship at Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at University of Arizona, added in the research abstract that the healthiest diet for improving mental health is a “low-glycemic, modified Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seafood (if not vegetarian) and low in processed, refined foods.”

Other experts remain unaware of the condition and are skeptical of its legitimacy. Scott Carroll, a psychiatrist with dual board certifications in adult and child and adolescent psychiatry, said in an email that he is not accustomed to pyroluria and had to look it up on Google to find out what it was.

“Once I saw that it is connected to orthomolecular psychiatry, which I have heard of, I knew it was in the pseudoscience realm,” said Carroll, who is also an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. “Not surprisingly, it claims to be the cause of a number of unrelated psychiatric disorders, which is typical of pseudoscience disorders. Like so many ‘cure-alls,’ it sounds plausible, but there is no scientific basis to it, and it allows dubious practitioners to prey on desperate, suffering people.”

He said there are certain cases where nutrition can play a part in mood and mental disorders. “Inadequate amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids, especially from fish or krill oil, have been shown to affect mood and anxiety in a broad way of which social anxiety can be a part,” Carroll said. “Also, low folate, low Vitamin D, and low B12 have all been associated with negative effects on mood and anxiety.”

“However, in people with low folate, it is more often a case of a genetic inability to transport the folate molecule into the brain rather than a low blood level,” he added. “In those cases, which often present with chronic depression and anxiety that has never responded to antidepressants, there are folate precursors that are more lipophilic and can diffuse into the brain without use of a transport mechanism.”

Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, said in an email that she didn’t study pyroluria in school and hasn’t read about it in any research studies after graduating from her doctorate program.

“Based on current knowledge it does not appear to be a legitimate health condition,” Garcia-Arcement said. “Further research is required to further explore and understand whether social anxiety or any other mental health condition could be related to improper synthesis in the blood.  Although this theory seems appealing, being able to ‘cure’ a mental disorder with vitamins or supplements … is unlikely.”

“Causes of social anxiety that have been substantiated by research include chemical imbalances in the brain (i.e., serotonin, a neurotransmitter), inherited traits (genetic and through observing anxious family members), negative life events or experiences, and an overactive amygdala (a part of the brain that controls emotions, including fear response),” she added.

She said that good nutrition is important for overall health, but it’s not necessarily linked to mental disorders. “In my experience, the social anxiety could be traced to other causes, not nutritional deficiencies,” Garcia-Arcement said. “Having a healthy and balanced diet is overall beneficial, but it won’t cure social anxiety or a mood disorder. I am more likely to recommend my clients get enough sun exposure to improve their moods (seasonal affective disorder) than recommend diet changes.”

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