International Journal of
Metabolomic Biomarkers in Anxiety Disorders
Elke Humer * , Christoph Pieh and Thomas Probst
Department for Psychotherapy and Biopsychosocial Health, Danube University Krems, 3500 Krems, Austria;
email@example.com (C.P.); firstname.lastname@example.org (T.P.)
*Correspondence: email@example.com; Tel.: +43-2732-893-2676
Received: 26 June 2020; Accepted: 5 July 2020; Published: 6 July 2020
Anxiety disorders range among the most prevalent psychiatric disorders and belong to
the leading disorders in the study of the total global burden of disease. Anxiety disorders are
complex conditions, with not fully understood etiological mechanisms. Numerous factors, including
psychological, genetic, biological, and chemical factors, are thought to be involved in their etiology.
Although the diagnosis of anxiety disorders is constantly evolving, diagnostic manuals rely on
symptom lists, not on objective biomarkers and treatment eﬀects are small to moderate. The underlying
biological factors that drive anxiety disorders may be better suited to serve as biomarkers for
guiding personalized medicine, as they are objective and can be measured externally. Therefore,
the incorporation of novel biomarkers into current clinical methods might help to generate a
classiﬁcation system for anxiety disorders that can be linked to the underlying dysfunctional
pathways. The study of metabolites (metabolomics) in a large-scale manner shows potential for
disease diagnosis, for stratiﬁcation of patients in a heterogeneous patient population, for monitoring
therapeutic eﬃcacy and disease progression, and for deﬁning therapeutic targets. All of these
are important properties for anxiety disorders, which is a multifactorial condition not involving a
single-gene mutation. This review summarizes recent investigations on metabolomics studies in
Keywords: metabolomics; metabolites; anxiety; biomarkers
Anxiety disorders are a prevalent global health problem, aﬀecting the lives of almost 300 million
individuals suﬀering from a range of anxiety disorders as well as society as a whole [
disorders are currently the most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the United States and Europe and
are ranked by the WHO as the sixth largest cause of disability worldwide and range among the
top ten causes of years lived with disability [
]. Anxiety disorders also lead to the subsequent
development of other psychiatric comorbidities, such as depression [
]. The prevalence of anxiety
disorders is aﬀected by gender, with a higher prevalence in women than men [
]. Despite a trend
towards lower prevalence among older people (
80 years), prevalence rates are similar among age
]. The group of anxiety disorders is characterized by feelings of anxiety and fear and related
behavioral disturbances, such as avoidance behavior [
]. Due to the typically long-lasting duration of
the symptoms experienced by aﬀected individuals, anxiety disorders represent more chronic-recurrent
than an episodic disorder .
Like all psychiatric disorders, anxiety disorders are diagnosed not on objective biomarkers,
but based on symptom lists, which refer to a single diagnosis, while patients commonly present
symptoms that ﬁt multiple diagnoses [
]. The heterogeneous nature of the population of anxious
patients does not only impede diagnosis and discovery of the underlying etiological mechanisms ,
but also contributes to the poor treatment response experienced in many patients [
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Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 2 of 19
several established psychotherapeutic and medication-based treatments exist which are eﬀective
on average [
], individual responses to treatments vary widely [
], limiting the validity of
assumptions that there is a single biological disturbance underlying anxiety in all patients [
Therefore, disturbances more likely diﬀer among individuals [
], thus requiring the identiﬁcation of a
broader array of biomarkers to gain better insights into patient-speciﬁc etiological mechanisms that
lead to more targeted treatments .
The inclusion of biomarkers that could help improve diagnosis might also help to generate
a classiﬁcation system for psychiatric disorders that can be associated with the dysfunctional
pathways underpinning them, ﬁnally enabling more targeted treatments of anxiety disorders [
Among potential biomarkers, the study of metabolites (metabolomics) in a large-scale manner is
currently regarded as one of the most informative representations of biological functions, as these
molecules carry out or respond to most processes of the body [
]. More detailed information on
the use of metabolomics in the study of psychiatric disorders is summarized in the following chapter.
2. Metabolomics in Studies in Psychiatry
Recent advances in analytical technology enable the so-called “omics technologies”, referring
to bioinformatics studies on genes, transcripts, proteins, and metabolites [
]. Among these
technologies, the study of the metabolome represents the “ome”, which is closest to the phenotype [
The word “metabolome” refers to the total metabolite pool in a cell, tissue, or organism [
]. As such,
the metabolome consists of a diverse array of biomolecules that are the ﬁnal products of interactions
between gene expression, protein function, and the cellular environment [
]. Metabolites represent
the ﬁnal products and by-products of complex biosynthetic and catabolism pathways. Thus, the study
of metabolites in a large-scale manner represents a powerful technique to elaborate phenotypic changes
caused by exogenous stimuli more predictively than other omics technologies [24–26].
Metabolomics aims to provide detailed and mechanistic insights into the pathology of diseases
by revealing altered metabolic pathways. As such, metabolomics is considered to hold potential for
the identiﬁcation of pathways involved in the pathophysiology of diseases and for the diagnosis
of psychiatric illnesses [
]. Moreover, it oﬀers new options for stratiﬁcation of patients in a
heterogeneous patient population, for monitoring therapeutic eﬃcacy and disease progression, and for
deﬁning therapeutic targets [
]. All of these aspects have a particular value in complex pathological
states, such as psychiatric disorders, as almost all of them are multifactorial conditions, not involving
a single-gene mutation [
]. To sum up, metabolomics presents a tool to explore the mechanisms of
diseases from a holistic perspective [
]. Therefore, metabolite proﬁling seems promising to recognize
early biochemical changes in disease and, thus, provides an opportunity to develop predictive
biomarkers that can initiate earlier interventions [
]. The latest applications of metabolomics cover
various areas, including screening and diagnostic approaches, discovery and development of new
therapeutics, evaluation of drug toxicity and assessment of therapeutic eﬃcacy, patient stratiﬁcation,
and monitoring of patient response to treatment [
]. Thus, in the future, metabolomics might
help to reveal the biological bases of psychiatric symptoms and implement personalized care to patients
with mental disorders .
Studies based on metabolomic approaches attempt to ascertain biomarkers for diagnosis, disease
progression, and the treatment response. Advanced metabolomic platforms enable a global and
integrated evaluation of biochemical pathways and metabolic changes appearing in a diseased
]. In this regard, the most relevant biological material for the
study of the pathogenesis
of psychiatric disorders arguably derives from the brain [
]. Brain tissues, as well as cerebrospinal
ﬂuid—which also reﬂects the metabolic status and biochemistry of the brain—are the most relevant
sampling substrates for identifying biomarkers of psychiatric diseases. These brain-derived samples
enable the study of causal links between a detected psychiatric pathology and aﬀected molecular
pathways. However, such samples from humans are typically only available for analysis at autopsy [
Therefore, often animal models are used as tools that help to understand the pathogenesis of psychiatric
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 3 of 19
disorders, as recently reviewed [
]. In humans, however, the use of plasma, serum, or urine has
increased in the metabolomic study of mental disorders, which also provides valuable information
about the biological signatures of psychiatric disorders. This corroborates to the whole-body concept
of psychiatry, based on the fact that although psychiatric disorders seem to be generated in the brain,
the eﬀects of these illnesses can be observed throughout the body, as the brain is integrated into
virtually all physiological functions of the whole body .
Metabolomic studies have already been reported for several psychiatric disorders, including
depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and drug addiction [
]. However, fewer
studies have been carried out in anxiety disorders. The following chapters summarize studies on the
use of metabolomic platforms to reveal abnormalities and metabolic changes occurring in anxiety
disorders. In addition, studies on changes in metabolites due to the treatment of anxiety disorders
are summarized. To give a broader overview on changes in blood metabolites, the review is not only
limited to advanced metabolomic platforms but also considers studies investigating a smaller set of
metabolites by classical methods, such as photometric assays, high-performance liquid chromatography,
or gas chromatography.
Therefore, a literature search was conducted using Scopus, PubMed, and APA Psycinfo databases.
Research articles in scientiﬁc journals on experiments using animal models or human subjects were
considered. The search was conducted on 29 May 2020, with no limitations on the publication date.
Articles were identiﬁed by searching for titles using the following search terms: “(metabolom* OR
metabolite OR lipidom OR lipid* OR biomarker) AND (anxi*)”. The search returned 170 records after
duplicates were removed.
3. Metabolomics to Diﬀerentiate Healthy and Anxiety Subjects
As the diagnosis of anxiety disorders still relies rather on symptom checklists than on empirical
objective laboratory analyses, eﬀorts have been made to diﬀerentiate healthy from anxious subjects by the
analysis of metabolites as summarized in Table 1. Anxiety disorders are complex conditions. Numerous
factors, including genetic, neurobiological, neurochemical, and psychological factors, are thought
to be involved in their development [
]. To elucidate the pathways aﬀected by anxiety disorders,
and to identify possible biomarkers, animal studies using brain tissue were conducted. For more
detailed information regarding the design of animal studies to serve as models for human anxiety
disorders, we refer to our previous review article [
]. In brief, oxidative stress, alterations in lipid and
energy metabolism (i.e., mitochondrial regulation), glutamine metabolism, and neurotransmission [
seem to be involved in anxiety disorders. This overlaps with depressive disorders—which often
occur comorbid in individuals with anxiety disorders—where changes in the glutamate–glutamine
cycle, as well as changes in lipid and energy metabolism, have also been found to be related to the
pathogenesis of major depressive disorder .
Table 1. Possible biomarkers identiﬁed to diﬀerentiate healthy and anxiety subjects.
Platform Metabolites Identiﬁed Pathways Involved/Functions Reference
Mice Plasma GC-MS 1Myo-inositol, glutamate,
Mitochondrial energy pathways,
inositol pathways, HPA 2-axis,
Mice Brain GC-MS Dehydroascorbate, xylose,
mitochondrial import and
transport, oxidative stress,
Mice Brain and
plasma LC-MS/MS 3
deoxyuridine, kynurenic acid,
Oxidative stress, energy
metabolism, amino acid
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Table 1. Cont.
Platform Metabolites Identiﬁed Pathways Involved/Functions Reference
Dogs Plasma LC-MS 4Glutamine,
γ-glutamyl–glutamine Glutamine metabolism 
Humans Plasma LC-MS/MS Phosphatidyl-cholines (PC O
36:4), ceramides (CER 20:0)
Phospho- and sphingolipid
Cholesterol (HDL 5, LDL 6),
free fatty acids,
Lipid and carbohydrate
Humans Plasma not speciﬁed Cholesterol, triglycerides,
apolipoproteins B Lipid metabolism 
Humans Urine GC-MS
amino-malonic acid, azelaic
acid, hippuric acid
metabolism, lipid metabolism,
GC-MS, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.
chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry.
LC-MS, liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry.
high-density lipoproteins. 6LDL, low-density lipoproteins.
In human studies, mainly plasma sNamples were used for the study of metabolites. Overall, many
early anxiety metabolomics studies focused on lipids (lipidomics), as there is a known connection
between lipids and neuronal signaling and disease .
Negative correlations between anxiety and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels were observed,
while higher triglyceride levels were observed in patients with depression and comorbid anxiety
compared to depressive patients without anxiety [
]. Furthermore, serum triglycerides, very-low-density
lipoprotein (VLDL)-cholesterol and free-cholesterol were higher in patients with anxiety disorders as
compared to healthy controls, whereas the opposite was observed for esteriﬁed cholesterol [
]. A study
conducted in menopausal women observed no correlation between lipid proﬁles (total cholesterol,
HDL, VLDL, low-density lipoproteins (LDL), triglycerides) and anxiety [
]. In young women, on the
other hand, low lipid and lipoprotein levels (cholesterol, LDL, total cholesterol, ratio of total cholesterol
to HDL) were inversely correlated with anxiety scores [
]. Huang et al. [
] observed diﬀerences
in HDL cholesterol and the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL with regard to an anxious state in men.
In healthy men, levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were higher in those who scored higher
on an anxiety inventory [
]. Thus, several studies support the role of lipids in anxiety disorders,
although diﬀerences with respect to gender and hormonal status likely exist.
Increasing evidence suggests a crucial role for membrane lipids and lipid oxidation in the
pathogenesis of anxiety disorders. Membrane lipids play a pivotal role in the barrier and signaling
function of membranes [
]. As dysfunctions in neuronal proteins and peptide activities are considered
as a primary cause of anxiety disorders, brain lipids are essential for transmitter signaling. Lipids
essential for membrane formation, i.e., n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, phospholipids, glycerolipids,
and sphingolipids, are assumed to be involved in the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders, especially [
The lipid composition of neuronal membranes is highly dynamic and likely aﬀects the assembly of
signaling proteins and, thus, neuronal signaling and function .
Omega-3 fatty acids serve as precursors for the synthesis of eicosanoids, which might induce
perturbations of the system of inﬂammatory mediators. Anxiety disorders have been linked to
inﬂammation. Thus, the consumption of speciﬁc fatty acids or leukotriene receptor antagonists might
also contribute to the maintenance of the anxiety symptoms .
Given the ubiquitous distribution of lipids at synapsis in the brain, membrane-forming lipids are
believed to have high potential in the treatment of anxiety disorders [
]. As such, lipid-based therapies
might oﬀer new individualized treatment approaches, such as targeted dietary supplementation of n-3
polyunsaturated fatty acids [
]. Another mode of function might be pharmacological interference of
lipids, i.e., glycerolipids, with lipid-regulating enzymes .
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Observed changes in phospho- and sphingolipids related to anxiety symptoms pinpoint overactive
ether lipid cleavage/turnover in the brain in the etiology of anxiety disorders, which likely relate to
inﬂammatory processes .
The hypothesis of the association of anxiety with systemic inﬂammation corroborates a recent
ﬁnding, showing an association of the inﬂammation marker C-reactive protein (CRP) [
], with increased
risk of suicide in patients with anxiety disorders [
]. Thus, metabolites indicative of poor metabolic
health might serve as distal biomarkers for anxiety. Indeed, metabolic health, as indicated by the analysis
of 36 biomarkers (e.g., leptin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, tryptophan), which have been shown
to be related to anxiety disorders, revealed the highest occurrence of this mental disorder in individuals
with poor metabolic health (the so-called “overweight” class). Therefore, metabolites indicative of poor
metabolic health might serve as distal biomarkers for anxiety [
]. However, contrasting results on the
association between inﬂammation and anxiety disorders have been reported. In elderly participants,
for instance, a number of systemic inﬂammation markers (e.g., CRP, interleukins, serum amyloid A,
tumor-necrosis factor alpha) were not associated with anxiety symptoms [
]. In another study with
apparently healthy women, high-sensitivity CRP and ﬁbrinogen contents were negatively associated
with anxiety, whereas no association was observed in men [
]. Therefore, associations of anxiety
and micro-inﬂammation markers also seem to diﬀer with regard to gender and age, which might also
contribute to the equivocal results regarding the association of lipid metabolism and inﬂammation
with anxiety symptoms.
Studies also indicate a role of nitro-oxidative stress driving lipid oxidation and lowered
lipid-antioxidant defenses in anxiety disorders. More speciﬁcally, increased superoxide dismutase,
lipid hydroperoxides, nitric oxide metabolites (NOx), and uric acid were measured in individuals with
general anxiety disorders than in those without anxiety disorders. Those changes were accompanied
by a decrease in HDL and paraoxonase-1 [
]. It is suggested that the inﬂammation due to the
overproduction of NOx is involved in the pathology of anxiety disorders [
]. However, while studies
focusing on NOx levels in acute stress models observed associations between anxiety and NOx [
a study analyzing salivary NOx in daily psychological stress in humans and anxiety observed only
correlations between stress and anxiety, but not between salivary NOx and anxiety .
Several studies in animals and humans have demonstrated a potential link of anxiety disorders with
oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation, as neurochemical causes of anxiety disorders. Lipid peroxidation
was enhanced in children with anxiety disorders as compared to a control group, as indicated by
increased serum levels of lipid hydroperoxide. Thus, lipid hydroperoxide has been speculated as a
potential biomarker for anxiety disorders [
]. Oxidative stress as indicated by elevated levels of lipid
hydroperoxide and lower paraoxonase activity (an HDL associated enzyme protecting lipids from
]) have been observed in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) without
any comorbid psychiatric disorder [
], further supporting the role of lipid peroxidation and oxidative
stress in the etiopathogenesis of GAD. Thus, lipid hydroperoxide has been speculated as a potential
biomarker for anxiety disorders [3,67].
The association between anxiety and oxidative stress has often been related to nutritional eﬀects.
However, other factors might also serve as a source of oxidative stress, such as mobile phone
electromagnetic ﬁeld radiation, vibration and ringtone, which have been found to induce oxidative
stress and anxiety-like behavior in rats .
As many studies highlight the association between stress and anxiety disorders, salivary cortisone
was suggested not only as a stress biomarker but also as a marker of state anxiety [
alpha-amylase—a maker of sympathetic nervous system activity [
]—was observed to be higher
in adults with a higher dental anxiety score, thus showing potential to serve as a biomarker of
dental anxiety [
]. However, a study conducted in children with and without temporomandibular
disorders observed higher anxiety symptoms in children with the disorder, but no diﬀerence in salivary
alpha-amylase and also salivary cortisol [
]. However, elevated hair cortisol was found to predict later
development of anxious behavior in response to a major life stressor in infant monkeys, thus showing
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some potential as a biomarker for stress-related mental problems [
]. In healthy volunteers exposed
to a psychosocial stressor, the anxiety score was associated with salivary alpha-amylase, but not to
salivary cortisol or chromogranin-A [
]. Therefore, further studies are needed to clarify whether
cortisol, cortisone, and alpha-amylase show potential as biomarkers for anxiety disorders.
The neuropeptide pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) is assumed to be
involved in stress response and has been suggested as a biomarker for the severity of stress-related
psychiatric disorders [
]. Serum PACAP analysis in male and female individuals diagnosed with
GAD compared to healthy controls revealed no overall association between circulating PACAP and
GAD, but an association in women [
], supporting prior work suggesting potential sex diﬀerences in
PACAP eﬀects, likely due to estrogen-dependent regulation of this pathway .
The neurotrophin ﬁbroblast growth factor-2 (FGF2)—a protein involved in stress regulation
and neurogeneration [
]—is also considered as an endogenous regulator of fear expression. Thus,
FGF2 might also serve as a potential biomarker for anxiety disorders [
]; however, further research
is required to elucidate the potential of FGF2 to identify vulnerable individuals and to establish
Studies also aimed to integrate biopsychosocial aspects of stress, immune markers, and behavior
in the development of anxiety symptoms. Chronic stress causes perturbations in the hypothalamus–
pituitary–adrenal (HPA)-axis, which might mediate the relationship between cardiovascular
diseases and aﬀective disorders [
]. One study investigated relations between stress, HPA-axis,
and mother–child interaction patterns on the development of anxiety in children exposed to chronic
]. Trauma-exposed children exhibited more anxiety symptoms, which might be explained
by three bio-behavioral paths: a mediated biological pathway through HPA-axis functioning (higher
salivary cortisol in trauma-exposed mothers and also children), another biological pathway via the
immune system (higher salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA) in trauma-exposed mothers and also
children), and a third path with a behavioral link from diminished maternal supply to exposure
to child anxiety. Moreover, anxiety in children exposed to continuous wartime trauma integrating
endocrine and behavioral measures from mother and child was researched previously [
]. The study
revealed that maternal physiology and behavior impacted child anxiety and three possible pathways
were deﬁned: augmentation of child anxiety through increased maternal salivary IgA, which led to
enhanced child IgA; reduced social repertoire of the child due to reduced maternal oxytocin—and,
in turn, reduced child oxytocin; and a direct impact of increased maternal anxiety on child anxiety.
Previous studies also attempted to reveal biological aspects of the higher prevalence of anxiety
disorders in women. Diﬀerences in the hormonal status, i.e., with respect to the steroid pattern, have
been speculated to be a reason behind. Higher levels of estrogens in women with anxiety disorders,
when compared to women with depression, have been observed .
In one study, a speciﬁc analysis of the steroid metabolome in the blood of men with anxiety or
depression compared to healthy controls was carried out. Conjugated steroid forms, i.e., sulfates, such
as pregnenolone sulfate, diﬀered between all three groups, and, thus, also provide an opportunity to
serve as biomarkers to diﬀerentiate depressed from anxious individuals [
]. Among the previously
considered steroids as being neuroactive, steroid sulfates, such as pregnenolone sulfate, are reported to
act as negative gamma-aminobuytric acid (GABA) receptor modulators [
], which might explain the
lower pregnenolone sulfate concentration in anxious and depressive men.
Besides plasma analysis, metabolomics analyses were also conducted on urine samples.
Zheng et al. 
used diﬀerent metabolomics approaches to proﬁle urine samples from healthy controls
and patients with depression and anxiety disorders. Overall, four biomarkers—N-methylnicotinamide,
aminomalonic acid, azelaic acid, and hippuric acid—were identiﬁed as being able to distinguish healthy
from depressed/anxious individuals. Those biomarkers were mainly involved in three metabolic
pathways (tryptophan–nicotinic acid metabolism, lipid metabolism, tyrosine–phenylalanine pathways)
and ﬁve molecular and cellular functions (cell cycle, amino acid metabolism, molecular transport,
cellular growth and proliferation, small molecule biochemistry).
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Further speciﬁc studies investigated comorbid anxiety disorders in speciﬁc disorders, such as
autism, cancer, complex regional pain syndrome, or Cushing’s syndrome. Only a few recent studies
related to these speciﬁc diseases are summarized below.
Central and peripheral metabolites in patients with complex regional pain syndrome were
analyzed for their association with psychological disorders, including anxiety [
]. Speciﬁc associations
were observed, which might show pathological interactions between a painful body and increases
in anxiety in this population. Strong positive correlations between valine/N-acetylaspartylglutamate
(val/tNAA) and anxiety in the right thalamus were observed. Lower NAA levels have been related to
dysfunctional cell death related to neurons and glia cells. As lower NAA levels have been observed
in patients with complex regional pain syndrome before, neuronal cell death may aﬀect anxiety
symptoms in this population [
]. In addition, peripheral CO
was positively associated with
anxiety, which might be explained by an increase in sensory pain levels due to increased partial CO
pressure causing a synergistic boost of neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety .
An investigation in individuals with Cushing’s syndrome evaluated the deleterious eﬀects of
excessive glucocorticoid exposure on neuronal changes related to anxiety [
]. Metabolomic analyses
revealed a negative correlation of N-Acetyl-aspartate (a marker of neuronal integrity and viability [
and creatinine (a marker for brain cell density in glial and neuronal cells, and energetic systems [
with anxiety, suggesting that long-term exposure to excessive glucocorticoid levels causes metabolic
alterations in the prefrontal cortex associated with anxiety .
A study in patients with colorectal cancer undergoing three diﬀerent stages of therapy, observed
clinically relevant anxiety and/or depression levels in all patients [
]. Serum levels of fractaline
(a chemokine involved in the progression of diﬀerent types of tumors [
] and also in the inhibition of
neurotransmission related to anxiety [
]) were positively correlated with anxiety scores. Therefore,
fractaline might serve as a biomarker for the detection of anxiety disorders in cancer patients,
and they might also assist in the development of personalized anxiolytic treatment strategies for cancer
4. Metabolomics in the Study of the Role of the Gut Microbiome in Anxiety Disorders
The gut microbiome is suggested to play a pivotal role in the induction of anxiety-like behavior,
through stress-induced dysbiosis [
]. The link of the gut microbiome and stress-related conditions
has largely been investigated in studies with germ-free animals. A recent study in rats subjected
to chronic unpredictable stress revealed that changes in the gut microbiome were accompanied by
dysregulation of plasma metabolites related to metabolism of glycerophospholipids, glycerolipids, fatty
acyls, and sterols [
]. The authors suggest that lactate produced from gut microbes might possibly
promote anxiety-like behavior through the modulation of fatty acid metabolic pathways, resulting in
low levels of plasma fatty acids. It was suggested that the future development of treatment strategies
for anxiety disorders should consider targeting sphingolipid receptors.
In a further study with germ-free animals, these subjects had higher serotonin metabolite levels
compared to conventionally raised controls. It was also suggested that the gut microbiome can aﬀect
the serotonergic neurotransmission in the central nervous system, through a humoral route, based on
the ﬁnding of higher concentrations of the serotonin-precursor tryptophan in the plasma of germfree
Furthermore, gender-diﬀerences in anxiety disorders have been observed in animal studies [
For instance, dietary supplementation with the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
in male socially isolated mice reduced anxiety behaviors compared to controls, whereas no differences
occurred in female mice [
]. In addition, a sex-specific interaction of the DHA-supplementation with
the gut microbiome was observed, showing a significant effect on the microbiome in male but not in
Besides animal studies, human studies with respect to the role of the gut microbiome were also
conducted, which mainly relied on correlative analysis. In this regard, Stevens et al. [
] investigated fecal
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 8 of 19
microbiota in humans with anxiety or depressive disorders as compared to control reference subjects.
Gut dysbiosis in anxious and depressed individuals and over-representation of lipopolysaccharide
(LPS) biosynthesis genes in the gut microbiome were reﬂected in changes in metabolic pathways of
mood neurotransmitters as well as deleterious metabolism of intestinal protective mucin and elevation
of plasma LPS, and epithelium integrity molecules. These results support the notion that LPS might
compromise the integrity of the gut barrier, causing systemic manifestations, including the brain [
The microbiota–gut–brain axis is also assumed to play a central role in the etiology of depression,
showing that disturbances in the gut microbiome disturb metabolic homeostasis [
]. Several studies
provide support that dysregulation of the enteric microbiome does not only produce detrimental
metabolites but also causes increased bacterial translocation across the intestinal tract. These processes
are assumed to be involved in the pathophysiology of anxiety and depressive disorders through
proinflammatory cytokines and neuroinflammation, the HPA-axis, and vagal nerve activation, as reviewed
]. Overall, based on these studies, future studies should elucidate the role of the gut as a novel
target for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
5. Metabolomics in the Study of the Role of Nutrition in Anxiety Disorders
Several animal studies were conducted to evaluate the impact of different diets on anxiety.
Some studies investigated the effect of maternal diet on the offspring. For instance, one study investigated
the eﬀect of maternal consumption of conjugated linoleic acid during gestation and lactation on cerebral
lipid peroxidation and anxiety behavior in rats [
]. Higher levels of the antioxidant glutathione
together with a lower concentration of the lipid peroxidation marker malondialdehyde were observed
in brain tissues in the oﬀspring of rats receiving conjugated linoleic acid. Maternal intake of conjugated
linoleic acid also caused an anxiolytic eﬀect in the oﬀspring. Therefore, results imply that an adequate
supply of essential fatty acids during pregnancy plays an important role in facilitating the development
of the nervous system and protecting the oﬀspring from neuronal changes, such as those leading
In a further study, the oﬀspring of rats received a diet consisting of high contents of simple
carbohydrates, saturated or trans-fats, sodium, and low protein and ﬁber contents (a so-called “cafeteria
diet”) during lactation and/or post-lactation compared to rats receiving a control diet [
]. The eﬀects
of this cafeteria diet on physiological parameters and anxiety were investigated. The highest triglyceride
levels were found in the oﬀspring of rats receiving post-lactation cafeteria diet or total cafeteria diet.
The oﬀspring also presented higher levels of anxiety compared to the control groups and groups with
only a lactational cafeteria diet. Thus, the study provides some evidence that the ingestion of a cafeteria
diet after lactation might trigger metabolic (increase in serum triglycerides and oxidative stress) and
behavioral alterations (anxiogenic eﬀects) in rats.
A broad range of studies investigated nutritional biomarkers and anxiety during pregnancy and
postpartum in humans, as recently systematically reviewed by Trujillo et al. [
]. Most relevant
studies are brieﬂy described in the following.
One study related to anxiety disorders during pregnancy to nutritional biomarkers. Associations
between polyunsaturated fatty acids and anxiety disorders in early pregnancy were observed, showing
an inverse relation of serum DHA levels and anxiety disorders in the ﬁrst trimester [
associations between cholesterol and anxiety in the postpartum period were investigated, as total lipids
decrease considerably after delivery as compared to pregnancy [
]. Overall, only moderate negative
associations between total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol and anxiety symptoms were observed in
the postpartum period .
Next to the eﬀects of fatty acids, a possible association between amino acids and anxiety was also
], showing an inverse relationship of the ratio of plasma tryptophan and the sum of the
levels of valine, leucine, isoleucine, and phenylalanine with anxiety. Moreover, changes in plasma
phenylalanine were correlated with changes in anxiety scores from the 3rd to 6th day before delivery
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 9 of 19
to the 1st and 3rd postnatal day; however, these associations should be interpreted with caution, as
only low correlations (r =0.16, p=0.04) were observed .
The role of micronutrients has hardly been investigated so far, showing no association of vitamin
D with anxiety in pregnancy [
] and also no correlation between zinc levels and anxiety during
pregnancy and in the postpartum period .
Further studies investigated possible associations between obesity/metabolic syndrome and
anxiety disorders using animal models. For instance, in rats fed a high-saturated fat or a high-fat
and high-fructose diet, behavioral alterations toward anxiety-like behavior were observed [
These behavioral alterations correlated with dyslipidemia (increased serum triglycerides and
cholesterol), lipid peroxidation, and metabolic parameters. Long-term feeding of high-fat diets
has also shown to increase malondialdehyde concentrations and to decrease glutathione levels in the
serum of rats, which went along with increases in anxiety-like behavior .
In humans, a cross-sectional study investigated associations of anxiety and metabolic syndrome
components in metabolic syndrome patients. Waist, body mass index, and degree of obesity, and the
hypertension component could be linked to systolic blood pressure, pulse pressure, total cholesterol,
and trait anxiety, but not to state anxiety. Thus, cholesterol metabolism, blood pressure, and high
trait-anxiety likely interact in the pathophysiology of hypertension in metabolic syndrome .
Studies conducted in animals and humans reveal an inverse relationship of the dietary total
antioxidant capacity with oxidative stress biomarkers as well anxiety [
]. Therefore, lipid peroxidation
does not only seem to play a role during pregnancy/early life, but also in adults.
Overall, research indicates that nutrition—mainly associated with lipid peroxidation, inﬂammation,
and metabolic alterations—plays a role in translating diet-induced metabolic alterations into anxiety
disorders. Therefore, fatty acids, such as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, or the provision of antioxidants,
are also considered as new treatment options [53,110,111].
6. Metabolomics in the Study of Anxiolytic Eﬀects
Metabolomics was also applied in the ﬁeld of drug discovery, including natural product research.
Several studies used metabolomics analyses to characterize the composition of anxiolytic
drugs/natural products [
], which will not be described in more detail as it does not fall within
the scope of this review. However, in some studies, changes in brain or plasma metabolites due to
drug administration were also assessed, as summarized in Table 2. These studies highlight the role of
the eﬀects of anxiolytic drugs on neurotransmitter metabolism, but also on antioxidant mechanisms.
Several studies pinpoint the involvement of changes in serotonergic activity in the anxiolytic eﬀect
of several drugs, showing increasing serotonin contents in rodent brains [
]. In addition,
the role of dopamine in anxiety has been reported before, revealing increasing concentrations in
the prefrontal cortex during stressful and anxiogenic situations [
], and a decrease after the
administration of anxiolytic drugs, such as afobazole [
]. However, for other drugs, such as
diazepam, no eﬀect on the dopamine content was observed, despite their anxiolytic activity [
Next to serotonin and dopamine, the glutamate–glutamine cycle in the brain plays an essential
role in mental disorders [
], as glutamate represents the primary and most abundant excitatory
neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. The functionality of the glutamate–glutamine cycle
is essential for glutaminergic neurotransmission [
]. Furthermore, glutamine is not only essential
as a precursor for the neurotransmitter glutamate but also for the neurotransmitter GABA [
the antioxidant glutathione [
]. The dysfunction of the glutamate–glutamine cycle is suggested to
be involved in diﬀerent forms of anxieties [
]. Therefore, several anxiolytic drugs might pose their
anxiolytic eﬀects via their impact on this cycle, as summarized in Table 2.
In the following, only a few recent studies using metabolomic approaches in the study of anxiolytic
eﬀects are reported in more detail.
The ethanol extract of Passiﬂora edulis Sims F. ﬂavicarpa was tested in comparison to a positive
drug control (diazepam) in a randomized trial using an anxiety model in rats. Administration
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 10 of 19
of P. edulis extract enhanced GABA concentrations in the brain and exhibited an anxiolytic-like
eﬀect. Thus, it is assumed that P. edulis extracts might function as positive allosteric modulators of
GABA. Using metabolomics approaches, secondary metabolites were investigated and correlated with
measured activities. However, no correlation of the diﬀerent metabolites was observed, suggesting that
the anxiolytic eﬀect is not attributable to a single metabolite, but rather to an additive or synergistic
eﬀect of several entities .
In line with the research indicating a role of oxidative stress in the etiology of anxiety disorders,
a meta-analysis by Aponso et al. [
] reported anxiolytic eﬀects of inhaled essential oils as well
reduced oxidative stress. Moreover, extracts of Hypericum Scabrum—a phyto drug with antioxidant
properties—were shown to be able to reverse diet-induced alterations related to oxidative stress [
More speciﬁcally, detrimental eﬀects of high levels of saturated fats on oxidative status and anxious
behavior were observed in rats. A long-term high-fat diet enhanced serum malondialdehyde levels,
decreased glutathione levels, and enhanced anxiety. The extract of H. scabrum inversed these
diet-induced alterations and decreased anxiolytic eﬀects. Therefore, it is expected that phytomedical,
natural therapeutic agents with antioxidant properties might oﬀer preventative and/or curative
measures in anxiety disorders.
The linkage of psychological stress and production of free radicals with anxiety disorders was
also used to investigate oxidative metabolites as biomarkers for monitoring the response to treatment
with anxiolytics in a randomized placebo-controlled study [
]. Biopyrrins, the oxidative metabolites
of bilirubin, were investigated in urinary samples of mice receiving the anxiolytic alprazolam subjected
to acute stress. In addition, corticosterone levels in serum were analyzed. An increase in biopyrrins in
stressed mice and a decrease after the anxiolytic treatment, as well as a correlation between urinary
biopyrrins and serum corticosterone levels, were observed, thus showing some potential for urinary
biopyrrins to serve as biomarkers for the assessment of the response to anxiolytics.
Indicators of stress and lipid peroxidation were also investigated in the brain of psychologically-
stressed mice receiving anxiolytic and anxiogenic drugs [
]. The content of thiobarbituric acid
reactive substances—an index of lipid peroxidation activity—was enhanced in the brain, but not in
the liver or serum after stress exposure. The oxidative brain damage in the brain lipids went along
with the enhanced production of nitric oxidase through the mediation of non-selective nitric oxidase
synthase. The stress-induced detrimental eﬀects were suppressed by anxiolytic drugs. Thus, drugs
with benzodiazepine or a serotonin receptor agonist proﬁle might pose anxiolytic eﬀects due to their
protective eﬀects on stress-induced oxidative brain damage.
Further studies point at the pivotal role of the antioxidant eﬀects of anxiolytics. For instance,
the anxiolytic-like eﬀect and the possible neuronal mechanism of action of the chemical isopentyl
ferulate (IF) were investigated in a randomized trial in mice with a negative control group. Overall,
the calming eﬀect of IF went along with a decrease in hippocampal nitrite and lipid peroxidation
levels and an increase in glutathione and antioxidative enzymes (glutathione peroxidase, superoxide
dismutase, catalase). Further investigations regarding possible involvement of the GABAergic system
in the anxiolytic eﬀect of IF yielded some evidence that IF might show neuroprotective eﬀects through
the GABAergic transmission pathway .
Anxiolytic eﬀects of satins—drugs that are used to lower LDL levels—were also discussed in
a recent review article [
]. The mechanisms behind it are assumed due to a modulation of the
N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain, which show a close correlation with anxiety-like
behavior. Statins can disable these NMDA receptors due to their role in the disruption of membrane/lipid
rafts, ﬁnally disabling the NMDA receptor-mediated anxiety.
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 11 of 19
Table 2. Overview of metabolomic studies in the study of anxiolytic eﬀects.
Platform Anxiolytic Drug Metabolites Identiﬁed Pathways
Mice Brain NMR 1Speciﬁc herbal
formula (Fu Fang
Jin oral liquid)
ATP, fumarate, malate, lactate,
glycine, GABA 2,
Mice Brain HPLC 3(Z)-3-hexenol,
Rats Brain not speciﬁed Afobazole,
acid, homovanillic acid, 5-HT,
Rats Brain HPLC-ED 5Imipramine
Rats Brain UPLC-MS 6Passiﬂora edulis
Sims F. ﬂavicarpa,
Alprazolam Biopyrrins, corticosterone Oxidative stress 
Mice Brain Antioxidant
assays Isopentyl ferulate
Nitrite and lipid peroxidation
5-HT, serotonin, 5-hydroxytryptamine.
HPLC-ED, high-performance liquid chromatography—
electrochemical detection. 6UPLC-MS, ultra-performance liquid chromatography—mass spectrometry.
In a case study in a patient with a treatment-refractory substance use disorder and comorbid anxiety
and depressive symptoms, repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation was successful in reducing
anxiety symptoms [
]. It was speculated that enhanced glutamate transmission in the corticostriatal
pathways occurred due to the stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This might, in turn,
modulate the GABA/glutamate balance within the basal ganglia, which, in turn, promotes dopamine
release in the mesocortical pathways, ﬁnally reducing psychiatric symptoms.
Lifestyle changes, such as nutritional changes or exercise, have been proposed as possible
complementary modalities to prevent and cure disorders, and the combination of both approaches,
i.e., dietary supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids in combination with physical exercise,
showed synergistic eﬀects on brain function and behavior [
]. A study in mice investigated the
eﬀect of voluntary running on anxiety-like behavior and the lipid metabolome in the brain and blood
corticosterone levels. Compared to sedentary mice, the running group displayed lower anxiety-like
behavior, which went along with diﬀerences in blood corticosterone and a region-speciﬁc cortical
decrease in the palmitate (C16:0) and a concomitant increase in arachidonic acid and DHA. Therefore,
it is assumed that the anxiolytic eﬀects of physical exercise derive from exercise-induced activation
of cortical signaling cascades involving or dependent on bioactive lipids [
]. In humans, physical
exercise (strength and endurance training) reduced anxiety, which went along with a reduction in
CRP, an indicator of cardiac veins inﬂammation [
], with the latter being stronger aﬀected by
strength than endurance training [
]. Tai Chi Chuan is often viewed by Chinese people as physical
exercise to improve mind–body health, therefore, making it an interesting research target in the ﬁeld
of cardiovascular health and anxiety symptoms. Thus, a randomized-controlled trial was conducted
to evaluate the eﬀect of a Tai Chi Chuan exercise program on anxiety status and blood lipid proﬁle
in individuals with hypertension as compared to healthy subjects [
]. As an increase in HDL and
a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides went along with decreases in trait and state
anxiety, it was suggested that Tai Chi might be used as an alternative treatment in patients with
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 12 of 19
The aforementioned studies on the use of metabolomics in anxiety disorders are promising
for diagnosis, gaining insight into the etiology of the disorders and the development of treatment
strategies. Overall, metabolites related to oxidative stress, inﬂammatory processes, lipid and energy
metabolism, glutamine metabolism, and neurotransmission seem to pose the potential to serve as
biomarkers for anxiety disorders; however, to date, the application in clinical practice is not feasible
due to several limitations. The main limitation is that, so far, no references for normal ranges of
metabolites exist [
]. Furthermore, variables, such as gender, diet, or lifestyle, aﬀect the metabolic
proﬁle and also medical comorbidities and the use of medications or drugs need to be considered
and, thus require further research [
]. Furthermore, many ﬁndings of this systematic review are
based on animal studies. Those studies on human anxiety were also prevalent beneath other disorders.
It must be taken into account that the group of anxiety disorders is from the clinical and etiological
point of view very diﬀerent. Thus, a more speciﬁc approach, according to the diﬀerent categories of
anxiety disorders, might be more eﬃcient. There is also a lack of research on whether metabolomic
biomarkers can predict or moderate treatment response to anxiolytic medication and psychotherapy.
However, in major depressive disorders, for instance, studies indicate predictive potential of the
pretreatment metabolomics proﬁle of the response to antidepressant medication [
], and also one
pilot psychotherapy study revealed that several plasma metabolites might serve as moderators of
the outcome of psychotherapy [
]. Future studies should also explore metabolomics changes in
anxiety due to psychotherapy treatment, which might also help to understand better the mechanistic
underpinnings of the eﬀect of psychotherapy on symptom change and whether these changes are
associated with metabolomics alterations. Therefore, more research is needed to reveal whether
metabolomics can provide biomarkers to improve treatment selection and personalized treatment for
patients with anxiety disorders.
Conceptualization, E.H.; Methodology, E.H., C.P., T.P.; Investigation, E.H.;
Writing—original draft preparation, E.H.; Writing—review and editing, C.P., T.P.; Supervision, C.P., T.P. All authors
have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.
Funding: This research received Open Access Funding by the University for Continuing Education Krems.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂict of interest.
CRP C-reactive protein
DHA Docosahexaenoic acid
FGF2 Fibroblast growth factor-2
GABA Gamma-aminobuytric acid
GAD Generalized Anxiety Disorder
GC-MS Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry
HDL High-density lipoprotein
HPLC High-performance liquid chromatography
HPLC-ED High-performance liquid chromatography–electrochemical detection
IgA Immunoglobulin A
LC-MS Liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry
LC-MS/MS Liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry
LDL Low-density lipoprotein
NMR Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy
Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020,21, 4784 13 of 19
NOx Nitric oxide metabolites
PACAP Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide
UPLC-MS Ultra-performance liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry
VLDL Very low-density lipoprotein
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