This article will discuss alternative approaches to treatment and prevention of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders include OCD, social phobias, panic attacks and PTSD. Do not stop taking medication prescribed by a medical provider without supervision and a transition plan if your doctor recommends a different approach.
Possible Underlying Causes of Anxiety
Patricia Hentz from Thomas Jefferson School of Nursing in Philadelphia discusses some of the medical conditions that can mimic mental health disorders in an article published in Clinical Advisor. These include tumors, hormones including thyroid problems, infections such as strep and Lyme Disease, head trauma, electrolyte imbalances, lead and other environmental toxins including overexposure to pesticides, drug reactions including herbal and natural remedies, alcohol and other drug withdrawal, poor nutrition or vitamin deficiencies/excess and malabsorption to name a few. Caffeine and recreational drug use (as well prescribed use) of some drugs such as psycho-stimulants, cocaine, meth, PCP and others also create or mimic anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Some of the nutrient deficiencies that can cause or mimic anxiety include B-vitamins (particularly Vitamin B6), Omega 3 Fatty Acids (estimated 98% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3), Potassium, Magnesium, Selenium, GABA and Zinc.
Work with a functional medicine practitioner who can do a thorough assessment of your history and symptoms. You will probably need to get some lab tests done to identify deficiencies or rule out possible underlying health issues. This provider can also help you determine if any of the following gut problems, food allergies or sensitivities are involved. It is critical to follow up on any instructions you receive for supplementation and work with your provider until you find the right dose and treatments.
Food and Gut Health Issues
Leaky Gut: Learn more about the second brain aka the gut-brain and the connection to mental health in Natural Approaches to the Prevention and Treatment of Mental Health: The Big Picture and In Natural Approaches to the Prevention and Treatment of Mental Health: The Gut Connection. Suffice it to say that small tears in the walls of the intestines allow toxins to travel to the brain via the vagus nerve which can create mental health symptoms.
Inflammation: In The Link Between Brain Inflammation and Mental Health from the Integrative Psychiatry website the author states “Inappropriate inflammation over a long period of time can lead to the damage or destruction of tissue; this tissue damage can ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease; cancer; neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and other forms of dementia; ADHD; autism; and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.” As discussed in Natural Approaches to the Prevention and Treatment of Mental Health: The Gut Connection “Inflammation is the body's protective response to an infection, while autoimmune disorders are inflammatory conditions caused by the body's overreaction to naturally occurring substances and tissues.”
Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances: Another issue covered in the second of the articles listed above is related to food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. In short, people with these issues have an allergic or autoimmune response when the allergen is introduced into their body. A leaky gut can allow some of these toxins to travel to the head-brain creating mental health symptoms. Gluten sensitivity is rampant in our society, affecting 1 in every 133 people. Gluten releases an protein that causes leaky gut and leaky gut can affect brain health creating anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms. About half of people with gluten sensitivity report mood disorders.
Natural Approaches to Address Anxiety
1. Vitamins and supplements: See a medical provider for lab tests to determine if you are deficient in any vital nutrients. Work with your medical provider to find the right supplements, dosage and quality to meet your nutritional needs.
2. Cut the caffeine and sugar: As difficult as it may seem to cut out caffeine and drastically decrease your sugar intake, doing so will make a big difference in your symptoms. Ask your medical provider or nutritionist to help you develop a plan to stop using caffeine and decrease your sugar intake. There are many alternative sweeteners, but some are worse for you than sugar, ie Splenda. Ask about Stevia and others that have no harmful side effects.
3. Stress management: It may seem like a no-brainer, but much of anxiety symptoms are self-inflicted. Over-scheduling, clutter, making promises that are near impossible to keep and poor boundaries are among the culprits. Take a look at your priorities and get control of your schedule and life.
4. Learn to say ‘no’. This will help with some of the issues in the previous bullet point. If you need it, take an assertiveness class. Many of us are people-pleasers and we pay the price for it. Stop being a slave to your kids and spouse/partner, your boss and friends.
5. Self-care: People who have trouble saying ‘no’ or being assertive often place others’ needs before their own. Mothers are usually at the top of the list for poor self care. Try to remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, you will be less effective as a parent, spouse/partner, employee and friend.
6. Exercise: Exercise is a great stress reducer. 30 minutes or more 3-5 times per week will improve your health and decrease your anxiety – it also helps with sleep problems.
7. Clean up your diet: The connection between nutrition and mental health is critical. You may need to begin with supplements to get back on track, but if you eat more fruits and veggies, you will begin to get the nutrients you require for good health and mental health with less supplements. Fast food and restaurant eating should be avoided most of the time, and chosen carefully if you decide to indulge. Cut out any food allergies or sensitivities – it will make a huge difference!
8. Stop the feedback loop: Most people with anxiety have a barrage of worried, anxious, critical and/or intrusive thoughts running through their minds endlessly. These thoughts create much of the distress we experience. Work with a therapist to learn ways to manage these thoughts. Once you get the underlying causes of anxiety under control, this may get easier.
9. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is about living in the present moment. It has been found to be very helpful in managing anxiety, including OCD and PTSD. Take a class, find an online audio or video or work with a therapist to learn this useful tool.
10. Deep breathing and relaxation: People with anxiety often take shallow, quick breaths from the top of their chests. This type of breathing can worsen anxiety symptoms, leading to hyperventilation. Learn to take deep, belly breaths to calm yourself and to breathe slower. Talk to a therapist, take a class or find an online resource to help you with this. You can learn more about this and mindfulness in the articles Everyday Mindfulness and Mindfulness: Regular Practice. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Food and Mood: Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best. [S.l.]: Henry Holt, 1999. Print.
Hentz, Patricia, EdD. "Separating Anxiety from Physical Illness." Clinical Advisor. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
"The Link Between Brain Inflammation and Mental Health." Integrative Psychiatry. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Larson, John Mathews. Depression Free, Naturally. S.l.: Ballantine, 1999. Print.
Novak, Sara. "Feeling Anxious? Check For These 7 Nutrient Deficiencies." Discovery Fit & Health. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure: The 4-step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions-today. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.