Anxiety is a condition that can really impact one’s enjoyment of life. And it’s a problem that is all too common – in fact, anxiety is thought to affect almost three times as many people as are affected by depression.
Unfortunately, the medical approach for anxiety is aimed at alleviating symptoms through the use of anti-anxiety drugs, with not much attention paid to why the anxiety has occurred in the first place. These drugs often have significant side effects, such as headaches, nausea, weight gain, drowsiness and sexual difficulties. So they certainly are not something to be taken lightly.
However, what concerns me as a naturopath who is always looking for the underlying cause of issues, is that drugs are only addressing part of the problem – the symptoms. Even then, they are not always successful at alleviating anxiety in every person. Therefore, taking a whole-body approach to managing anxiety, and supporting as many aspects of overall health is crucial.
A Balanced Brain:
It pays to be aware of what actually occurs in the brain when anxiety strikes. There are two ‘sides’ of the emotional brain – one side is responsible for ‘pepping things up’, helping you to get up and go, to be ready to react to danger. The other side of the emotional brain is responsible for calming us down, relaxing, and preparing for sleep. In a person who is not suffering from anxiety, these two sides are balanced, with neither side taking charge. But in an anxiety sufferer, the part of the brain that is involved in the fear response is larger, and ‘switched on’ more often than not. This leads the person to feel more worried and anxious, and reduces the ability to think about situations and problems rationally.
A Holistic Approach to Managing Anxiety:
Thankfully, we have some amazing natural support strategies that have been shown to help reduce anxiety. Some can even be safely used alongside pharmaceutical treatments.
• Magnesium is crucial to helping improve symptoms of anxiety. A large proportion of people are magnesium-deficient, often without realizing it. Magnesium levels are depleted through stress and worry, so therefore it is of the utmost importance to ensure good intake of magnesium when anxiety strikes.
• B-vitamins such as folate, B2, B3, B5 and B12 are crucial for stressed or anxious people. These simple nutrients have been shown to help improve energy production within cells, improve the production of healthy brain chemicals, as well as reducing inflammation (which in itself can be a contributing factor to the development of mood disorders).
• Zinc is another mineral that we don’t always think of when it comes to emotional health. Many people are aware that zinc helps improve the health of the immune system, however you may be surprised to learn that zinc has been shown to have a calming effect on the emotional brain. Additionally, some people can have a genetic condition known as ‘pyroluria’ (also called mauve factor, kryptopyrroles or pyrroles). These people have a small problem in their genes that cause their bodies to get rid of zinc and vitamin B6, essentially rendering them constantly deficient in these essential nutrients. Symptoms of pyroluria can include lack of appetite in the morning, explosive temper, sleep difficulties, poor coping with changes to routine (travelling, schedule etc), poor memory and sensitivity to bright light and/or noise. As pyroluria is a genetic disorder, it can often occur in more than one family member, who may show similar symptoms. Testing for this disorder is available.
• Medicinal herbs in therapeutic dosages have been shown to be helpful for relieving anxiety. Passionflower, Zizyphus, California Poppy and Magnolia are some of my favourites to use in the clinic, with most of my anxious patients reporting a significant improvement in their anxiety levels and sleep quality.
• Looking after the health of your gut is still an under-recognized area of anxiety management. More and more information is coming to light regarding how the health of the gut affects the health of the brain (as well as the rest of the body). This is an area that I always address from the very beginning of any natural support with my anxious patients. Problems with the gut (such as irritable bowel and imbalance of gut flora) have been shown to be strongly linked to anxiety.
• Eating a nourishing diet is also an area that is fast becoming accepted as a simple way to improve mental health and moods. The idea that ‘diet doesn’t make any difference’ to moods is (thankfully) on its way out of mainstream healthcare. Whilst making dietary improvements can be daunting when you aren’t feeling mentally strong, the benefits of eating for mental health can be significant. Sometimes just making a few small changes and taking baby steps with improvements is best. Aim to include good-quality protein (such as meat, chicken, eggs, fish, legumes and nuts) each day, to help provide your body with the building-blocks it needs to create healthy brain chemicals. Healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds also support a happy brain, as well as helping to keep your blood sugar on an even keel and therefore avoiding spikes and dips that can contribute to anxiety attacks. Reducing (or preferably eliminating) coffee and other caffeinated drinks may also help improve anxiety, as these tend to enhance the ‘fear’ side of the emotional brain. Try some calming chamomile tea instead.
• Lastly, getting some ‘time-out’ is important if you are wanting to reduce anxiety in the long-term. Time in ‘green space’ (parks, gardens, bushland), yoga, calming breathing techniques, meditation and gentle exercise such as walking are all good tactics to help combat anxiety and promote a relaxed state of mind.
The thing to keep in mind with anxiety, is that there is not one cause, nor is there one magic pill that will fix the problem. A natural approach focuses on all of the above aspects, however it can take a little time and patience.