Naturopathic Medicine For Anxiety
This article was originally published by GreenMountainHealth.com.
Symptoms of Anxiety
There are a number of different kinds of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety disorder. The most common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Panic or fear
- Feeling nervous or anxious
- Excessive worrying
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sweaty, cold hands or feet
- Irritability or anger
- Heart palpitations or racing heart
To determine whether you may have anxiety, there is a very useful screening tool called the GAD-7 (Generalized Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire). To access this questionnaire online, go to http://psychcentral.com/quizzes/anxiety_test.htm
Causes of Anxiety
Some anxieties are constant, some are intermittent. Some have situational triggers, some do not. They all share the same basic root causes, however. In most cases, this is some combination of modifiable factors such as:
- Food allergies
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Neurotransmitter imbalances
- Omega 3 fatty acid deficiency
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
There are other causes that you may not be able to do anything about, including:
Anxiety, like most conditions, is multi-factorial. In any given person, a variety of factors will add up to cause the anxiety. When enough of those factors are present (when a certain threshold is exceeded), the person experiences anxiety. To prevent the anxiety, all of the factors don’t generally need to be removed, just enough of the factors to take the person below this threshold. This means that even people with causes from the second non-modifiable list can still benefit from addressing causes from the first modifiable list.
Food Allergies in Anxiety Treatment
Natural anxiety treatment, first and foremost, should begin with identifying food allergies. Food allergies are a common condition in which the immune system reacts to certain foods in the same way that it reacts to bacteria and viruses, namely by producing antibodies. Food allergies can be immediate and life threatening, as in the case of someone who eats a strawberry and can't breathe, or they can be delayed and much less severe but nevertheless cause significant problems. The vast majority of people who have food allergies, many of whom don't know it, have the delayed type of reaction.
The reason that many people aren't aware that they have food allergies is because the allergic reaction can take up to two days to occur after eating the allergic food. This makes it very difficult to associate the symptoms of an allergic reaction to a particular food. The other difficulty is that food allergies can cause a wide variety of symptoms such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, ear infections, sinusitis, headaches, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, obesity, and post nasal drip.
There are many different options when it comes to diagnosing food allergies. The best is a blood antibody test, which is more accurate for this type of allergy than a skin prick test.
Blood Sugar Imbalances in Anxiety Treatment
Blood sugar imbalances, caused by eating too much sugar and flour, are very important to address in natural anxiety treatment. Sugar and flour are high glycemic foods, which mean they cause your blood sugar to spike after you eat them. This is often followed by a blood sugar drop, known as reactive hypoglycemia. In addition to anxiety, sugar and flour can also cause inflammation, fatigue, weight gain, and depression. Those who have high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol, or are overweight may have metabolic syndrome and are especially likely to benefit from avoiding high glycemic foods. Added sugars such as dessert, soda and other sugar sweetened beverages, honey, and maple syrup should be eliminated, and all grains should be whole grains and limited to once daily.
Omega 3 Fatty Acid Deficiency in Anxiety Treatment
Found primarily in fish, omega 3 oils such as EPA and DHA are crucial to proper brain function. They are therefore an important element of natural anxiety treatment. Recent studies have found omega 3 oils to be as effective as prescription drugs in the treatment of anxiety and depression. They also reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by about one third.
Neurotransmitter Imbalances in Anxiety Treatment
Neurotransmitters are substances produced in the brain and elsewhere that substantially affect mood. Examples include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA. Most medications used to treat anxiety and depression alter neurotransmitter levels in one way or another. Most anti-depressants, for example, increase the levels of serotonin. Most medications for anxiety increase GABA levels or activity. While most doctors treat most people with anxiety the same, not all people with anxiety have the same neurotransmitter imbalances. Some people have low levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, others may have high levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Fortunately testing is now available to test neurotransmitter levels in the urine, allowing treatment to be tailored to the individual. Once a person’s specific imbalances are known, there are a variety of natural substances such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and herbal medicines that can be used to increase or decrease specific neurotransmitters to return the person to balance.
Natural Medicines for Anxiety
For those in whom identifying and treating the underlying causes of anxiety aren’t enough, there are a variety of natural medicines that can be very effective. Some of these natural medicines act quickly to relieve anxiety that has already started, some act more slowly to prevent anxiety over the course of a couple weeks. There are many different options available. Here are some of my favorites:
- Lavender oil extract – taken orally, this is one of the most effective natural medicines I have found. It prevents anxiety over the course of 1-2 weeks
- L-theanine – an amino acid, it activates the calming neurotransmitter GABA. It is not a tranquilizer, so it doesn’t make people drowsy. It starts working within 30-60 minutes.
- GABA – The neurotransmitter GABA can be taken orally, but its ability to make it to the brain is limited. A special form of GABA called 4-amino-3-phenylbutyric acid (a natural substance, even though it doesn’t sound like it), is much more effective at crossing the blood-brain barrier. It can be found in a product called Kavinace and it acts quickly, within 30-60 minutes
Natural Medicines vs. Prescription Drugs
While prescription drugs can offer effective relief from anxiety, they can also cause significant side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness, fatigue, constipation, low libido, incontinence, and other negative effects. Prescription drugs also usually just treat one complaint. If you have four different complaints, you will need to take 4 (or more) different drugs to address those complaints. Prescription drugs are also periodically recalled as new evidence comes to light on significant side effects (look at the example of hormone replacement therapy, to name only one). In contrast, the natural medicines I describe here typically have no side effects. The dietary changes and natural medicines I describe often help with many complaints at the same time. A person with food allergies, for example, may suffer from anxiety, arthritis, and irritable bowel – addressing the food allergies typically resolves or helps with all of these complaints at the same time, and helps to prevent future disease. Here is what I like to say to illustrate this point:
"Give a person a drug, they'll healthy for a day. Teach a person a healthy lifestyle, they'll be healthy for a lifetime."
Bottom Line for the Natural Treatment of Anxiety
Natural anxiety treatment should begin with identifying and treating the underlying causes that can contribute to anxiety. Specifically, I recommend:
- Get a blood test for food allergies – Easy and accurate, this can be extraordinarily helpful
- Eat less sugar and flour – the effects of this simple dietary intervention can be dramatic for many people
- Take fish oil, or another source of omega 3 oils
- Test your neurotransmitters if the above items aren’t enough
- Take natural medicines such as lavender oil, L-theanine, and GABA when you need something more
How We Can Help
Naturopathic doctors are physician experts in treating the underlying cause of disease and using natural medicines to help people get and stay well. To find out which natural treatments are appropriate for you or to be tested for food allergies, schedule an office visit or food allergy test.
Check our our homepage to learn more about Naturoparthic Medicine in Toronto.