Can't sit still, can't talk yourself out of worried thoughts, or - for that matter - you can't get your mind to stop racing with any thoughts. Sometimes it's worry but other days, you just review countless versions of tomorrow. You might feel tightness in your chest, heaviness or racing in your heart. The symptoms of anxiety can make you wonder if there's something wrong with your heart.
More than 19 million Americans suffer from various forms of anxiety-related mental illnesses. There is no argument that we live in an anxiety-inducing age. Most of us have experienced anxiety at one time or another as a rising sense of panic or perhaps a feeling of impending doom. Occasional anxiety bouts are normal when they're brought on by a known cause such as an important upcoming test or a speech we're about to give.
A certain degree of anxiousness can actually help our performance. We are hard-wired to experience fear that helps summon up our physical and mental resources. But if you experience constant, intense fears and worries about your daily routines and commitments that are disabling, you are likely suffering from what's called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the most commonly diagnosed form of anxiety. It's usually accompanied with a deep, abiding pessimism about life in general-the irrational belief that things will turn out badly.
Thankfully, there are a host of dietary and lifestyle changes we can make to deal with the psychological and physiological causes of anxiety.
In the past anxiety was viewed as an entirely psychological problem that was addressed with a mixture of tranquilizers, psychoanalysis, and informal advice to simply “buck up and get over it.” Today, conventional medicine attributes anxiety to a chemical imbalance and the response is to prescribe anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. While such pharmaceuticals may prove effective over the short term, for many people the side effects (changes in sleep, appetite, and general mood) are unacceptable. For these and other reasons, many people want to relieve their anxiety without resorting to prescription medication.
Some of the anxiety-related mental illnesses include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder - Lasting at least 6 months, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by exaggerated worry about ordinary daily life and is often accompanied by the expectation that things will go badly without reasonable cause.
- Panic Disorder - Recurring episodes of intense fear that come on without warning accompanied by rapid breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, or “butterflies” in the stomach.
- Phobias - These usually fall into two categories-specific or social phobias. Specific phobias are experienced as irrational fears of things that in reality pose little or no threat. Social phobias produce crippling fear of humiliation or scrutiny in social settings.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - Recurring, disturbing thoughts and compulsive behavior that appear to be impossible to control or stop.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Stress that follows experiences such as war, assaults, abuse, or severe accidents. Symptoms can include flashbacks, emotional numbness, anger, depression, distraction, and exaggerated startle reflexes.
It is becoming increasingly clear that anxiety is the result of complex interactions between our mind and body that are complicated by genetic disposition and lifestyle issues. In a more complex viewpoint, the chemical imbalance is as likely the result of the interacting factors as the cause of the symptoms.
Nutrition plays a key role in our emotional health. The foods we eat influence the production of both stress-producing and stress-calming neurotransmitter chemicals released by our brain, thyroid, adrenals, GI tract, heart, and reproductive system. Imbalances in this complex web of chemical responses can sensitize your brain, making you more prone to fear and anxiety.
Blood sugar is a significant and often overlooked culprit in producing anxiety. Diets high in carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods cause blood-sugar levels to careen wildly, in turn causing the adrenals to pump out stress-producing adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol in an attempt to keep the brain supplied with glucose. Many people compound the problem further by drinking copious amounts of caffeine and using nicotine in an effort to balance out these extremes. Other drugs both licit and illicit can further fuel both anxiety and abrupt mood swings.
By reducing our intake of carbohydrates and sugar in all its forms while increasing the quantity of high-quality proteins and fats in our diet, we give our metabolism the nutrition it needs to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels. Particularly important is cholesterol: low cholesterol has been associated with anxiety as well as depression. If you have a very low cholesterol (total under 130), consider eating more eggs which will help normalize cholesterol but not give you high cholesterol.
The following recommendations can help restore calmness and clarity by providing our nervous system with soothing neurotransmitter substances.
Combining dietary modifications with other lifestyle changes such as learning and using relaxation techniques offers a potent way to curb anxiety. In the Lifestyle section below, you'll find an array of techniques that have been found helpful in calming the nervous system in cases of both acute and chronic anxiety.
Underlying physiological and psychological issues can lead to a chronic state of anxiety that over time saps our lives of vitality and joy. By addressing both the emotional and physical conditions that trigger anxiety attacks, we can restore peace and clarity. Because the causes of anxiety vary enormously among individuals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
For the greatest improvement in your anxiety level with the fewest steps, do the following:
- Alternate nostril breathing is a wonderful tool for immediate relaxation. Start by covering one nostril and inhaling deeply through the free one for one long breath. Then cover the other nostril and exhale through the free one for one long breath. Keep that nostril free and deeply inhale through it. Alternate this way for 10 full inhales and exhales. You very likely will feel better immediately.
- Herb Pharm Passionflower Extract. Can calm anxiety quickly with one dropper or 45 drops stirred into water.
- Integrative Therapeutics Lavela Softgels. Take as directed. Lavender compares favorably with lorazepam, and...it's lavender!
A comprehensive anxiety reduction program involves many areas in which action steps can be taken, gradually or all at once. Start by following the basic nutrition and healthy lifestyle guidelines, with the following modifications:
Foods to Enjoy
- Fish, especially fatty fish such as Wild Alaskan Salmon. This variety has the highest quality Omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which can reduce anxiety. Eat salmon twice weekly smoked, fresh, or even canned.
- Wild Alaskan Salmon Roe twice weekly. Put 8-10 roe in individual ice trays and freeze. Then scoop out as needed and put on warm-but not hot-food such as eggs, or add to cream cheese and celery. Delicious!
- Liver or other organ meats. Enjoy them once or twice a week, and always from grass fed healthy animals. Eat as liver pate or fry lightly with onions. This food is so important that you can eat it instead of taking a mountain of supplements. But if you can't eat it, try Dr. Ron's Ultra Pure Liver Capsules instead. (See Supplements below).
- Fats of the highest quality. Good fats such as butter, coconut oil, cream, lard (from organically raised animals), and olive oil, soothe and quiet the nerves.
- Dark chocolate is high in magnesium and for many people helps to soothe nerves. It's best to limit the amount to a maximum of 1-3 ounces daily. Eat it after lunch (NOT instead of lunch) so your sleep won't be disturbed if you are sensitive to caffeine.
Foods to Avoid
- Sweets. As much as possible stay away from sweet foods, including cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, colas, pastries, and candies as well as fructose. High concentrations of fructose are found especially in juices as well as high-sugar fruits such as apples and pears. If you love these fruits, match them with cheese for a balancing effect.
- Grains. For some people grains in general, and particularly gluten grains can be associated with anxiety. Avoid wheat, rye, spelt, barley, and beer. See the Gluten Free Diet.
- Foods you are allergic to. Allergic reactions can cause anxiety symptoms. Beside gluten, other possible triggers include corn, dairy, eggs, onions, chocolate, coffee, tea, citrus, potatoes, soy, peanuts, yeast, pork that is not aged or smoked, and oats. You may have an allergic reaction to more than one of these foods. The only definitive method of confirming which foods you are allergic to is by testing them on yourself. Physician administered or blood allergy tests may help pinpoint the most likely culprits, but should be confirmed by your experience. See the Allergy Elimination Diet.
- Food additives in processed foods. MSG and aspartame especially can act as stimulants. Relief of anxiety can occur within hours of stopping their use. MSG is often hidden within other ingredients or labeled with another name. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, for instance, often if not always contains MSG.
- Caffeine. Symptoms of excessive caffeine can precisely imitate symptoms of anxiety from whatever cause. Know yourself. If you react to caffeine at all, the best solution is to reduce as needed or cut it out completely.
Stress has many causes that are often linked. The exact same supplements will not help everyone. We recommend you start by trying the first 3 or 4 products listed below then add on as necessary.
- Omega 3 fatty acids as Barlean's Omega Swirl, take 1 Tbsp or 1000 mg daily.
- Integrative Therapeutics, Multiplex-1 without Iron. Take 1 with 2-3 meals daily.
- Dr. Ron's Ultra Pure Liver capsules. Take 2 daily anytime.
- Biotics Research Bio-D-Mulsion Forte for vitamin D3. Take 2 drops daily.
- Thorne Research 5-Hydroxytryptophan (HTP). Take up to 3 capsules daily, spread over the day or together at night for help with sleeping.
- Thorne Research Magnesium Citramate (150 mg). Take 1-3 or more daily until diarrhea occurs, meaning you need to back down to a lower dose. Stress causes magnesium depletion and magnesium depletion causes stress so it is a vicious cycle. Add magnesium to break the cycle.
- Herb Pharm Nervous System Tonic. Take 15-30 drops 2 to 3 times daily, in water.
- Integrative Therapeutics Lavela Softgels. Take as directed. Lavender compares favorably with lorazepam, and...it's lavender!
- Thorne Research Chromium Picolinate 500mcg. Take 1 daily if you crave sweets.
- Designs For Health Probiotic Synergy. Take 1/8 tsp, increasing to 1/2 tsp, daily between meals.
- Biotics Research De-Stress. Take 1 capsule daily.
Special Supplements to Consider
- Now Foods Taurine. An excellent nerve soother and particularly helpful for people who have high blood pressure or palpitation sensations.
- Herb Pharm Ashwagandha extracts can be calming for people whose anxiety wakes them up in the wee hours of the morning, thought to be due to adrenal overstimulation.
- Don't smoke. Although nicotine initially calms nerves, anxiety rebounds and cravings return.The ultimate effect is higher anxiety.
- Avoid hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar is a major cause of episodic anxiety. Eat breakfast soon after rising. Do not eat anything sweet for breakfast such as fruit, cereals, or sweet smoothies. This is a hard tradition to break in the U.S. where breakfast often consists of sweet pancakes with syrup, hot chocolate, or sugar-laden packaged cereals.
- Eat frequent small meals, at least every 3 hours, without skipping.
- Eat protein and fat with every meal and every snack. Carry snacks with you always so you will not become frantic when food is unavailable. Put snacks such as nuts in your car for rush-hour traffic jams.
- When going on a trip, carry hard salami (organic, of course), hard cheese (raw preferred), olives, crispy nuts, and hard-boiled eggs for emergency meals or snacks.
- Exercise. Regular and enjoyable exercise is essential to the health of the entire body and particularly vital for happy nerves. Consider a combination of aerobic activity (you can just manage to talk while you do it), short bursts of high intensity activity (out-of-breath-gasp!), and gentle stretching. Best yet would be to find an activity you can enjoy with others.
- Sound sleep is a critical factor for a calm nervous system. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and keep your room dark. We also have many recommendations for better sleep in our Insomnia and Sleep topics.
- Silence. Consciously allow some silence into your life. We are constantly bombarded with noise, much of it mechanical, alarming, and/or unpleasant. This is a new phenomenon for the human body and it reacts with subtle increases in anxiety-producing cortisol. Turn off the noise whenever you can for an hour or more and luxuriate in the soothing silence. We especially encourage you to turn off the news or stop reading the newspapers daily if you have anxiety. Learning about disasters can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system with messages of “Fright! Fight! Flight!”
- Relaxation practices. Find a simple practice and repeat it daily.It's natural to find yourself easily distracted at first, so forgive yourself gently and simply return to the practice.
- Repeating a soothing phrase or word silently or aloud while sitting quietly has been shown to reduce anxiety. It is especially helpful to do this routinely at the same time each day. Your body will regulate and calm with such practices. By doing slow, deep breathing at the same time, you will notice a reduction in stress levels.
- Alternate nostril breathing is a wonderful tool for immediate relaxation. Start by covering one nostril and inhaling deeply through the free one for one long breath.Then cover the other nostril and exhale through the free one for one long breath. Keep that nostril free and deeply inhale through it. Alternate this way for 10 full inhales and exhales. You very likely will feel better immediately.
- Parasympathetic breathing is another calming breath tool:Breathe very deeply through your nose while you keep your shoulders still. Feel the breath go into your mid back and spread through your lower ribs. Taking 10 breaths in a row, slowly and deeply, is thought to stimulate your vagus nerve and your parasympathetic (relaxing) nervous system.
- Many behavior therapies such as EMDR and meditation can help anxiety. We will give you more information about many of these at a later date.
Anxiety and its effects can create a vicious cycle where one feeds the other. Marie was anxious about a new job and found herself waking at 1 a.m. worrying about the next day. Then she'd worry that she couldn't sleep, which never helped. The lack of sleep gradually wore her down and she only obtained some much needed rest by getting sick. Hardly a sensible plan but at least she had some rest time and a chance to chat with me about her situation and what she might do.
With her new job she had stopped taking good routine care of herself, so she re-introduced her healthy eating plan, as well as her regular fish oil supplement. Because of the added stress and her compromised mealtimes, we added Integrative Therapeutics, Multiplex-1 without Iron. The need for extra B vitamins during times of stress is well known but if you resort to excessive B vitamins, I believe you may do more harm than good.
A week later she was still waking in the night-time, though doing better during the day with her vitamins resumed, so she asked for more help. Okay, middle of the night waking automatically gets 3 interventions (I add Thorne Research Melaton-5 if the patient is over 50.) Marie started all three - a 15 minute brisk walk outside in the late afternoon, one full dropper of Ashwaganda tincture at bedtime, followed by tryptophan as 5-hydroxy tryptophan, 100-200 mg. at bedtime. Yes, success! A month later she dropped the tincture and the 5-HTP, but kept the afternoon walk; the best solution for her sounded good to me.
This information is provided for educational purposes only, and any individual diagnosis or treatment should be determined by you and your doctor. See Additional Information.