I was recently struck by something psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen said, “I am not opposed to medication; it’s just never the first thing I try.” And I couldn’t agree more. Understanding the root cause of your anxiety (or any illness, for that matter) is always the best place to start. I realize now more than ever how our emotional well-being and loving relationships impact our physical pain and illness. For some of us, chronic pain and autoimmune conditions are directly linked to our emotional state. I’ve witnessed this firsthand with my healing journey and it’s changed my life!
In our day-to-day lives, we all experience some form of anxiety. Our fight or flight response is triggered to protect us and has been part of our survival process. If you think you might have symptoms of anxiety , please consult a healthcare professional before you start self-supplementing.
To that end, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health concern in the U.S., with over 40 million adults (19.1%) diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Types of anxiety include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias.
Benzodiazepines (Benzo) such as Xanax, Ativan, and Valium (minor tranquilizers and sleeping pills) are commonly prescribed to relieve the symptoms of anxiety due to their calming effects on the brain and nervous system. These drugs treat the symptoms, but do not target the cause. This means that if you stop taking the medication, the symptoms could easily return. They’re a short-term treatment, not a long-term solution.
Pharmaceutical drugs such as Benzo’s also have several negative side effects, including addiction, depression, and headaches. A 2018 study review on ‘Alprazolam Use, Misuse, and Withdrawal’ explores the “abuse liability” of this particular Benzo. It notes that despite being highly prescribed for anxiety disorders, addiction specialists have deemed the drug very addictive.
Furthermore, a 2012 paper explored the side effects that Benzos have due to their approach to stimulating GABA receptors and mimicking the calming effects. It said they do not fix the lack of production. The brain can become used to these drugs and lose their effectiveness over time.
Before you let a doctor prescribe a Benzo, it might be helpful to look at how you could gain understanding and skill over your anxiety. Many people respond well to treatment for anxiety without medication and holistic therapies have proven to be successful. You can’t start to solve the symptoms you are facing if you don’t know the root causes of your anxiety.
It could be due to a number of physical factors such as:
- Blood sugar dysregulation: Studies have shown that inconsistent blood sugar levels can have a negative effect on your quality of life and mood.
- Gut microbiome: Increasing research indicates that your gut microbiome has a direct link to your brain function via the gut-brain axis. Inflammation in the gut can be caused by infections like SIBO, parasites, and H. pylori. Leaky gut and food intolerances also impact your gut microbiome. If you’re able to regulate your gut microbiota, you could see a positive effect on your anxiety symptoms.
- Increased inflammation: Systemic inflammation can access the brain and enhance pro-inflammatory cytokine levels, which show neurotoxic effects.
- Nutrient/mineral deficiency: For example, low zinc + increased copper ratios.
- Thyroid problems: There is a thyroid receptor for every cell found in your body, so if your thyroid is experiencing problems, your whole body will too.
- Methylation impairments: Methylation is a biochemical process that helps to regulate your body’s systems optimally, including your brain, gut, and hormones. Those with a MTHFR gene mutation can often struggle with GABA imbalance, low lithium, and inflammation, which can all trigger anxiety.
- Hormone Imbalances: When an imbalance is found with progesterone, estrogen, and cortisol, anxiety can be triggered.
So, what is the best way to discover the root cause of your anxiety? You may find it helpful to start with comprehensive tests through functional lab testing. This can include a comprehensive stool analysis, Parasitology, H. pylori breath test, Lactulose breath test, Intestinal permeability, and food sensitivity testing. You can also work with a functional medicine practitioner. I highly recommend Dr. Will Cole.
There are also several mind-based therapies that you can consider trying if you have already investigated some of the above. The key here is to keep going down the list and find what works for you! These include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): a well-researched psychological therapy that has proven effective in helping patients understand their condition, change thought patterns, and provide the tools and coping strategies needed to react to situations more realistically. A 2017 study concluded that “CBT is an effective treatment for GAD, typically leading to reductions in worry. A study has shown that such therapy is equal to pharmaceutical treatment and more effective 6 months after study completion.” This study shows just how effective non-pharmaceutical treatment can be.
- Hypnosis: This can help to relax your mind. This relaxed state allows a hypnotherapist to explore deeper and work on reprogramming your mind. A 2016 study discovered that hypnotherapy could lead to more focused attention, increased control of your body and emotions, and an increase in confidence. Additionally, a 2019 study concluded that “from this case, it can be found that patients who experience anxiety can recover without medical drugs but by using hypnotherapy.”
- Meditation: Mindfulness and meditation are a natural way of helping to reduce stress and help you to feel calmer. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry tested 276 adults diagnosed with untreated anxiety disorders. “One group received a 10 to 20 mg daily dose of Lexapro – a standard beginning dose. The other half was assigned to weekly two-and-a-half hour mindfulness classes at a local clinic, using an approach called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It also included 45 minutes of daily meditation homework for eight weeks and a day-long retreat around week five or six.” Both groups showed a 20% reduction in symptoms after eight weeks.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: This is a form of deep breathing, which can alleviate symptoms of anxiety. By contracting your diaphragm, you can inhale deeper into your belly. Often we shallow breathe, only using our chest, and this creates a shortness of breath and increases anxiety and worry. A 2017 study demonstrated “the potential for diaphragmatic breathing to improve cognitive performance and reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults.”
Here is a list of supplements and herbs that you may want to consider looking into:
- Magnesium - Stimulates melatonin and serotonin, which helps to improve your mood and sleep. Compelling research has shown that treatment with magnesium can ease the symptoms of anxiety. Magnesium supplementation can also support immune function and reduce oxidative stress, which is imperative for overall health and longevity.
- L-theanine - An amino acid that can help ease anxiety and stress. Numerous studies show that l-theanine can support mental acuity and reduce stress. A recent research review reported that taking 200 to 400 mg of l-theanine per day could improve your sleep, focus, and help you experience less mental stress. It also works on anxiety by increasing alpha brain wave activity, regulating neurotransmitter activity, reducing blood pressure, and boosting neuron growth in the brain.
- Vitamin D - There is a strong link between vitamin D deficiency and anxiety.
- Vitamin C- This is known to dampen the adrenaline response and return it to normal.
- Zinc- Zinc supplementation can help raise levels of GABA, thereby improving symptoms of anxiety. Ratios matter! Make sure your copper levels are in range with zinc.
- Taurine - Taurine is a precursor to GABA. Decreased GABA is linked to anxiety.
- Multi B vitamins - Particularly B6 and B12.
- Omega 3 fatty acids - These have powerful anti-inflammatory effects that can be helpful for anxiety.
- CBD - Cannabinoids have been shown to decrease inflammation and improve symptoms of anxiety.
- Ashwagandha - This herb, which is used in Ayurvedic medicine, has been used to treat anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that more than 50% of patients see a reduction in their symptoms.
- Valerian root - This can help ease symptoms of anxiety by helping to improve sleep thanks to its tranquilizing properties and increasing GABA levels. Valerenic acid is similar in structure to the GABA molecule and, therefore, can have anxiolytic effects (a property of Benzo’s).
- Lemon balm - Similar to valerian root, lemon balm has a calming effect that can ease anxiety symptoms. Research shows that lemon balm extract has a strong calming effect.
- Kava Kava
- Holi basil- I love this herb so much that I incorporated it in my holi (youth) formula. Holi basil is an adaptogen with anti-anxiety properties.
- Chamomile - This daisy flower has been studied and showed a reduction of moderate to severe symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder
Here are a couple of complementary therapies that you may want to consider too:
- Aromatherapy: Essential oils, such as lavender, can be a great way to relieve stress. You can introduce aromatherapy into your life with candles, diffusers, or by carrying a bottle of essential oils with you.
- Acupuncture: This is a form of traditional Chinese medicine using needles at certain pressure points of the body to help ease pain and feel calmer. In a 2015 study, it was discovered that “acupuncture improved symptoms in people with anxiety that didn’t respond to other treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. Participants received ten 30-minute sessions of acupuncture over the course of 12 weeks. They experienced a significant reduction in their anxiety, even 10 weeks after treatment.”
Try incorporating some of these into your life, and see what works for you. There are so many ways that you can work on your mental health without medicating. The above could help you to self-regulate your anxiety so that you can recognize the symptoms and alleviate them in the future.
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST****