Feeling Anxious: Practical Steps to Stop This Runaway Train

Anxiety is a natural response to stressful and worrisome situations in life. We all get anxious once in a while, and after the situation which caused the stress is over, most of us feel the worry and tension melt away and we return to a healthy state of mind and go on with our lives. 

For some people, it is not as easy, and sometimes, it is even impossible to return to a state of calm. They continue to experience the excessive amount of irrational anxiety, fear, panic, tension, and worry even when there is no apparent cause for all these feelings to occur. This kind of anxiety is called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and it interferes with daily life and functioning of about 7 million U.S. adults. 

Some people have a hard time distinguishing between past traumatic events and current situations, and some sounds, sights, or triggers make them feel negative emotions. They might perceive a particular situation as dangerous, even though in reality, there is nothing threatening happening. GAD can develop at any point in life and can be short-lived or a life-long condition affecting the quality of life greatly. 

Anxiety disorder very often co-occurs with depression, panic disorder, social and other kinds of phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder. This combination can make symptoms worse and recovery complicated. 

Possible GAD Complications

  • Depression – it is a widespread condition that can co-occur with anxiety and increase the risk of suicide. 
  • Bipolar disorder – GAD goes hand in hand with a panic disorder, which is a common symptom of bipolar disorder.
  • Increased risk for substance abuse – it is a form of self-medication and, in many cases, used when there is social phobia.
  • Insomnia – sleep can be significantly affected by anxiety disorders, as well as disrupted sleep, which can cause anxiety. 
  • Headaches – could be tension and/or migraine headaches.
  • Gut problems – gut-brain axis plays a crucial role in mental health. Stress, traumatic brain injuries, and many other factors affect mental health. Half of the cases of IBS are associated with anxiety.
  • Negatively affect your heart health – anxiety can lead to unhealthy cholesterol levels, thicker blood vessels, and high blood pressure.
  • Obesity – one can lead to the other and vice versa. 
  • Allergic conditions – associated with hay fever, eczema, food allergies, hives, conjunctivitis.

Most Common Signs & Symptoms

  • Obsessive anxiety and worry – worrying about many different things and having trouble controlling those feelings. Sometimes people can’t even pinpoint what the exact source of their worry is and why they are feeling so overwhelmed. 
  • Feeling tired – it is exhausting to experience the constant worry, therefore fatigue is very common.
  • Having difficulty with concentration – could often experience a blank mind and brain fog.
  • Being on edge – restless or feeling wound-up, irritable.
  • Experiencing sleep disturbances – it can be difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep throughout the night. Restless, non-restoring sleep is common. 
  • Having muscle tension – very common to feel pain and tension in neck/shoulder and back area.
  • Flat mood – no emotions, monotone voice, apathy.

Causes and Risk Factors

  • Gender – women are almost twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men. 
  • Traumatic events – physical or emotional trauma can trigger the development of anxiety disorders, especially PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. 
  • Medical conditions – some medical conditions, such as migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS, GERD, premenstrual syndrome, hypothyroidism, and sleep apnea have been associated with an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders.
  • Genetic predisposition – could be caused by some genetic SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), such as under or over-methylation, low folate, pyroluria, copper overload. Tests for that are available. A family history of anxiety can also predispose someone to it more. 
  • Biology related – a nutrient-poor diet has adverse effects on brain biology. 
  • SAD (standard American diet) could lead to leaky gut and dysbiosis, which can affect the brain health.
  • Unmanaged autoimmune diseases, inflammation – Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis very often goes hand in hand with anxiety, as well as inflammation anywhere in the body leads to many damaging effects, such as cellular damage and death. 
  • Physical inactivity and lack of social connection – movement and activity are very important, as well as the need for human connection for optimal all-around health. 
  • Toxins and medications – the usage and withdrawals from them damage the brain.
  • Low cholesterol levels – levels of total cholesterol of 160 or lower have been associated with an increased risk for anxiety development. Cholesterol makes up a big part of the brain, is required for vitamin D synthesis in the skin upon sun exposure, and is the building block for many hormones. If it is low, hormonal imbalance, vitamin D deficiency, and brain health suffers. Anxiety is one of the side effects of statin medications. 

Anti-anxiety Drugs 

These are potent substances that alter the way the brain works. Benzodiazepines are a group of drugs, also known as tranquilizers. They are often prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and used as muscle relaxers. 

Valium and Xanax (Alprazolam) are some of the most prescribed and abused drugs in the United States. For most people, the negatives outweigh the benefits of these very serious medications. The use of these drugs is very addictive, which makes it incredibly difficult to come off them. 

Common anti-anxiety drug side effects include: 

Sedation, dizziness, weakness, unsteadiness, memory impairment, headaches, sleep disturbances, confusion, aggression, feeling of depression, irritability, skin rashes, depletion of minerals & vitamins essential for mental health.

Prevention 

Anxiety prevention includes addressing the risk factors first. Even though we cannot change our genetics and past traumatic events cannot be erased from one’s mind, there are still quite a few things that are under our control and can be changed or adjusted to better care for our mental health. 

First and foremost is the diet, because no amount of psychotherapy will change anything for the better if one is nutrient deficient and is suffering from chronic inflammation. Our gut is our second brain and needs to be healthy first if we want to achieve optimal mental health.

Standard American diet high in unhealthy fats, processed foods, and loaded with artificial ingredients, pesticides, and sugar combined with a sedentary lifestyle indoors has caused widespread gut dysbiosis and leaky gut, hormone imbalances, inflammation, and immune up-regulation leading to chronic nutrient deficiencies, overwhelming toxic load, and autoimmune conditions.

We need to start with fixing the diet first because everything begins with the gut. If the digestion, assimilation, and elimination functions are impaired, every organ in the body will suffer – nutrient-rich food is our fuel. If the fuel is damaged, our engines will stop running. 

Dietary Support

  • Eat breakfast – if blood sugar drops, mood drops too. Avoid BS rollercoasters and make sure not to let yourself get hungry by not skipping meals. Start your day with a good balanced breakfast of quality animal protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. 
  • Nourish your gut and your brain – gut is the second brain & needs to be nourished for optimal mental health. Fiber and fermented foods will support healthy gut microbiome & eating healthy quality fats is essential for brain health. 
  • Relax when eating a meal – digestion in the parasympathetic nervous system is at its best.
  • Eat organic food – this will help avoid synthetic additives, preservatives, added sweeteners, hormones, toxic pesticides and fertilizers, GMOs, and allergens. These are toxins that affect mental health negatively. 
  • No single diet fits everyone – it is a good idea to eat according to your ancestral and genetic heritage and your metabolic type. Find what nourishes you.
  • Eat the “rainbow” – eating whole foods from the entire color spectrum is a sure way to get nutrient-dense meals and to send the right message to your genes.
  • Food sensitivities – although eating foods one is intolerant to does not usually produce immediate adverse side effects, it is a huge burden and stress on the body to experience on a daily basis. Food sensitivities can cause leaky gut, dysbiosis, inflammation, all of which can lead to more significant health issues down the road, including the development of autoimmune diseases. Eliminate those foods and replace them with other healthy options. 

Address Lifestyle Factors

A person cannot achieve optimal health through nutrition alone – emotional needs have to be met and nurtured as well after the diet is fixed. Avoiding unhealthy substance use is an important prevention step:

  • Stress – find natural ways to relieve stress, such as meditation, spending time in nature, enjoying a hobby. 
  • Exercise – reduces negative mood and increases self-esteem, energy levels.
  • Sleep – it is so important, that without proper rest, it is hard to get control over any kind of disorder. Extreme sleep deprivation can lead to psychosis, and moderate deprivation leads do anxiety, depression, ADD, and memory problems. 
    Use natural sleep aids, such as calming herbs and teas, relaxing music, meditation, warm shower before bed, essential oils. Sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room, technology-free, turn off your WiFi, as E.M. radiation can disturb sleep. 
  • Avoid alcohol – it is a toxin, and like all toxins, it and can induce anxiety and cause panic attacks. 
  • Quit smoking and caffeine – these stimulants can make anxiety much worse. 
  • Pay attention to drug-nutrient interactions – as so many people are on multiple medications these days, nutrient deficiencies are widespread and causing all kinds of emotional problems. 
  • Social Media – avoid being sucked into social media, meet with real friends in real setting instead. Social media can be very addictive and unhealthy if used excessively.
    There is a new term called Social Media Anxiety, and it has been proven that very real anxiety comes from comparing yourself to other’s manufactured perfect images of themselves and their lives online, FOMO – fear of missing out, getting others to “like” you online and constant texting.
    This can be very distracting and take over one’s life. This is especially true with teenagers and young adults. It becomes intolerable, too much. 
  • Nature – has emotional, physical, and spiritual health benefits. Exposure to direct sunlight boosts vitamin D3 production in the skin – an essential nutrient in mental health. 

Targeted Nutritional Support

  • Protein – is a building block for neurotransmitters. Amino acids, such as L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-arginine, and L-theanine, are the building blocks of protein. Their effects have been studied in brain health, and it’s been shown that they can help with sleep, reduce cortisol levels and increase GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid). GABA along with glutamate, is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.

    The two neurotransmitters work together and counter each other – while glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, GABA has a calming, anti-stress effect on the brain. It has been shown to induce relaxation and promote sleep through anxiolytic qualities, not through sedation. 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – it increases BDNF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor), the expression of which is reduced in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease patients. BDNF is responsible for the growth and survival of the nerve cells, and has been found to help regenerate damaged nerve cells. 

    Omega-3’s are also anti-inflammatory, and reducing inflammation in the body is one of the most important steps for improving any health condition, since inflammation in the body equals inflammation in the brain too, which breaks down the signaling between the nerves.

    Inflammation comes from a very big imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Most people in America get more than enough of omega-6’s and not nearly enough omega-3‘s, which leads to a balance of 20:1, or even higher, instead of the healthy 2:1 balance of these fatty acids.

    Low DHA intake, which is the primary structural component of the brain, has been associated with anxiety, and low EPA intake, which serves as the main anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid, is mostly associated with depression. Fatty acid blood testing is available through doctors and direct to consumer blood testing labs. 

  • Probiotics – gut microbiota is directly involved in the regulation of mood, anxiety, cognition, pain and it affects CNS, immune and endocrine systems. It is essential to have more of the good bugs than the bad ones, as the beneficial bacteria are responsible for food digestion, vitamin production, inflammation control, and immune system function, to name a few of their vital roles in our bodies. 

    Harmful bacteria produce toxins, ferment food, which leads to gas and bloating, and sometimes multiply so out of control that they move into areas such as stomach and small intestine, where they cause all kinds of health issues, including ammonia production which affects the brain function. 

    If a person is suffering from dysbiosis, this can result in anxiety and depression disorders. Studies have shown that there are important differences in the types of gut bacteria found in depressed vs. healthy people. It does not mean that everyone who’s microbiota is off-balance will develop anxiety or depression, but susceptible people are at high risk of such complications.
    Stress via elevated levels of cortisol and traumatic injuries to the head change microbiota and can lead to these disorders. Bacteria found in the G.I. tract can activate our neural CNS signaling pathways. 

    Foods rich in these good bacteria are fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, soft cheeses, kefir, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha tea. Try to incorporate those foods into your diet to get the many health benefits that they provide. 

The Bottom Line

Most people in this day and age are over-stressed, undernourished, sedentary, over-medicated, and in general, are carrying a hefty total toxic load. No wonder there are so many people with mood disorders. Medications are not the solution. If they were, we would be a healthy society. 

Instead, we stigmatize mental conditions and try to keep them hidden. It is time for all of us to realize that those conditions can have serious consequences and start addressing them with natural physical and emotional support methods instead of dangerous drugs. 

We need to support each other, and it has to start with our youngest population – the kids, so that they don’t have to live their adult lives in misery and despair. Prevention is the best approach to this widespread condition. 


References:

Mayo Clinic. (September, 2014). Generalized anxiety disorder. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024562

Psychology Today. (January, 2012). Anxiety and omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-zone/201201/anxiety-and-omega-3-fatty-acids

Science Daily. (July, 2008). Scientists learn how food affects brain: omega 3 especially important. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080709161922.htm

Psychology Today. (November, 2011). Psychological consequences of vitamin D deficiency. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-breakthrough-depression-solution/201111/psychological-consequences-vitamin-d-deficiency

Korn, L. PhD. (2016) Nutrition essentials for mental health. Well Being Journal, volume 25 (issue 3), pages 6-12. 

WebMD. (2009) Find a vitamin or supplement: SAMe. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/supplement-guide-sam-e

Hyman, M. (2009). The ultramind solution. New York, NY: Scribner.


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As a holistic nutritionist, I believe that vibrant health is the foundation of great life, and food and our environment has everything to do with our health. We all eat, every day. Sadly, this vital, pleasurable and such primal activity has become so confusing, stressful, and complicated for majority of us, that it is starting to look a lot like rocket science. My mission is to help you navigate through the ever changing and puzzling landscape of nutrition by weeding out all the noise and focusing on what’s truly important. Make it simple and fun.

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