How to reduce anxiety without drugs

4 March, 2016 How to reduce anxiety without drugs

Working for nearly 20 years in practice as a Naturopath & Psychotherapist, and learning through my own experiences of anxiety, I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that anxiety is a complex friend.

Friend you ask?  Yes I’m hearing you.  Most of us disown it, despise it, reject it and misuse foods and alcohol to supposedly manage it.  Usually this mismanagement and avoidance causes it to persist and “gain muscles”.  We then keep experiencing cycles of anxiety and end up feeling like a failure for having it AGAIN.

Paradoxically, gently turning towards the anxiety rather than away, accepting it, befriending it, leaning in a little, learning about your triggers and looking into the root causes, all can make us feel less like to victim to this part of ourselves and ultimately more empowered.

When it comes to anxiety (and even depression) we definitely need to look at our repetitive thoughts, emotional triggers and get appropriate support to help us attend to these parts of ourselves.  But first things first, begin by looking at some of the physical contributing factors for anxiety.

Address the physical body

  • Know your biochemistry
  • Balance blood sugar levels
  • STOP with the low fat diet!
  • Balance your hormones
  • Nurture your sleep
  • Move your body
  • Cut out the caffeine
  • Heal the Gut

It’s near impossible to think clearly and learn to talk yourself off an “anxiety ledge” when you haven’t eaten a nourishing meal or haven’t had a good night sleep in months.  Or perhaps you don’t know what you should be eating anymore to feel your best?

You may decide you need to work through the following list with a professional for additional motivation and support.  Either way, start by keeping it simple and achievable.  Focus on one change only per week – or even per month.  And notice how things change.  If you reach the end of the list and still don’t feel any different – consider getting your biochemistry tested and addressed. Counselling or psychotherapy may also be of great help.

Know your biochemistry

Work with a functional medicine trained Naturopath or Doctor and get clarity on your potential underlying causes.  Most of us as patients in Australia don’t receive these specific tests from our regular GP.  So it is necessary to seek them out from a Naturopath or Doctor trained in functional medicine, pathology assessment and interpretation.  I’ve seen many times in my practice persistent anxiety actually being an unmanaged thyroid condition, zinc and B6 deficiency, major gut dysbiosis & leaky gut, and estrogen dominance.

Some of these tests I use may include:

Hormone and cortisol 24 hour testing, gut microbiome and parasite testing, zinc, copper, methylation status (including MTHFR gene, B12, Folate, homocysteine), complete thyroid profile including anti-bodies, ceruloplasmin, whole blood histamine, vitamin D3, and zinc:copper ratio –  just to name a few.

Balance blood sugar levels

“It isn’t disrespectful to the complexity of existence to point out that despair is, often, just low blood sugar and exhaustion.” – Alain de Botton

First things first!  Probably what I consider the largest impact on anxiety type symptoms is whether your blood sugar levels are balanced or not.

When our blood sugar crashes, even slightly, our body responds with the stress hormones cortisol & adrenaline. These stress hormones tell our liver to make more blood sugar to keep us alive. We stay alive. But unfortunately the result of this hormonal stress response feels identical to anxiety.  By stabilizing blood sugar, you can avoid this stress response and also decrease your anxiety.

When I refer here to blood sugars, I’m not referring to whether you are diabetic or not.  Most people with anxiety have what we call functional blood sugar imbalances.  This means that they are not registering in their pathology bloods yet, but still cannot go for more than 2 hours without needing some food to settle their mood or “hunger”.  Usually this snack food is also high sugar or lots of fruit.  Other than anxiety, blood sugar irregularities show up as waking up at night around 2-3am and tossing and turning (and thinking), or the mid afternoon energy crash.  Lack of sleep plus blood sugar irregularities all contribute to anxiety.

Tips to get blood sugar back on track:

  • Eat more animal protein and healthy fats (e.g., olive oil, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, coconut cream, butter and ghee from pasture-raised animals)
  • Avoid refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (the white stuff and store bought cakes, pastries, biscuits, sweets)
  • Have a break from alcohol & caffeine – both disturb blood sugar levels
  • Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks daily; don’t skip meals
  • Eat within an hour of waking up so you don’t get a cortisol surge
  • Ditch the low fat mentality.  Add a healthy fat to each meal or take a spoonful of coconut oil upon waking, in the afternoon and right before bed; this will serve as a blood sugar safety net throughout the day
  • Have a snack handy in your desk or bag (e.g., nuts, hard-boiled egg, almond butter)
  • STOP with the low fat diet!
  • We’ve all been conned with the old 1970 nutrition advice which is long out of date.  FAT IS ACTUALLY GOOD.  The only fat that is bad is hydrogenated vegetable fats and refined vegetable oils (sunflower, canola etc).  Good fats are necessary for hundreds of important actions in our body.  Healthy hormones, blood sugar stabilisation, brain health and reduction of inflammation.  Fat with every meal in the form of olive oil, flaxseed oil (don’t cook with this oil though), coconut oil, and oils in the form of nuts and organic butter.  And don’t be afraid of saturated fats from organic grass fed meats.

Eat protein each meal

Protein is essential in making the building blocks of brain chemistry.  Aim to eat protein with each meal.  A palm size of animal protein is a general rule.  Many vegetarians or vegans seem to find it near impossible to receive all the amino acids (which form a protein) from plant foods only.  So if possible, I recommend animal protein for calm nerves and mental health.

Balance your hormones

Are you 35-55 years old and female?  Most likely you are estrogen dominant.  Normal hormonal changes from the age of 35 onward, plus our estrogen dominant diet lead to mood swings and symptoms which mimic anxiety and depression.  Reducing estrogen dominance through foods, specific supplementation and herbs will also support mood and make you feel more comfortable in your body.  The good news is that all these other tips mentioned above and below will help to balance your hormones.  Cutting sugar, gluten and dairy could also help you, as they all affect estrogen dominance negatively.

Nurture your sleep

Quality sleep is the ultimate healer of all dis-ease.  Anxiety disturbs sleep and lack of sleep contributes to anxiety.  So addressing as many of these sleep tips as possible would be a good start.

  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine as caffeine decreases sleep quality.
  • Address blood sugar imbalances
  • Be strategic about light.  Let your eyes see bright light in the morning and dim light at night.  There is no way around it – we have to shut down blue light screens (phones, ipads, computers) as the sun goes down or at least an 2 hours before you go to bed.  Blue lights shut down the sleep hormone melatonin and allows the stress hormones to stay around, making it difficult to fall asleep.  Make your bedroom a nurturing sanctuary for sleep and intimacy, not work or chatting online to friends.  If your room isn’t completely dark when you sleep, wear an eye mask or get blackout curtains
  • Turn off wi-fi to cut down the electromagnetic fields in the home.  Some people are more susceptible to feeling the effects of these waves than others, especially those prone to anxiety or who are very sensitive.  There is also something about unplugging totally at night which can allow the body to know you are permitting it to rest
  • Do you really need to keep your phone on at night by your bed?  Honestly do you?  Sure keep it as an alarm, but you can put it on flight mode and the alarm will still go off
  • Be strategic about your night time routine.  Wind down and unplug before bed (no late night phone calls, heavy discussions, action movies etc).  It is a time for quietly winding down and going inward.  I always use the analogy in my consultations of treating ourselves at night how we would treat a small child.  Would you let a 7 year old eat chocolate and sugar right up until bedtime; watch a scary movie and feel stressed; or get too excited with stimulating conversations or games, then just make them jump into bed with a computer screen and watch the wiggles until the sun came up?  We are no different.  We need a routine and our body and mind needs routine to thrive.  The busy you are at and after sun down, the more stress hormone cortisol you produce and this will affect the restorative quality of your sleep and also your anxiety
  • Aim to be in bed by 10 and asleep by 10.30pm so your adrenal glands don’t go into 11pm overdrive and you get a false second wind
  • Are you sleeping with pets?  Having a dog as a member of my family, I know too well this is a common and sneaky cause of long term sleep deprivation.  If nocturnal kitty is up all night wanting company and on the prowl or your dog is taking up ¾ of the bed while you are squished on the edge wide awake…then something has to change.
  • Are you sleeping with a snorer?  Try earplugs or perhaps your partner is willing to look at why they are snoring and get help with diet changes.  Ear plugs are a great start though.

Move your body

Exercise is the best and cheapest anti anxiety remedy there is.

If you struggle with consistency, just do something small and simple.  It doesn’t have to involve gym memberships or monthly yoga passes.  In fact, it is better if you just start getting into the routine of SOMETHING you enjoy and aim not to be perfect at this.

Take the stairs, stand more, sit less, park your car further away from your destination.  Soothing and regular exercise ideally outside in nature.  Perhaps for now avoid that personal trainer screaming at you at the local boot camp.

And an interesting fact…our brain is most “plastic” after we exercise.  Meaning after exercise THAT is the most crucial time to focus on the quality of your thinking, because your brain and it’s neurons are most susceptible to changing for the good and bad.  Ideally after you have exercised, spend even just 2 breaths to begin with, on taking in what is good in your world.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It could be as simple as noticing and being grateful for the beautiful flower you saw on your walk and how bright it was.  Or the happy puppy you passed on the way home.  Anything small to learn to rewire our brain for the positive, rather than our evolutionary tendency for negative and fear.

Do a Trial off Caffeine

The relationship between caffeine and anxiety is worth respecting.  If you have anxiety you need to serious about cutting this out.  We “kick in” the fight and flight part of the nervous system when we are on caffeine.  Some of us also have a gene that predisposes us to this kick more than other people.  Being loaded up on caffeine plus an unexpected deadline or being stuck in heavy traffic and then you have a potential anxiety response right there.

Reduce your intake gradually to reduce the withdrawal symptoms and consider alternative drinks like dandelion coffee (a great liver herb) with blood sugar balancing coconut milk or cream.

Heal the Gut

“All diseases begin in the gut” – Hippocrates 460-370BC

Dr Natasha Campbell McBride is a wonderful modern trail blazer on this subject of how an out of balance digestive system leads to mood disorders.  Her book The Gut and Psychology Syndrome is a great reference.

The bugs in our digestive tract and whether we have leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability have a profound impact on how we feel and play an integral role in anxiety disorders.

Here’s how to promote healthy gut flora and heal the gut.

Avoid what irritates the gut

  • Food: Gluten, sugar, industrial vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, alcohol.
  • Certain medications: Antacids, antibiotics, non steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), asprin, oral contraceptives (and of course only make changes in consultation with your doctor).  Asprin and NSAIDS in particular cause irritation in the mucosal lining of the digestive system and result in leaky gut.

Add in what soothes the gut

  • Fermented foods: Sauerkraut, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kefir (if you tolerate dairy).
  • Starchy tubers: Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, plantain, taro, yucca.
  • Bone broth: Make your own for gut healing and soothing qualities.
  • Supplements: Take a probiotic.  Check with a health professional to get your microbiome assessed for which ones you have too much of or not enough of; or take a high dose multi-strain variety from a reputable source.  Consider supplementing with glutamine, aloe, zinc, turmeric, apple cider vinegar.
  • Pectin: A little stewed apple as a late night snack which is rich in pectin, is a healing remedy for the gut lining.  Add a little organic yogurt, slippery elm and cinnamon for added gut lining healing.

Create the conditions for the gut to heal

  • Manage stress with breathing, yoga, meditation, unplugging from the digital sphere for an hour or a weekend, being in nature, lay on the grass
  • Allow digestive secretions enough time to be secreted.  Eating with awareness, chewing and tasting the food you eat
  • Treat gut infections.  If you suspect you may have a chronic gut infection such as a parasite, get evaluated by a Naturopath or Functional medical practitioner
  • Get enough sleep
  • Consider talking to an experienced therapist when you feel stress is getting on top of you regularly, for added support and perspective.
  • Consider doing an MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course or Rick Hanson’s online Positive Neuroplasticity Course – through Foundations of Wellbeing.

Extra tools in the tool kit:

  • Magnesium – most of us are deficient and in need of this calming mineral
  • L-theanine – wonderful anti-anxiety amino acid
  • Passionflower, Kava, Skullcap, Lavender and Lemon Balm are all beautiful and soothing herbal medicines I use in anti-anxiety prescriptions regularly
  • A warm bath; some regularly paced deeper breathing (we tend to breath shallow and risk hyperventilation with anxiety); notice where your shoulders are and lower them away from your ears; lavender oil; and a chamomile tea can also be a wonderful tools

Look out for mindfulness tips in coming blogs in dealing with anxiety without drugs.

 

 

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