Anxiety-related disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. About 40 million adults are affected, but only about one third of those receive treatment. (1) Anxiety and depression can cause significant discomfort and even disability. Anxiety can be experienced as an emotional distress and even manifest as a strong physical sensation, such as heart palpitations, tightness of the chest, and difficulty breathing. Many of the patient I have seen with anxiety over the years reported that having episodes of anxiety prevents them from being more active, more social, and leaves them in a state of fear.
What causes anxiety?
After reviewing several tips that can help with anxiety in a natural way, it is also important to mention that anxiety is mostly caused by an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or dopamine, are chemical messengers, carrying signals between cells in your brain. Each one of these neurotransmitters is important for proper function of your brain. Have you heard of serotonin and it’s function? The presents of serotonin in your brain leads to a sensation of ease and relaxation. Low levels can lead anxiety or depression. Balanced levels of serotonin are important in regulating much more than your mood. If your serotonin levels are imbalanced, it might affect your sleep, emotions (e.g. depression, anxiety, and aggression), appetite, temperature, sexual behavior, and sensation of pain. (2) An advanced lab test to evaluate the levels of neurotransmitters is often recommended, as it might provide a 'picture' of your brain function.
The Brain – Body Connection
While the conventional medical approach to anxiety is focusing on improving the levels of serotonin in the brain, it is important to remember that the brain is not disconnected from the rest of our body. Recent studies showed a strong connection between the function of other parts of our body, such as our intestines, adrenal, thyroid, and our brain. Serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter, is actually produced mostly in your intestine. Changes in the function of your gut can lead to changes in the function of your brain. When examining the function of the gut, it is important to evaluate the proper flora of bacteria that live inside us. A change in the bacteria in our intestine was found to be associated with changes in the function of our brain, leading to inability to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. (3)
Your gut is not the only thing that can cause anxiety. Your adrenals, also referred to as ‘the stress glands,’ have a significant role in your respond to physical or emotional stress. Changes with the function of the adrenal and the hormone that they secret, cortisol, were found to be associated with anxiety disorder. (4) Unfortunately, adrenal dysfunction is misdiagnosed in many cases. A study published in the The American Journal of the Medical Sciences reported that 20% of the patients suffered with symptoms of low adrenal function for over five years before they were diagnosed and more than 67% of patients consulted at least three physicians before they were correctly diagnosed as having low function of their adrenal. (5)
Calming Anxiety in a natural way
While some people choose to treat anxiety with prescription medication, it can have side effects, including nausea, blurred vision, headaches, confusion, tiredness and even nightmares. (6) However, natural treatments can come with fewer side effects, and even other health benefits. Here are some ways to treat anxiety and symptoms of anxiety without medication.
Taking time to breathe mindfully can help decrease symptoms of anxiety. According to the American Institute of Stress, breathing deliberately by taking slow, even inhales, adds oxygen to the brain and calms the body. (6) The most famous practices in the world, such as Yoga and Tai-Chi, are based on breathing. To the observer, yoga or Tai-Chi might seem as practice that is based on movement or stretching. However, it is the breathing that ‘releases’ tension from our body and calm our mind. (7)
Meditate or pray
In whatever way you connect with a spiritual or divine side, try to do it daily. Taking half an hour each day to meditate can help lower anxiety and depression levels. Meditation, a ‘inner’ activity that was previously considered as a spiritual, religious, or a part of a ‘hippy’ practice, is considered today to be one of the best ways to ‘re-train’ our brain. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, found that daily practice of meditation reduces anxiety and depression among patients with panic and anxiety disorders. (8) I recommend to start with a few minutes of meditation every day and increase in slowly to 15 or 20 minutes.
Consider taking supplements for 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, a natural amino acid the body makes. It is not found in food, but is made from tryptophan, a different amino acid usually found in high protein foods such as meat, dairy and eggs. Studies have found that taking 5-HTP significantly reduces the symptoms of panic attacks, as well as the frequency of anxiety-based panic attacks because it increased serotonin levels. (9, 10) It can also help induce sleep, another natural way to fight anxiety brought on by insomnia or sleep deprivation. (11) A 5-HTP supplement can be bought over the counter at most pharmacies. Note: If you are on anti-depression, anti-anxiety, or certain sleep medication, avoid taking 5HTP until you consult with your physician, since you might cause Serotonin Syndrome, which is dangerous.
Sweat it out
Many studies have shown that exercise is one of the most effective ways to help ease anxiety. It can differ between person — some people may be more relaxed after a leisurely walk, while other like to sprint — but regular exercise has been shown to improve blood circulation, which helps improve the brain’s response to stress. (12) Often, people see the results in a decrease in anxiety-based symptoms, such as worrying and nervousness.
Catch up on Zs
Getting enough sleep is a healthy part of any lifestyle. A recent study found that adults who lacked sleep were more likely to worry excessively, amplifying anxiety. (13) Sleep loss over time can also increase anxiety levels, as well as contribute to other health disorders. (14)
Try taking herbs
Both St. John’s wort and Kava are famous herbs in traditional medicine for the treatment of anxiety. St. John’s Wort is a plant with yellow flowers found in the wild; extracts from the plant have been used for centuries to treat several types of pains and disorders. A study conducted in the university of Queensland found that St. John’s Worth was more effective in treating mild to moderate depression, while Kava was more efficient in the treatment of anxiety. (15) Many brands are available over the counter in pharmacies as dietary supplements.
Note: Consult your physician if you are taking any prescription medication.
Grab a cup of tea
Teas such as chamomile are known to help calm anxiety due to apigenin, which binds to the same brain receptors as some anti-anxiety medications. Studies have shown that people who receive a dose of chamomile had lower anxiety levels over time. (16) Some research also shows that green tea can have similar effects, as well as other beneficial health properties, such as increasing metabolism. (17) I usually recommend two to three cups of green tea during the day and Chamomile during the evening and night time. You can also try valerian tea.
Birdsall TC. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative Medicine Review : a Journal of Clinical Therapeutic. August 1998:271-280.
Ruth Ann Luna, Jane A Foster, Gut brain axis: diet microbiota interactions and implications for modulation of anxiety and depression, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Volume 32, 2015, Pages 35-41, ISSN 0958-1669, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2014.10.007.
Hek K, Direk N, Newson RS, et al. Anxiety disorders and salivary cortisol levels in older adults: a population-based study. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013;38(2):300-305. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.06.006.
Bleicken B, Ventz M, Quinkler M, Hahner S. Delayed Diagnosis of Adrenal Insufficiency Is Common: A Cross-Sectional Study in 216 Patients. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences. 2010;339(6):525-531. doi:10.1097/maj.0b013e3181db6b7a
Anxiety and Depression Association of America; “Facts & Statistics”; https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
The American Institute of Stress; “Take a Deep Breath”; https://www.stress.org/take-a-deep-breath/
Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry. 1992;149(7):936-943. doi:10.1176/ajp.149.7.936.
Kahn RS, Westenberg HG; “L-5-hydroxytryptophan in the treatment of anxiety disorders.”; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3157732
K. Schruers, R. van Diest, T. Overbeek, E. Griez; “Acute L-5-hydroxytryptophan administration inhibits carbon dioxide-induced panic in panic disorder patients.“; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12559480
W. Shell, D. Bullias, E. Charuvastra, LA May, DS Silver; “A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of an amino acid preparation on timing and quality of sleep.”; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19417589
Matthew P. Herring, Patrick J. O’Connor, Rodney K. Dishman; “The Effects of Exercise Training on Anviety Symptoms Among Patients: A Systematic Review”; http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/774421
UC Berkeley; “Tired and edgy? Sleep deprivation boosts anticipatory anxiety”; http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/06/25/anticipate-the-worst/
“Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem.”; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
Sarris J, Kavanagh DJ. Kava and St. Johns Wort: Current Evidence for Use in Mood and Anxiety Disorders. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2009;15(8):827-836. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0066.