Healing Anxiety – An Integrative Approach

By: Dr. Joanna Rosenfeld ND

 

1 in 4 Canadians will suffer from some form of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Feeling anxiety, or fear, is a normal part of our physiology but it becomes a problem when anxiety interferes with relationships, the ability to go to work or school, and other aspects of daily life.

 

Symptoms of Anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety are diverse, and can sometimes be difficult to recognize. Mental symptoms include excessive worry, insomnia, recurrent thoughts, nervousness and a sense of doom. There are also a myriad of physical symptoms – changes in body temperature, changes in digestion, frequent urination, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, chest pain, excessive sweating and more.

 

Conventional Approach

First line pharmaceutical treatment for anxiety can involve medications to increase levels of “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the body, such as serotonin, or medications that increase the inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, to help “chill out”. These can work for some individuals, but medications alone don’t provide a holistic treatment plan. The side effects of weight gain, insomnia or excessive sleepiness and decreased sexual function are often limiting factors in their use.

Naturopathic Approach

Naturopathic Doctors don’t look at mental health as a condition occurring solely in the brain, that doesn’t affect, or have an effect, on the rest of the body. Anyone who has had anxiety before a big test and felt butterflies in their stomach, or felt their heart race, can tell you that anxiety manifests throughout the body.  Below are just some of the ways Naturopathic Doctors can help address your anxiety.

 

Cause: Stress

Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat. During times of stress our body activates the “fight or flight” division of the nervous system. This increases adrenaline and cortisol in the body: creating many of the symptoms listed above – increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased breathing rate, muscle tension and mental worry. It’s easy to see how elevated levels of stress can cause, or contribute, to anxiety.

Solution: Increase the amount of time you spend in the “rest and digest” division of the nervous system. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation and low key exercise all help to decrease high levels of cortisol in the body.

 

Cause: Hypoglycemia

You haven’t eaten anything for a long time, and you have been surviving on coffee for most of the day to reach a deadline. Panic sets in, along with irritability and maybe you even start feeling lightheaded. Irregular eating habits, combined with coffee, and surviving on office baked goods can set the stage for erratic blood sugar levels and major aggravations of anxiety.

Solution: You may not have a huge appetite if you aren’t feeling great, but try to consume some nutrient dense foods throughout the day, even if it’s just a few bites every hour. Having proteins and healthy fats, and avoiding processed carbohydrates will help keep your mood and energy levels stable.  Good examples include a protein smoothie, hearty soups or stews, homemade trail mix, veggies with hummus and boiled egg with veggies.

 

Cause: Lack of Sleep

Not getting enough quality sleep can be a trigger for any number of mental health conditions. Feelings of anxiety can also keep you wide awake at night, creating a vicious anxiety/insomnia cycle.

Solution: Create a calming bedtime ritual – journaling, meditation, yoga poses and baths, are just a few examples of ways we can turn on our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. Dim the lights in your house around 9pm to help signal melatonin production and avoid screens for 1 hour before bed to keep melatonin levels elevated

 

Cause: Nutrient Deficiencies

Many vitamins and mineral are important in the formation and function of neurotransmitters and are depleted by medications, stress and poor diet. These include all of the B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron and probiotics. The neurotransmitters are made of amino acids, derived from proteins, so adequate protein levels in the body are important for formation of serotonin, dopamine, GABA and all of the other neurotransmitters. Up to 90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive tract, so you can see how diet is so important in mental well-being.

Solution: Testing nutrient levels is important and often times correcting nutrient deficiencies can have a huge effect on mood. Your ND will sit down with you and make sure your nutrition provides all the correct nutrients, and that your digestion is working optimally to absorb nutrients from food.

 

Cause: Hormonal Imbalance

Hormones are the body’s messengers and will communicate to all cells of the body. The thyroid hormone, which is responsible for our metabolism can also have a huge effect on our mood – levels that are too low can contribute to depression and lethargy, while elevated levels of thyroid hormones can increase anxiety.

For women, it is important to have a balance of estrogen to progesterone. Due to medications, environmental toxins and food choices it is common to see a relative excess of estrogen and deficiency of progesterone. Progesterone is our calming hormone, so it makes sense that low levels would lead to more anxiety and irritability.

Solution: Based on your symptoms and lab tests recommended by your ND to assess your hormone levels, you can address these imbalances to achieve optimal mental and physical wellbeing.

 

Cause: Cognitive Distortions

The way we view a situation can greatly increase anxiety. These mental patterns and habits are established early in life, and create ways of thinking that are not always helpful. These patterns can be a result of trauma, or conditioning early in life.

Solution: Learning to identify behavioural and thought patterns through techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a way to help change well-established mental schemas. A counsellor or therapist can help establish more positive ways of handling situations and relationships to decrease anxiety.