Q: I’m a 26-year-old guy starting my first year as a high school teacher. For the past few years, I’ve had anxiety problems that include panic attacks and chronic tics such as pulling out my beard hair. I want to enjoy my life and new job free of anxiety. What natural therapies can you suggest?
—Stephen B., Boston
A: First, it’s important to recognize that you’re having anxiety attacks and that they’re not “all in your head.” In fact, you’re dealing with a very real over-secretion of adrenaline, from the adrenal glands, triggered by a reflexive instinct to protect yourself. Adrenaline is a very potent vasoconstrictor—meaning it temporarily inhibits blood flow—and can cause heart palpitations, chest pains, difficulty breathing, muscular tension, dry mouth, headaches, sweating, insomnia, and other uncomfortable symptoms.
The first step in treating anxiety is to avoid other vasoconstrictors, most notably caffeine. Simple sugars such as alcohol and table sugar can also generate anxiety because they’re released quickly into the bloodstream. This causes the pancreas to over-produce insulin, which drives down blood sugar levels and causes the hypoglycemic symptoms of “spaciness” and jitters. So do your best to avoid this trio (alcohol, caffeine, sugar) of non-nutritious substances.
In their place, up your intake of vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and omega 3 fats (found in flax oil and cold-water fish). Fundamental mood-calming nutrients include magnesium (take enough to make your stools soft, then cut back by 20 percent) and a high-potency B complex.
Chronic stress can deplete certain neurotransmitters, which leads to imbalances that ultimately cause the symptoms of panic described above. Conventional treatment of anxiety often includes drugs that block the receptor sites for adrenaline, but do nothing to boost the critical, and likely depleted, neurotransmitters.
The major inhibitory brain chemicals—which promote a “feed and breed” response rather than the “fight or flight” response that leads to panic attacks—are GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) and glutathione. A naturopathic or nutrition-oriented doctor in your area should be able to provide testing to determine any specific deficiencies or imbalances you may have of these two substances. You could also look for a product that contains GABA (about 1,500 mg daily) or glutathione (1,000 mg daily).
Numerous botanical medicines can also help reduce anxiety. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) works well for anxiety that seems particularly mental—your mind races, you suffer from irrational phobias or sudden feelings of terror. Take 500 mg or 1 tablespoon of a standardized liquid extract at bedtime. Valerian is also helpful as a mild pain reliever.
If your anxiety produces more physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms or racing heartbeat, you might find relief from kava (from the Piper methysticum plant, a pepper relative). Take 1–2 tablespoons of liquid extract mixed in warm water, or 1,000 mg in capsule form, at bedtime.
Chamomile is a mild sedative that’s gentle enough for children. It’s best taken in tea form. The herb hops can be strongly sedative for nervous people, and combines well with valerian, especially if you’re having sleep problems.
Skullcap is a “nerve-soothing” botanical that I find effective for anxiety accompanied by constipation. Take 1–2 Tbs. of a liquid extract, or 1,500 mg in a capsule form, at bedtime.
Other anxiety busters include exercise, deep breathing, meditation, Tai Chi, and just plain old fun. So don’t forget to schedule a little down time into your day.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.
Stress Rx: B Vitamins, Tea, & Light
Stress produces adverse physical, mental, and emotional changes in the body—including anxiety—so reducing stress is one of the best investments you can make in your health. Start with a diet of clean, lean protein and plenty of fresh, deeply colored vegetables such as kale, spinach, beets, carrots, salad greens, and peppers. And to wash it all down? At least 64 ounces (1 quart) of pure water daily.
The B vitamins are terrific stress busters, especially pantothenic acid (B5), which is a specific tonic for the adrenal glands. Take up to 250 mg daily, preferably in a complex that includes the other Bs. [Editor’s note: For more on adrenal health, see p. 26.]
Licorice tea is a lovely adrenal tonic but occasionally will increase blood pressure in those prone to hypertension—especially if they don’t get enough potassium. Licorice is rarely a problem for people who eat plenty of greens, however, and is a very effective stress reducer in tea or solid extract form (up to 2 grams daily).
My favorite stress-busting therapy is “bathing” under a green light. A true green spectrum light (which casts an orange shadow and is available in a “flood-lamp” style from GE for about $35) has been shown to lower cortisol levels. I read to my daughter every night under the green light. We both sleep well because of it. Try using one for at least 20–45 minutes each day, although longer is fine, too.