Top 5 Effective Natural Treatment Options for Anxiety

Anxiety can be quite disabling for many people.  When overused over time, the fight or flight response associated with anxiety becomes more easily triggered, making small stressors result in an exaggerated nervous system response. In some cases there is a third response which is  to freeze. Work and life becomes overwhelming and as a result efforts are frozen as a person with anxiety is caught up in the exaggerated stress response.

There are different forms of anxiety.  Some of the physical symptoms can include a tight chest or other tight muscles, short or shallow breathing, sweating and or heart palpitations. In addition, a person experiencing anxiety can feel quite afraid, worried and potentially overwhelmed. The thoughts play on repeat as the person ruminates on their worries and stressors.  As a result, they are distracted and tend to easily procrastinate daily activities. In some cases sleep is affected and they have trouble getting to or staying asleep which can then exacerbate the anxious state.

Some of the causes of anxiety can include:

  • Stress
  • Inadequate or poor functioning serotonin
  • Thyroid issues
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Hormone imbalance (cortisol, dhea)
  • Traumatic life experiences

Some of the other risk factors can include being female, family history of mental illness, having limited economic means, and being shy as a child.

Conventional Treatment for Anxiety

Typically, the conventional approach includes a mix of cognitive behavoural therapy as well as pharmacological medications.  The medications can include selective serotonin receptor inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines.  In some cases these medications can be quite helpful in calming anxiety. The problem is sometimes they have side effects that make them difficult to tolerate. For example, an SSRI supports serotonin but could cause headaches, diarrhea, sexual dysfunction, dry mouth, nausea and/or agitation. Benzodiazepines support the calming neurotransmitter gaba, but can cause fatigue, rebound anxiety when they wear off, blurred vision, sweating and trouble sleeping.

Thankfully there are natural treatment options available. These natural treatment options can be used alone or in conjunction with conventional treatment if monitored by a licensed health practitioner such as a Naturopath who is trained in avoiding potential medication/ supplement interactions.

1. Balance blood sugar

Research has shown that the ups and downs associated with regular consumption of foods that are high on the glycemic index is associated with a greater risk for anxiety and nervousness. Also, these foods can affect your mood and make you more tired, which in turn intensify anxiety symptoms.

It is important to have protein and good fats at every meal and with every snack to balance blood sugar.  As well, limiting consumption of grains and sugars will help keep blood sugar level. Some people advocated a paleo or keto type diet for those with anxiety to better manage sugar fluctuations.

2. Diaphragmatic breathing to normalize carbon dioxide levels

Researchers have found in a number of studies that exposure to elevated levels of carbon dioxide can trigger or worsen anxiety by shifting the body into a more acidic state.  Shallow chest breathing is a culprit for elevated carbon dioxide levels in the body. Regular diaphragmatic breathing helps to correct the imbalance.  It seems somewhat unnatural because we have been taught to hold in our strong emotions such as anger, fear and sadness. This means we hold our breath unconsciously or breathe irregularly.  Diaphragmatic breathing allows your lungs to fully expand with air coming in and then release healthy amounts of carbon dioxide, moving your body into a more neutral, less acidic state and calming anxiety symptoms.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing daily and as needed is a very effective too to address anxiety.  Start with 10 minutes per session and then gradually increase to 15-20 min. It take a bit of time for the acidity of the body to change so it is important to do this type of breathing long enough to experience results.

3. Support serotonin

Serotonin is a neurochemical that is found in the brain, intestines, blood platelets and immune cells called mast cells. It helps to regulate mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire/ function. When serotonin is low, a person is more likely to experience anxiety, depression and irritability and is more predisposed to stress.

There are a number of natural options to support serotonin production and as a result improve anxiety symptoms.  For example, 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a naturally occurring amino acid precursor and an ingredient for the synthesis of serotonin. Alternatively, St. John’s Wort is an herb that helps support serotonin regulation.  There are others, such as Rhodiola. As with many natural treatment options, taking the right dose for the right amount of time is very important. Most work better over time rather than in a few days.  It is best to consult a licenses health practitioner with experience in this field first.

4. Regulate the nervous system

Humans have evolved to have a fight or flight or freeze response to alert us to danger. This response is triggered by a perceived threat and results in our sympathetic nervous system activating a cascade of events that result in a surge of specific stress hormones which include epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.  Some of the physical changes that occur when these hormones are released include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, shift of blood flow to skeletal muscles (ex. legs and arms) and away from smooth muscles (ex. digestion), dilation of pupils to see better, sweating and tunnel vision. All of these physical changes are meant to improve our chances of running away from a perceived threat. However, nowadays that threat may be a boss at work who’s words trigger the same physical symptoms.

There are a number of effective natural treatments to help shift the body out of the fight or flight response, and to modulate the over-secretion of stress hormones.  For example, ashwagandha  (aka Withania Somnifera) is an adaptogen herb that is used to calm the nervous system. Other herbs used to improve anxiety may include Kava Kava and Scutellaria, both are great for settling symptoms of anxiety. And as with other natural treatments, these herbs work better when a therapeutic dose is taken. This can vary between individuals so it’s best to consult a licensed health practitioner such as a Naturopath who is well versed in how to best take these supplements.

5. Adequate exercise

The benefits of exercise for in managing anxiety and stress cannot be understated. Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise is associated with lower nervous system reactivity.  This means that aerobic exercise modulates the secretion of stress hormones in the body including cortisol and adrenaline. It also stimulates the production of endorphins which result in feelings of relaxation and optimism.  Furthermore, exercise helps release the excess buildup of carbon dioxide that can occur from shallow breathing and trigger anxious symptoms. Deeper breathing that results from aerobic exercise increases the exhalation of carbon dioxide.

To find out more about how a Naturopath treats stress and mood concerns, including anxiety and panic disorders, book a FREE 15 min Meet the Naturopath info session with Dr. Tara Andresen today at one her NDcare Naturopathic Clinics in Toronto.