Rosemary Ann Ogilvie
Many of us suffer from anxiety, which can make life very difficult. In this article, two highly experienced ATMS practitioners share advice about how to deal with the condition.
Q: After a very upsetting time with my job, I’m experiencing anxiety for the first time in my life. It’s making me miserable, and it’s very difficult to function at the moment. What can I do?
The first thing to understand about anxiety, says Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS), is that some anxiety is a normal part of life. Waking up in the morning wondering how the day will unfold is natural. Waking up with a feeling of absolute panic, or fear, or a great deal of uneasiness however, indicates anxiety may be out of control. This is especially so if accompanied by other symptoms, such as:
- Sleeping difficulties. One of the reasons for not getting to sleep in the first place is obsessive thoughts playing on your mind
- Breathing problems. Some people become so anxious they can’t catch their breath. They may also suffer palpitations or hear their heart thumping in their head
- If the anxiety is related to post-traumatic stress disorder, frequent flash backs to the experience
- A dry mouth, which is usually due to excess adrenalin
- Sweaty hands and feet
- A tingling sensation in the hands and feet, because anxiety affects the nervous system
- Nausea, which is due to unregulated blood-sugar
In most instances, anxiety is the result of a past trauma, or a situation you’re experiencing – perhaps something related to work, or an impending event.
“Anxiety can also relate to illness, so we have to identify whether there’s an underlying, cause such as diabetes or an underactive thyroid,” says Teresa.
Hormonal upsets are another source, she adds, typically when oestrogen levels change through PMS, pregnancy, or menopause and when testosterone levels decline in men, so it may be necessary to check hormone levels as well.
“Abnormal levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and the GABA system can also affect the brain, and again this is where we need help from the GP.”
Research on gut bacteria shows that gut inflammation can affect the mind.
“Eating inappropriately or having the wrong types of bacteria proliferating in the gut can cause mental symptoms,” says Teresa. “The gut and psychology syndrome (GAPS) diet helps here.”
Food sensitivities that develop as a consequence of consuming histamine-provoking amines present in foods we tend to eat a lot, notably cheese, tuna, bananas and chocolate, are also implicated, and family history may play a part.
In dealing with anxiety, people need to understand it’s not a matter of reaching for a pill – whether natural or allopathic, stresses Sandi Rogers ED.D., N.D.
“The medication might make you feel temporarily better, but the effect won’t last for long unless it’s part of a package.” Sandi says.
The key strategy, Sandi and Teresa agree, is to seek professional guidance and support.
“Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation help still the mind,” says Teresa.
“Also, it’s important to learn mindfulness practice,” adds Sandi. “This teaches you to focus in on the moment and rationalise what’s going on in your life on a moment-by-moment basis, to be mindful that the time that’s ticking by is your life passing by.”
Lifestyle factors are another important component in dealing with anxiety,
“We know that exercise – particularly cardio – reduces the transient effect of anxiety, and it appears that the more intense the exercise, the less the anxiety,” says Teresa. “Take a brisk walk first thing in the morning and be sure to move as much as possible throughout the day.”
The right food
Eating the right food is essential for the nutrients it brings into the body, and to balance blood glucose levels.
“Choose fresh, nutrient-dense foods, raw or lightly steamed,” advises Sandi. “High protein, low fat is one of the best ways of doing this and replace processed carbohydrates with unprocessed.”
Teresa recommends starting the day with a wholegrain-and-protein-based breakfast. Wholegrains promote the release of tryptophan, while lean protein helps moderate the effects of serotonin.
Vegetarian proteins such as nuts and seeds, tofu, beans and legumes contain lignans, which help reduce anxiety, and fibre, which moderates blood glucose levels. Eggs are excellent, and the DHA component of fish (for pescatarians) helps balance neurotransmitters.
Eating six small meals throughout the day also helps control blood glucose levels.
“And something very interesting: iceberg lettuce is actually hugely beneficial for anxiety as it contains extremely mild doses of a natural sedative called lactucin, which belongs to the opioid family,” says Teresa. “So, a wedge of iceberg lettuce eaten in the evening can be quite sedating.”
Sandi advises clients suffering anxiety to eat a simple egg-and-lettuce sandwich for lunch.
“The lettuce provides the nerve salts – the lactucin. Egg is a beautiful protein that contains lecithin, which helps the central nervous system.” She finds this particularly beneficial for anxiety that tends to manifest between 2pm and 4pm, which is associated with adrenal load.
Dandelion coffee is another source of lactucin, so drinking this as a beverage instead of tea and normal coffee is a good idea, particularly as caffeine in all forms needs to be avoided.
“Also avoid alcohol, as it causes rebound hypoglycaemia and is a central nervous system depressant,” says Teresa. “So rather than make you happy, it makes you more anxious.”
“Chocolates, alcohol, coffee, and high-sugar products are the comfort foods people turn to for pain avoidance as they become more anxious,” says Sandi. “The stimulant-sedative type things: the sugar sedates, but the coffee stimulates, which puts a huge load on the adrenal glands.”
High-sugar foods should be avoided as they throw blood-sugar balance right off: the initial boost of energy provided by sugar is always followed by a severe slump.
Foods high in fat are also off the menu as the high release of the chylomicrons, or fat particles, that comes from the gut into the lymph and then into the blood, creates a sludge in the blood that slows it down.
“Further, when the body is trying to metabolise fat, blood flow goes to the gut rather than to the brain and the peripheral areas,” says Teresa.
Oestrogen imbalances can be helped with herbs such as vitex, or chaste tree, for ovulating and pre-menopausal women, and dong quai post-menopause.
“Seek professional advice as you need to get the right herb and the right dose,” Teresa cautions. “And be aware that these herbs cannot be taken with other hormone treatment, whether HRT, oral contraceptives, or medication controlling oestrogen-dependent cancers.
Natural relaxant herbs include kava in tablet form and zyziphus. Again, Teresa stresses, these can’t be taken with certain medications, so it’s essential to consult a health professional. She cautions against using over-the-counter cold and flu medications because many contain pseudoephedrine, which makes you anxious.
“However, taking the minerals calcium and magnesium – in a two-to-one ratio – is quite safe, as is taking a B-complex formula with a minimum of 25mgs for each B vitamin,” she adds.
Sandi uses various herbal infusions that have proven to be particularly effective for reducing anxiety. The key to success with herbal teas, she says, is to prepare them in a domed Chinese cup, or a teapot with a dome, so the steam condenses on the underside and the distillation from the oil drops back into the liquid.
Place a teaspoon of fennel seeds, or if you happen to grow the herb, a handful of fennel leaves and flowers, in the cup or pot and pour boiling water over them. Allow to steep for a few minutes. Remove the lid and breathe in the steam.
“This allows the aromatic principles into the nasal passage, where they stimulate the limbic system, which in turn gently stimulates the production of endorphins,” Sandi explains. Strain the tea and drink it.
Another tea can be made from dried chamomile flower heads, lavender flower heads and fennel seed. Put a teaspoon of each into the cup or pot, pour over some boiling water, allow to steep with the top on. Remove the lid and inhale the infusion, then strain the tea and drink it.
“This tea produces the most impressive results for settling anxiety, particularly at the time anxiety is reaching its peak,” says Sandi.
It can also be added to a juice, “I like to use iceberg lettuce juice because of its power to settle anxiety. Juice the dark outside leaves of the lettuce, add some fennel seeds crushed to a powder, combine with the tea, inhale and then drink the tea.
Another effective mixture is lettuce juice with a teaspoon of kelp powder added.
“The majority of people with anxiety have adrenal glands that are really struggling, which means they’re running high on adrenalin, causing an imbalance of adrenalin and cortisol,” says Sandi. “One teaspoon of kelp powder added to the lettuce-fennel juice is extraordinary. I’ve seen it work as effectively as St. John’s Wort herb, or the more common anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications.”
An infusion Sandi has used for 30 years, which produces amazing results, is rose petals and lettuce with apple juice.
Put 10 unsprayed rose petals and three outer leaves of lettuce into a bowl, cover with boiling water, and seal the bowl with cling film to achieve the distillation effect. Remove the film and breathe in the aromas. Strain the liquid, add to fresh apple juice and drink.
“This is particularly beneficial for people who are in a state of anxiety, but are unsure why, or whose anxiety is hormone-related,” she says.
Finally, and very importantly, try to spend around 20 minutes every day outdoors in nature.
“Research increasingly shows the importance of this to our mental health,” says Sandi.
“Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques reveal that when healthy adults view nature scenes rich in vegetation, areas of the brain associated with emotional stability, empathy and love are more active. By contrast, viewing scenes of the built urban environment produced a significant increase in activity in the area of the brain associated with fear and stress.”