“Anxiety is really nothing more than fear. Allow yourself to look deeply into your fear. You may identify something that, if you can change, will make your life easier and make you happier.”
The 5 Step Naturopathic Process to Diagnosis and Treatment
With 18 percent of the population suffering, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in North America. Through clinical practice, I’ve learned that anxiety is a term that means many different things to different people. Its symptoms can range from a mild sense of unease to full-blown panic attacks and the burdensome weight of impending doom.
According to the DSM-IV, the diverse spectrum of anxiety disorders include specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and even mixed anxiety and depression. Oftentimes the symptoms become crippling; they prevent the patients I see from living their optimal, authentic lives, instead living in a state of fear and self-loathing.
The symptoms of anxiety are holistic. They range from mental symptoms – such as excessive worry, insomnia, nervousness and anticipation – to genitourinary symptoms – such as frequent urination and gastrointestinal symptoms. Other symptoms of anxiety include excessive sweating, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, changes in vision, hot and cold flashes and can be associated with suicidal ideation, self-harm and substance abuse disorders, when anxiety becomes severe.
I have never met two patients who have had identical anxiety symptoms—no two cases of anxiety are alike and, therefore, no two cases should be approached in the same way. Therefore, it is important for me to get a complete case history, with details of how anxiety manifests in my patients’ lives: how it affects them, where it might have come from and what specific symptoms are faced on a daily basis. I also inquire about hormonal systems, digestive symptoms, sleep, diet and past medical history. It is important for me to treat the person, not the condition. This means that my patients and I spend time developing a relationship.
A large portion of the naturopathic diagnostic process is identifying the cause of anxiety. While conventional medicine points to dysfunctions in the brain, naturopathic medicine approaches anxiety holistically. In the first few visits, we spend time analyzing the web of our patients’ symptoms in order to untangle the clues that might lead us to the root cause.
The Root Causes of Anxiety
A holistic approach to anxiety aims to uncover the root cause of symptoms by investigating imbalances in a variety of body systems. In the body there is a balance between the sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight – and the parasympathetic nervous system – rest and digest. When one system is turned on, the other is turned off. A healthy body can oscillate between the two states easily, activating the fight and flight response during times of stress and activating the rest and digest response the rest of the time. Anxiety is present in the sympathetic nervous system state.
- Cause: Stress
Chronic stress relies on production of the hormone cortisol, which on its own can disrupt brain levels of happy hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Chronic stress can also lead to burnout, or adrenal fatigue, which results in an inability of the body to respond to stress in a healthy manner. Instead of producing cortisol, the adrenal glands rely on epinephrine and norepinephrine – adrenaline and noradrenaline – to confront stressful situations. These hormones result in symptoms of anxiety like racing heart-rate, rapid respiration, muscle tension, mental worry, dry mouth and sweating palms. Being stuck in the fight or flight state can cause anxiety or worsen existing symptoms.
- Cause: Malnutrition and Hypoglycemia
Protein, vitamins and minerals are the building blocks our bodies need to perform their millions of chemical reactions. Trying to heal anxiety without the proper ingredients for health is like trying to build a house without bricks, cement or nails. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, and hormones, such as cortisol, require the amino acids – or protein – tryptophan and tyrosine for their synthesis, respectively. They also require cofactors – or builders – to make neurotransmitters, which include zinc, b-vitamins, magnesium and iron.
Stress, because of its demands on cortisol production, can deplete these precious ingredients, increasing our dietary requirements. Decreasing vitamin and mineral content in food, due to poor quality food production, also means we’re not getting enough of these key nutrients. Supplementation might be necessary to ensure our body is running optimally.
In addition, rising and falling blood sugar levels from a high-carb diet can cause hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemic symptoms can mimic anxiety symptoms, such as dizziness, racing heart, irritability, sweating and fatigue.
Iron deficiency is also a common finding in North Americans, especially menstruating women or vegetarians. Since iron is responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood, a decrease in oxygen carrying capacity results in rapid heart-rate and increased breathing rate, which can also be confused for symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks.
- Cause: Digestive Issues
Although serotonin, the happy hormone, is primarily active in the brain, studies show that up to 90 percent of it is made in the intestinal tract. Therefore, a disruption in the health of digestive cells or the bacteria that coats the gut, can result in a disruption in mood as well as digestive symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Forty to sixty percent of people have some sort of digestive issue in North America and there is a close connection between digestive issues and mood, termed the “gut-brain connection.”
Food sensitivities and issues with the health and integrity of intestinal cells can lead to wide-spread inflammation in the body, affecting the nervous system. Data shows that low levels of inflammation in the brain and an overactive immune system can contribute to depression, other mental health conditions and deterioration of certain brain functions, such as difficulty concentrating.
- Cause: Hormonal Imbalance
Because of the high exposure to xeno-estrogens, or toxic estrogens, many women in North America suffer from a phenomenon called “estrogen dominance,” where there is either too much estrogen in the body or not enough progesterone to provide hormonal balance. Symptoms of estrogen dominance include weight, gain, painful and heavy periods, irregular periods, fibroids, acne, PMS, infertility and an increased incidence of female cancers, such as breast and ovarian cancer.
Estrogen and progesterone, in addition to being female hormones that control secondary sex characteristics such as breast and hip development and fertility, also exert effects on the brain. Estrogen can cause irritability and anxiety symptoms, while progesterone has a stress-relieving and calming effect Check Out Your URL. Estrogen dominance, when not controlled, can worsen existing anxiety or be the cause.
- Cause: Core Beliefs and Mental Schemas
Our brains are wired to retain the lessons we learn, especially if these lessons have been experienced alongside strong emotions, such as trauma. These emotional memories are often implicit and non-verbal, located in lower brain centers, below the level of our conscious thoughts. Once the memories are laid down, they can last a lifetime, influencing our thoughts, emotions and behavioral reactions to present day triggers. Anxiety and other mental health conditions can often be symptoms of these emotional memories, also called “core beliefs” or “mental schemas.”
These beliefs dictate to us implicitly how the world works and, if left unexamined, can limit what is possible for us in our lives. When these beliefs get triggered, anxiety symptoms can result. Getting to the core of the symptoms and making the implicit memories verbal is the key to unlocking hidden psychological causes of mood disorders.
Holistic Solutions for Anxiety
Healing anxiety first involves identifying the specific symptoms and looking for potential causes among the common causes outlined above. Then, I work together with patients to develop a comprehensive strategy for coping with stress. Oftentimes this involves looking for ways to decrease stress in their lives, such as cutting back on work hours and setting healthy boundaries. Other times it involves looking for activities to incorporate into their lifestyles to manage stress, such as going for long walks, engaging in meditation, yoga, nature exposure, journaling and other activities which can lower stress hormones.
Creating a nutritional plan is also important for managing anxiety. I work from where my patients are, rather than pushing a full dietary overhaul. Making minor adjustments to diet, such as adding more protein, more fruits and vegetables and less refined carbs and sugars, can do wonders for decreasing anxiety symptoms. Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption can also greatly benefit symptoms.
Depending on the specific symptoms and lifestyle of my patients, I might recommend nutritional supplementation to improve neurotransmitter synthesis. I sometimes prescribe supplements to help my patients’ bodies through times of stress. Keeping supplements to a few key nutrients that treat the root cause of symptoms is preferable to taking handfuls of pills every day.
Improving gut health is important. This means supplementing with a good quality probiotic, identifying and removing food sensitivities, and eating a diet that is low in inflammatory fats and high in health-promoting omega 3 fatty acids. A digestive aid, such as digestive enzymes or herbal bitters, can also help with the body’s ability to absorb valuable nutrients from a healthy diet.
Balancing hormones by supporting liver function, adjusting birth control brand and dosage, and minimizing exposure to hormonal toxins such as BPA, fragrances or phthalates can help treat symptoms of estrogen dominance.
Finally, counselling to identify core beliefs can also be beneficial for eradicating emotional memories that are no longer beneficial to patients and that can be contributing negatively to symptoms of anxiety and mood, is important.
For more information on a naturopathic approach to your anxiety, visit my contact page.
This article originally appeared on TaliaND.com and is republished here with permission.