by Dr. Alan Christianson
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (2010), more than 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety. Anxiety can cause an almost limitless number of symptoms. These can include a racing heart, numbness and tingling of the hands and feet, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pain, insomnia, fatigue, dizziness, skin rashes, breathing difficulties and feelings of panic.
What is anxiety and how is it different from fear? Fear is a normal response to an immediate stress or danger. Imagine how you would feel if you were being chased by a tiger. Anxiety is the same type of response but without the apparent and immediate danger.
One of the more difficult parts about anxiety is that since there is not an obvious trigger, it seems more likely that the symptoms are coming from something else. One of the biggest steps in recovering from anxiety is simply recognizing that anxiety is real and that it can cause overt physical symptoms.
Why are we prone to experience anxiety? Through no planning or foresight, our ancestors who were on the more anxious side were rewarded by survival. Imagine two adjacent caves. In one cave lives Grog; in the neighboring cave lives Ugg. Grog is prone to anxiety; Ugg is not.
One night while both cavemen are fast asleep, there is a loud ruckus in some nearby trees. Ugg assumes the noise is from the wind and goes back to sleep. Grog panics like he normally does, grabs his spear and hides in the corner of his cave. Although Ugg is more likely to get a good night’s sleep, the more anxious Grog is more likely to survive. Throughout the millennia, Grog’s descendants survived to have more children than Ugg’s did.
Many steps can be taken to help reduce anxiety. One of the best ones to start with is good management of blood sugar. This can help anxiety because when we feel anxious, our bodies release a stress hormone called cortisol. Along with managing the fight-or-flight response, cortisol has many other important jobs. One of the biggest is controlling blood sugar. When our blood sugar lowers, cortisol raises it back to normal range. This is why we can feel edgy or upset when we miss a meal.
If low blood sugar makes us feel anxious and sugary foods raise our blood sugar, it would seem that they would help anxiety. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Because sugary foods raise our blood sugar so quickly, they cause it to drop more than merely missing a meal. In fact, when we eat sugar, our blood sugar is apt to drop off badly for several days afterward.
Here are some key ways to keep your blood sugar healthy and, thus, keep you feeling happier and less anxious.
1. Start your day with a high protein breakfast. Eating 30 grams of protein at breakfast helps your blood sugar stay stable throughout the day and into the evening. Best sources include hypoallergenic protein powders, fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey and beef. Those who are not allergic can also eat nonfat, unsweetened Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and eggs.
2. Avoid processed sugars. Challenge yourself to go three weeks without consuming any foods that contain added sugars or sweeteners. You can use stevia and xylitol during this time. It is common to have stronger cravings for the first few days, but they will go away.
3. Use caffeine carefully. Even if it does not contain sugar, beverages and foods with caffeine dramatically raise blood sugar just like a sugary snack does. Although coffee and tea have some health-promoting properties, people are better off not having them on a daily basis. If the idea of missing your daily cup panics you, you are likely to benefit greatly by experimenting with a three-week avoidance of it.
4. Identify food intolerances. Have blood tests done to check for food intolerances or undergo a food elimination reintroduction diet. Many people react to common foods in ways that make them feel more anxious or agitated. Sometimes these reactions take so long to show up that their source is not immediately obvious.
5. Reassess your relationship with alcohol. Although it does calm anxiety in the moment, it causes us to feel more anxious than we normally would immediately after it wears off. The more alcohol people consume, the more apt they are to feel anxious. It acts directly on your brain in ways that cause events in our lives to affect us more strongly.
6. Identify and manage any airborne allergies. Allergies work by causing a release of histamine. Histamine acts as a strong stimulant in the brain and makes us feel agitated and fearful when it is present in high quantities.
7. Get more omega-3 fats. Have you ever been called a fat head? If so, take it as a compliment — a healthy brain is made mostly of fats. In fact, we need essential fats for our brains to operate normally. Many studies have shown that higher amounts of essential fats can be as effective and safer than medications for managing anxiety.
8. Get more aerobic exercise. Ever heard of runner’s high? Our brains are dependent upon oxygen. When we are sedentary, the brain does not get enough of it to operate at its best. Several head-to-head studies have compared exercise to anxiety medication and have shown that aerobic exercise works more quickly, is more effective and is free of side effects. Benefits are noticed with as little as 15 minutes daily. Increase the amount of exercise until you reach up to 45 minutes daily.
9. Make sleep a priority. It is only during the deepest sleep that our brains truly turn off the anxiety response and reset themselves. Sleep is critical. People who average less than seven hours per night have measurable signs of brain damage as adults.
10. Talk it out. Studies have shown that our brain lets go of trauma when it is vocalized. This benefit can be obtained by talking with a psychologist, friend or spiritual leader. It also can be achieved by journaling or talking to yourself. Make a habit of communicating your feelings in some way on a daily basis.
Alan Christianson, N.M.D., has been practicing at Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz., for more than 15 years. He is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease. 480-657-0003 or integrativehealthcare.com.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 33, Number 4, August/September 2014.