By Cathy Wong
Many of us lead fast-paced lives and live out of sync with natural rhythms by going to sleep late, waking early, working long hours, not taking enough rest and leisure time, and eating when we’re not hungry. But for the over 14 million Americans who suffer from anxiety, there is a pervading sense of unease and even fear that diminishes their quality of life.
Typically, people feel tension, worry, irritability, frustration, or hopelessness. The sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) is activated, causing symptoms including difficulty concentrating, feeling tired easily, poor sleep, restlessness, irritability, feeling tense or on edge, and muscle tension. People may also notice changes in physical health such as headaches, jaw pain, dry mouth, chest tightness, poor digestion, irritable bowel, acne, sexual dysfunction, and heart palpitations. Social, occupation, and other areas of functioning are impaired.
The combination of chronic stress, poor sleep, poor diet, use of stimulants such as coffee, and long work hours can deplete the body and lead to condition holistic doctors call “adrenal fatigue.” It is characterized by decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, fatigue, dark under eye circles, weakness, frequent colds and flu, thin skin, and accelerated aging, and the feeling of being burned out. In traditional Chinese medicine, this condition is called kidney deficiency.
Conventional treatments center around anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax or Buspar. Antidepressants may also help. These are best used as short-term strategies. Counseling can help address underlying issues.
Eliminating coffee should be the first step. There is significant clinical evidence showing that it can be all that is needed in some cases. Other foods that may worsen anxiety in excess are refined sugar, honey, maple syrup and cow’s milk products.
Nutritional Supplements & Vitamins
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – GABA is an amino acid that is known to play a role in the physiology of anxiety. Prescription drugs for anxiety such as Valium and Xanax work by affecting GABA receptors in the brain. There are also GABA nutritional supplements available. However, the degree to which orally ingested GABA supplements can reach the brain is unknown. Other nutritional supplements used for anxiety include pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B complex.
Kava – Kava (Piper methysticum) is an herb that is used widely in Europe for nervous anxiety, tension, agitation, and insomnia. Native to Polynesia, kava appears to work in a similar way to prescription benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax and Valium, with similar effectiveness. Kava doesn’t appear to cause mental drowsiness unless taken in large doses. Nevertheless, it is best to use caution until you know the extent of its effects on you. The benefits are often noticeable within weeks, but some people notice improvement after as little as a week. Kava should not be used by people who have had dystonic reactions from antipsychotic drugs or who have Parkinson’s disease, as case reports indicate that kava may interfere with dopamine. People taking benzodiazepines such as Valium should only take kava under the strict guidance of a qualified professional.
Valerian – Valerian is an herbal tranquilizer that is best known as a remedy for insomnia. It calms the nervous system, balances mood swings, and is not habit forming. One study found that it may have calming effects during stressful situations. It can be blended with other herbs such as hops or passionflower. Valerian should not be used by children, pregnant or nursing women. People with serious health conditions, or who are taking prescription drugs for mood or neurological disorders should consult a qualified professional before taking valerian.
Other herbs – Chamomile, hops, lemon balm, passion flower, skullcap and suma are calming herbs that are frequently recommended for anxiety.
Exercise is perhaps the safest and most effective method of managing stress. Cardiovascular exercise combined with calming exercise such as walking several times per week can be very beneficial.
Plant essential oils can be added to baths, massage oil, or infusers. A few drops of essential oils in massage oil can be massaged into the scalp and temples before bed. Essential oils that are used for anxiety and nervous tension are: bergamot, cypress, geranium, jasmine, lavender, melissa, neroli, rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang. Lavender is the most common and forms the base of many relaxing blends.
Massage therapy, shiatsu, and other forms of bodywork can relax muscle tension, relieve stress, and improve sleep.
Mind/body breathing exercises, physical exercise, yoga, tai chi, self-hypnosis, massage, meditation, and biofeedback are just some of the stress reduction techniques used for anxiety. Try different techniques and determine which routine you can stick with even when your schedule becomes even more hectic.
Source: About.com (alternative medicine guide)