The age of anxiety and natural solutions to cultivate calm
By Lindsay Wilson
We are a nation riddled with anxiety. Whether you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (or a combination of any of the above), you are not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. and affect 40 million adults, or close to 20 percent of the population.i with millennials and people of color reporting the most anxiety overall and baby boomers reporting the sharpest increases in anxiety.ii
Americans’ anxiety levels are increasing, but the good news is that anxiety (and mental illness in general) is losing its stigma and has become a trending topic in the national conversation. Though that is encouraging, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only about 37 percent of those with anxiety receive treatment. So while there may be more awareness, many people continue to suffer. Anxiety can be overwhelming and hard to know how to handle, but it can be controlled. While there are multiple causes of anxiety, and severe anxiety disorders may require medical treatment, many anxiety symptoms can be controlled with lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, meditation, etc.) and by supporting your body and brain with nutritional supplementation.
Our modern diets full of processed foods high in sugar and low in saturated fats have left many of us overfed, yet undernourished and mentally unbalanced. We are unknowingly plagued with sub-optimal levels (in some cases, outright deficiencies) of essential vitamins and minerals, some of which play crucial roles in mental health. Start by building optimal levels of these nutrients:
Known as a calming mineral, much of the population consumes inadequate amounts of magnesium. Mental and emotional stresses quickly deplete levels, as do poor eating habits, alcohol consumption, and certain prescription drugs. Sometimes called the original “chill pill,” magnesium plays important roles in the nervous system, including modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (our central stress response system) and blocking excitatory transmission in brain cells, both of which help prevent feelings of anxiety. Research has shown that increasing magnesium levels results in anti-anxiety effects and can relieve mild to moderate anxiety and anxiety associated with PMS, especially when combined with vitamin B6.iii iv Studies have used 250-300 mg of magnesium along with 50 mg of vitamin B6 daily with efficacy.
Speaking of B vitamins, it’s a good idea to take a quality B-complex as a foundational supplement. The B-family works synergistically and is vital for mental and emotional wellbeing; the B vitamins are involved in healthy neurotransmitter production, a healthy stress response, and are necessary for normal central nervous system function.v vi vii viii Stress, sugar, and alcohol all quickly deplete levels of the B vitamins. And because they are water soluble, they are not stored in the body and must be replenished daily.
The omega-3 fats docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are essential for healthy neurological function. And like magnesium, many of us are woefully low in these important fats, and instead consume an overabundance of pro-inflammatory omega-6s. Clinical research has shown that subjects diagnosed with anxiety have significantly lower levels of EPA and DHA and a higher ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the brain, and at least one trial has shown a correlation between low levels of EPA and severity of PTSD.ix An analysis of 19 clinical trials published late last year examined the anti-anxiety effects of EPA and DHA in patients with significant anxiety and fear-related symptoms. Researchers found that taking between 1,000 and 2,000 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily was associated with an improvement in anxiety symptoms, with the strongest effect seen in patients with specific clinical diagnoses.x
With more information emerging on the gut-brain axis, researchers have begun to delve into the connection between gut health and mental health, and with exciting findings. For example, a healthy balance of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species in the gut is important for producing the brain’s main calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA); low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety. Research has also found that probiotics normalize cortisol levels, regulate the HPA axis (hyperactivity or dysregulation of the HPA axis is a strong marker of anxiety), and reduce systemic pro-inflammatory cytokines, which have been found to play a role in the development of anxiety.xi Many people have an unhealthy balance of bacteria in their guts, or dysbiosis; restoring a healthy balance is especially crucial for those with anxiety.
Long-term support is vital, but when you feel yourself on the edge and need something to restore calm, consider some of these “in-the-moment” remedies:
The amino acid L-theanine enhances alpha brain wave activity, which induces feelings of calm, and increases the synthesis of the calming neurotransmitter GABA. L-theanine has been shown to lead to changes in brain activity similar to that of meditation.
A calming effect is usually felt within 30 minutes at doses between 50 and 200 mg. For more severe anxiety, doses may be increased up to 800 mg daily, divided throughout the day.xii
Passionflower has long been used as a folk remedy to treat “hysteria” (i.e., anxiety) and insomnia, and modern research is confirming its efficacy.xiii
One study including 36 patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder found that 45 drops of a liquid passionflower extract was as effective as 30mg of oxazepam, a common anti-anxiety prescription drug, and without the side effects reported by those taking the drug.xiv
This herb may be especially helpful for those whose anxiety is coupled with insomnia.
Flower essences are infusions made from the flowering parts of plants and are used for their beneficial effects on mood and emotions. They are said to work on a subtle energetic level, but with profound results. One study including moderately anxious subjects who reported personality traits as anxious, impatient, irritable, nervous, and tense, found a 100 percent reduction in anxiety levels after treatment with a blend of impatiens, cherry plum, white chestnut, and beech flower essences. Eighty percent of the subjects taking flower essences reported that even when confronted with stressful events, they were able to stay calm.xv
Anxiety is a normal human emotion, but one that should pass. When you begin to feel like it has a grip on your life, it’s time to address it. Consider taking a holistic approach that includes nutritional supplementation that can support your body and brain to cultivate calm.