by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher
This article is the third and final installment in a three-part series of stories concerning anxiety and depression. This piece focuses on anxiety and some of the measures people can take in their daily lives to alleviate symptoms and improve outcomes in dealing with this common disorder.
We begin this mental health story by looking at a few basic facts. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting millions of adults, aged 18 years or older. The true number of persons afflicted is probably unknown due to uncounted sufferers who don’t seek medical help and due to individuals who seek only natural solutions to their problems and thereby, are not noted in any type of medical records.
There are several types of anxiety disorders; among them are: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Space (and time) constraints for this article series prevent us from defining and elaborating on each of these conditions; for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on GAD, or generalized anxiety disorder, which is defined as a “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry, tension, and anxiety about everyday things,” according to The Anti-anxiety Food Solution by Trudy Scott, CN.
Women are twice as likely as men to be affected by GAD, panic disorder, specific phobias, and PTSD.
There are many possible causes of anxiety, including trauma, medication side effects, hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, and heart conditions to name a few.
Treatment for anxiety disorders in traditional Western medicine methodology usually involves sedative-hypnotic drugs and/or SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Certainly, these powerful drugs can alleviate on-going symptoms and treat acute crisis-stage conditions in patients. Anyone taking any of these types of drugs should consult with his/her doctor before discontinuing their use to assess needs, risks, and benefits.
There are drawbacks to long-term use of prescription drugs for anxiety disorders. Among those drawbacks are dependency and withdrawal, weight gain, even obesity, and sexual dysfunction.
There are a number of nutritional and lifestyle aids available to help alleviate anxiety disorders and other mental health issues. These nutritional and lifestyle aids can be used to complement traditional therapies or can be used in place of prescription drugs in many light to moderate cases of disorder. Always check with a doctor before discontinuing a prescription mental health drug, even if symptoms seem to have improved markedly. Many drugs for anxiety or depression must be withdrawn slowly to prevent severe disturbance of the body or mind.
The nutritional help and lifestyle advice described below is suitable for all levels of anxiety disorder as well as anyone who struggles with occasional episodes of anxiety, nervousness, tension, worry, and panic, even if full-blown disorder is not present. Interestingly, natural approaches, such as foods, nutrients, and lifestyle changes can not only alleviate or eradicate anxiety disorders but can also correct other issues that often accompany anxiety, such as food cravings, mood swings, sleep problems, and PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
Below follows a bulleted list of nutritional information to assist with anxiety relief. The suggestions below are summarized from The Anti-anxiety Food Solution book; however, numerous other sources echo these same concepts.
• Eat breakfast, and always include a good dose of protein with the meal. Protein helps keep blood sugar stable until the next snack or mealtime, avoiding mood swings. The amino acids in protein are necessary for proper function of neurotransmitters in the brain that control emotions.
• Avoid food additives, food colors, refined grains, and refined sugar. All of these are known to increase irritability, stress, worry, and the anxiety that results from the above emotional states.
•Whenever possible, eat higher quality (organic) fruits and vegetables. Anytime there is an opportunity to reduce the intake of pesticides and increase nutritional value, take advantage of the option. If organic isn’t available, choose locally grown produce to preserve nutrient content and wash it thoroughly. Frozen fruits and vegetables also have their nutrient content better preserved because they are frozen shortly after picking.
• When choosing protein sources, use grass-fed meat, pastured poultry and eggs, and wild fish whenever possible. Red meat is a great source of protein, zinc, iron, selenium, B6, B12, and D. Because anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental disorders are related to deficiencies in B vitamins, zinc, and the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein, red meat is an excellent food choice for those persons struggling with a mental disorder. Grass-fed meat contains quite a bit more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), vitamin E, vitamin C, glutathione, and beta-carotene than grain-fed cattle (Daley, et al., 2010); all of these nutrients have the added bonus of being cancer preventions as well.
Foraging poultry that has access to a field, sunshine, and fresh air has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed birds. Pastured chickens are best for eating and egg production. Egg yolks contain choline and other B-vitamins, which are very important for brain health in general, especially mood and memory. Eggs are an excellent food source of nutrients for nourishing the brain. Eat three eggs at a time to get the basic need of 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal.
Wild fish (and other seafood) is superior to farmed fish because farmed fish contains antibiotics and often even artificial colors which consumers don’t need and may lead to feelings of nervousness and irritability. Fish in general, even farmed, is a great source of amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine, iron, calcium, selenium, vitamins B12, A, and D. The aforementioned nutrients are needed by the human body, and many of them contribute directly to mental health by affecting nerve function and neurotransmitter levels in the blood and brain.
Sadly, many women may have been unknowingly adding to their problems with anxiety and depression by limiting protein, in general, and red meat, in particular, in the ever-demanding race to be thin. Thinking they were cutting fat grams to save on calories (for weight loss) or cutting saturated fat (for heart health), many women may have been depriving their bodies of the very nutrients needed for brain and emotional health.
• In The Anti-anxiety Food Solution, author Trudy Scott, CN, who has a nutrition practice that focuses on food, mood, and women’s health, details a number of scientific studies which show that fats are a very necessary and healthful aspect of one’s diet. Indeed, fats are key for the proper functioning of the nervous system, hormonal health, and many physiological processes. Yes, that includes saturated fats, such as butter and coconut oil, as well as the saturated fat found in meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
Ms. Scott, who is a past president of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, explains in her book that meats and saturated fats got “a bad reputation” for decades due to the fact that the quality of the meats and fats studied was ignored and not treated as an important variable in scientific testing. She goes on to explain that processed meats, full of additives, usually to improve flavor and/or shelf-life (of a low quality product to begin with) were treated as being on the same par with high-quality, grass-fed, unprocessed meats. Study results would then be unclear or negative toward meats and saturated fats because of poor experiment design.
Scott cites several more recent studies, designed to test pure, unaltered meats, dairy, and eggs (both pastured and conventionally raised) to back up her claims. Additionally, Scott notes several studies showing less anger, anxiety, and better overall mood among study participants who ate a higher percentage of calories from fats (mix of saturated and unsaturated) than participants who overall ate less fat. Further, study participants did not experience any significant changes in overall cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Although no study, nor Trudy Scott, is suggesting that mental health sufferers (or the public at large) should “pig out” on saturated fats, eggs, dairy, or red meats, avoiding them mostly or entirely is probably counterproductive to brain, emotional, and even physical health. Scott advocates a balanced approach toward diet, with a wide mix of most whole, real, unprocessed foods, including those formerly touted as harmful, such as eggs and red meat.
Among other types of favored oils for mental and physical health, Scott suggests including olive oil, flax seed oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds, all of whom provide other kinds of needed fatty acids for the mind and body.
Scott also advises people to consider taking vitamin, mineral, and in some cases, protein or amino acid supplements if suffering from a mental health issue. Some patients don’t assimilate their nutrients efficiently from food and require supplements just to be “normally nourished”. Scott details a number of such problems in the book and makes suggestions on nutrient supplementation types and dosages, depending on the individual’s particular problem.
Scott makes a number of recommendations for lifestyle habits that can also ease anxiety and depression. Among them are: (1.) Getting outdoors to lift spirits, appreciate the world, and reboot mental outlook; (2.) Exercise (also outdoors if possible); (3.) Sleep on a regular schedule and get 7 to 9 hours per night; (4.) Set aside time for some real relaxation, not just as an “afterthought”; (5.) Try laughter, guided imagery, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, meditation, acupressure, or acupuncture to relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression; they often work and are not harmful.
Other sources support Scott’s dietary and lifestyle tenets, even for other mental health issues. In the book, Adult ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D., Sarkis mentions many of the very same lifestyle habits listed above as a means for adult ADD sufferers to help gain control over their scattered thoughts, hyperactivity, and inability to finish tasks or be organized. ADD victims benefit especially from the advice on sleep, exercise, purposeful relaxation, and meditation. The nutrition advice given by Scott is echoed in the Sarkis book as appropriate for ADD as well. The book, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, lists many of the same nutritional (and lifestyle) concerns and solutions for depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as Scott does for anxiety disorders. In addition to the nutritional and lifestyle guidelines noted, SAD patients may also require using a special light box daily that delivers the necessary type of light waves they need to feel normal.
In summary, there is much we can do to help ourselves with mental health issues; diet, lifestyle, and medical or other professional help can work wonders.