When was the last time you really and truly relaxed? If you’re struggling to remember and coming up empty, you have plenty of company. Nearly every day, I see patients whose symptoms are clearly linked to untreated emotional issues, particularly anxiety, leaving them unable to function normally. Meanwhile, these patients often suffer from emotionally induced conditions like high blood pressure, digestive problems, skin ailments, and other potentially serious health issues.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals who take drugs designed to smother their feelings. For them, anxiety is something they believe they need to subdue with drugs. But they are so numb that they really don’t feel anything, including joy. Is that any way to live?
Certainly, there are times when people need help dealing with raw emotions, and anxiety can be terribly difficult to ignore. When a patient comes to me, overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their coping abilities, I’ve found that simply listening and taking the time to sort through all the options is much more effective than writing a prescription for the latest anxiety or depression drug.
Here are some of the reasons why I prefer to explore other solutions with my patients:
- Research shows that older men and women (age 60 and above) who take anti-anxiety medication, as well as sleep aids and/or antidepressants, have double – and even triple – the risk of falling as people who do not take these drugs.
- Patients given anti-anxiety medication tend to develop dependency on the drug, making it very difficult to quit. Unfortunately, patients usually aren’t told that when the drugs are being prescribed. And, even if they are warned, many people want relief so desperately that they try to ignore the downsides.
- Although anti-anxiety medication can help with anxiety and insomnia at first, the effectiveness diminishes over time. Giving them up, however, often leads to rebound insomnia, so sleeplessness frequently returns with a vengeance when you stop taking the medication.
- Prescription sleep aids and anti-anxiety drugs actually interfere with real, restful sleep, although patients are often unaware of this drawback. Healthy sleep requires both REM (rapid eye movement, which is when we dream) sleep time and deep sleep. But some of these drugs don’t allow you to experience the entire REM cycle, which translates into less quality sleep time.
- The negative side effects linked to anti-anxiety medication can be quite serious, but again, that’s not something doctors typically discuss when prescribing them. These drugs can affect your coordination, alertness, and reaction time, making mistakes and accidents more likely. In addition, they can cause dizziness, memory loss, incontinence, and nausea, as well as worsen breathing problems, especially during sleep.
- Even an occasional anti-anxiety or sleeping pill puts you at risk for fatal reactions. A recent study found that patients taking so-called “hypnotics,” including zolpidem and temazepam, as well as older benzodiazepines and barbiturates (Valium, Librium), and sedative antihistamines (diphendrydramine), had significantly elevated cancer occurrences, as well as more than three times the risk of dying – even when taking fewer than 18 pills a year!
My bottom line is simple: Taking drugs to suppress the symptoms of living a life out of balance does nothing to correct the situation and adds a host of potentially serious consequences.
Better Ways To Handle Anxiety
Years ago, conventional wisdom claimed that the mind and body were entirely separate entities. Today, we know that the two are intimately related. When you experience mental stress caused by anxiety, the repercussions are felt throughout your body.
Remember the last time you were involved in a near-miss collision or another type of close call? That jolt of adrenaline you felt is accompanied by a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol, that speed up your heartbeat, sharpen your senses, and send oxygen to the muscles – all things that help you escape a dangerous situation. At the same time, your immune system is powered down to allow more energy for the other organs that are involved in helping you avoid that collision.
If your body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol only occasionally, it can return to normal within minutes. But when stress and/or anxiety are ongoing, you begin to pay the price with health problems. For instance, if your immune system is turned to a low setting while your body deals with anxiety issues, you’re more likely to get colds, flu, and other ailments.
Lowered immunity and compromised health is what happens to you internally when the source of anxiety isn’t a bus, but a less tangible enemy – one that’s not going away. In today’s world, we face the possibility of some very real threats, such as terrorist attacks and senseless killing sprees. In addition, there are plenty of anxiety-inducing uncertainties, including basic economic pressures, like employment and health insurance, work stress, or difficult family dynamics.
Let’s face it – many of the things that make us anxious are beyond our control, a fact that only makes the situation worse for many people. That’s why I often recommend a “news fast” to patients who are anxious about world events or politics. Some individuals don’t like to be out of the loop on current events. For them, I recommend reading or listening to news in the morning, rather than before bedtime, which gives them time to process the information and deal with it, so it doesn’t interrupt sleep.
If you find yourself struggling to relax after the nightly news, please find a healthier substitute. Humor is an excellent stress-buster, so try watching a comedy classic or something innocuous, like a cooking or home remodeling show, before bedtime.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, melatonin and slow-release melatonin are safe, natural solutions that work well for many of my patients, allowing them to stay away from the pharmaceutical sleep aids.
Foods that Cause Anxiety
Here’s another way anxiety and stress can affect your health – by affecting your food choices. In a fascinating study from the University of California Davis, researchers found that individuals who were stressed ate fewer fruits, vegetables, and protein, preferring salty and/or sweet snacks.
But is it possible your anxiety is actually caused by something you’ve eaten? Yes, say researchers. If you consume foods containing any of the following ingredients or additives, you may be increasing the likelihood of unsettling emotions, as well as harming your overall health:
- Caffeine from coffee, tea, or soft drinks (Try fresh, filtered water instead.)
- Refined white flour (Choose whole grains.)
- Sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup (Raw, organic honey or organic maple syrup are preferable.)
- Trans fats and/or hydrogenated oils (Replace with extra virgin, organic olive oil or grapeseed oil.)
- Aspartame (Again, I recommend raw, organic honey or maple syrup instead.)
- FD&C (Food, Drug & Cosmetic) Red #40 and Yellow #5
- MSG or monosodium glutamate (Use Celtic sea salt or mineral-rich lite salt instead of this “flavor enhancer.”)
All of the substances listed above have been linked to mood upsets, along with a wide range of other health concerns. This is why I encourage my patients to eat real, whole foods, rather than packaged or fast food.
To make matters worse, the researchers in the UC Davis study I mentioned above also found that stress made the participants less likely to exercise – and exercise has been proven time and again to be one of the best ways to reduce stress.
Even many mainstream therapists and psychiatrists agree that exercise improves mood, including anxiety. Going for a brisk, 30-minute walk five or six days each week can deliver a hearty dose of mood-elevating brain chemicals, including serotonin and tryptophan.
If the weather’s not cooperating and you can’t get outside, just march in place while listening to your favorite music, a book on tape, or chatting on the phone. This is one instance when multi-tasking can actually provide benefits. Focusing on something other than your anxiety can open up a whole new perspective, as well as provide symptom relief.
Live in the Moment
In discussing anxiety with a number of patients, I realized that they were anxious about things that were not actually happening at the moment, but situations they feared could happen. Now, I understand that life is filled with uncertainties. But making yourself sick over something that might or might not happen isn’t helping. In fact, it only makes matters worse.
Fortunately, while researching the topic, I found that mindfulness meditation has repeatedly been proven helpful in easing anxiety. At its most basic level, mindfulness is simply the practice of sitting quietly for ten minutes or so and focusing on one’s breathing, or observing things that are happening at the moment (birds chirping, an engine starting, and so on). Two short, daily mindfulness sessions helps redirect your thoughts away from anxiety-provoking scenarios.
Many patients tell me that they have found this sort of meditation a life-saver. If you’re interested in learning more, just use your favorite search engine to check out the many websites that explain mindfulness mediation in greater detail.
Anxiety – or Drug Side Effect?
Many times, when patients ask a doctor for help dealing with anxiety, they are prescribed an antidepressant, like Prozac, Xanax, or Lexapro. But a recent study found that antidepressants could actually cause anxiety in certain individuals. In these cases, tapering off the medication solved the patient’s problem.
If you’re currently taking antidepressants and are experiencing anxiety, discuss getting off the medication with your doctor. There are much safer, effective natural remedies for depression, including St. John’s wort, 5-HTP, SAMe, and omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). My own omega-3 formulation is naturally high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and also contains vitamin D3. The most recent research shows that DHA is essential for a healthy brain and heart, while vitamin D3 has been shown to enhance mood.
Hundreds of studies have examined various natural remedies for emotional support. St. John’s wort, 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), SAMe (short for S-adenosyl-L-methionine), and the beneficial bacteria known as probiotics have been shown to alleviate anxiety and mild to moderate depression with few side effects, especially when compared with prescription drugs.
If you are interested in these alternatives, please be patient; it can take four to six weeks to feel the full effects. If you’re interested in a probiotic, there are many available, including my own formulation, which includes support from “prebiotics.” For St. John’s wort, I recommend a daily dose of 600 to 1,200 mg, from a standardized product containing 0.3% hypericin, the active ingredient. For 5-HTP, I suggest starting with 50 mg, taken one to three times daily. For SAMe, try a daily dose of 400 to 1,600 mg. If you’re taking other medication, discuss adding St. John’s wort or SAMe with your physician first.
Given all these options for anxiety remedies, I strongly urge you to start with the natural choices, including dietary changes, exercise, and supplements. Prescription medications often have side effects and unintended consequences, so if you decide to go that route, plan on it being a temporary solution, rather than a long-term fix. My patient, Manny, found that simply upgrading his lifestyle was enough to get him past a rough patch in his life. And I’m confident you can do the same.