Anxiety Disorders and Neurotransmitters

November 9, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Nearly one in five Americans has what’s called an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Yes, there’s plenty to be anxious about, and in some cases, anxiety is helpful and appropriate.

So to be classified as a disorder, anxiety has to be pretty serious. When it’s constant or paralyzing, when it keeps you from performing ordinary, daily tasks … that’s serious.

Types of anxiety disorders

We recognize six types of anxiety disorder. Each is different, with different symptoms in each person.

Here are vastly abbreviated definitions. They have in common a persistent or severe fear or worry in situations where most people wouldn’t feel threatened.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a state of constant worry—of often feeling that something bad is about to happen—that interferes with daily activities.

Anxiety attacks (panic disorder) are a period of terror—lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours—so intense you feel as if you’re about to die or totally lose control.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) presents as thoughts or behaviors that you don’t want and can’t control—like obsessive hand washing or housecleaning.

Phobias are an unrealistic, unnecessary fear of a specific harmless object, activity, or situation—like fear of flying.

Social anxiety disorder is a debilitating fear that you’ll be perceived negatively or humiliated by others.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme disorder that often follows a traumatic event—feeling like a panic attack that won’t stop.

Neurotransmitters—the common bond

The six types of anxiety disorder have something else in common.

Neurotransmitters—chemicals in the brain that communicate with the rest of the body. Three in particular are thought be involved in the development of anxiety disorders.

Conventional medicine offers interventions that often seem effective. But I highly disapprove. Here’s why.

Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA)

Brain receptors for GABA are the targets for a class of medication called the benzodiazepines. Drugs like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan.

They’re prescribed in the millions. And they’ve been closely linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

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Serotonin

Normal serotonin activity appears to be important in feelings of well-being. So serotonin deficiencies may also be a cause of anxiety disorders.

Another class of drugs, the serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), is common here. They appear in Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Lexapro—also prescribed in the millions.

And they’re also linked with increased risk of suicide and violent behavior, especially among the young.

Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine is closely related to epinephrine, aka adrenalin, our “fight or flight” response mechanism. It’s thought to play a role in symptoms of anxiety.

The drugs known as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used to treat anxiety disorders. One of them, Cymbalta, comes with a typical, super-jumbo side of “very common” or “common” side effects, including:

Diarrhea, constipation, dry mouth, nausea, abdominal pain, indigestion, flatulence, vomiting, dizziness, headache, sleep-walking, lethargy, increased or decreased sensitivity to touch or pain, tremor, insomnia, abnormal dreams, agitation, anxiety, sleep disorder, decreased appetite, weight increase/decrease, fatigue, weakness, chills/rigors, fever, vertigo, flushing, increased blood pressure, palpitations … and more.

Are you kidding? This will relieve anxiety?

Natural alternatives—help yourself

When my patients’ anxiety seems to be intruding in daily life, I look first at lifestyle. A poor diet, caffeine, and alcohol make anxiety worse, so I always suggest eliminating them.

I also recommend exercise. Nearly any activity can powerfully improve both physical and emotional health. At the very least, go for a sunny walk. We’ll call it exercise.

I also sometimes recommend talk therapy. There’s often an emotional or historical component to anxiety—unpleasant past moments that we think we’ve buried or overcome—but express themselves as anxiety. A therapist can help you deal with them.

You can also help yourself with meditation, affirmations, yoga, deep breathing, spirituality or prayer.

Finally, many supplements help—without nasty side effects.

  • A GABA supplement can help reduce the intensity of our anxious fight-flight reactions. You can take it alone or along with other supplements that enhance your natural production of GABA. These include:
  • DHA, my beloved omega-3 fatty acid, has been strongly linked to brain health. DHA fights inflammation and aids the function of neurotransmitters.
  • L-theanine is an amino acid that stimulates production of alpha waves in the brain—proven inducers of relaxation and calm. It also plays a role in GABA creation.
  • Passionflower and chamomile are peace-loving herbs that have a mild sedative effect on the central nervous system and can ease the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

Alpha-Stim isn’t a supplement. It’s an electrical device that directly stimulates alpha waves. It’s a bit pricey, but remember, it’s your peace of mind you’re investing in.

Hundreds of studies have examined other natural remedies. St. John’s Wort, SAMe, and probiotics relieve anxiety and mild to moderate depression with few side effects, or none.

Have your doctor help you choose which is best for your current situation.

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