I am talking from experience when I talk about anxiety. Ever since my teens I go in and out of boughts of anxiety. Sometimes it can be crippling, overwhelming and scary and other times it doesn’t affect me for years. But one thing for sure is it is debilitating and really misunderstood. I have dealt with it in various ways. When I was young I used to go out and drink a lot to try and mask it. This inevitably made it worse so was a huge vicious cycle. Other times I have excluded myself from people and tried to deal with it all on my own and ‘crack on’, which would make me feel like such a failure. Again, making it worse. It wasn’t until I started my studies into Naturopathic Nutritional Therapy, 4 years ago that I started to understand the mechanics behind it and how important nutrition is. Since having my daughter 3 years ago, my anxiety comes around a lot more and I go through really bad spells, so I have delved further into the Functional Medicine practice to help me really understand what is happening.
Naturopathy and Functional Medicine focus on dealing with the root cause of health conditions. I love the way Chris Kresser (who is a globally recognized leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine) explains it. If you have a stone in your shoe, you could take a paracetamol to take the pain away but it won’t take away the real reason as to why it is happening in the first place. I really want people to understand what the mechanisms behind anxiety are in order that I can help someone who might be suffering from this awful condition. Here is what I have found so far.
- Gut health – There is a huge and growing body of evidence connecting the gut and brain health. If there are health problems in the gut such as dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria), parasites, small intestinal bacteria overgrowth or fungal overgrowth, it causes inflammation in the brain. There is about 400 times more serotonin (a key neuro-transmitter) in the gut than there is in the brain. This is also true of melatonin which regulates sleep and inflammation. This is why the gut is referred to by many as the ‘Second Brain’. So it is really important that gut health is looked after in order to regulate mental health. Things that affect gut health are a standard western diet loaded with sugar, gluten and dairy as well as little nutrient density, stress, our constant exposure to toxins, chronic infections, antibiotics and birth control pills. If there is a problem with the gastro-intestinal tract, then absorption of nutrients is not efficient leading to a lack in nutrients needed for certain processes. The nutrients are explained in more detail further down.
- Stress – The stress response is regulated by the HPA axis. This stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. This system regulates our ‘Fight or Flight’ or ‘Rest and Digest’ reactions. In the world we live in today we are in a state of heightened stress. Our bodies simply haven’t evolved to be permanently in this ‘Fight or Flight’ state which is there to save us in life threatening situations, not to be used constantly. This leads to a change in output levels of stress hormones like DHEA, cortisol and pregnenolone which in turn affects the production of many other hormones and neurotransmitters in the body. There are 4 main triggers that lead to a dysfunction in the HPA axis. They are perceived stress (what is stressful for one person may not be for another), inflammation (think of gut health as above), blood sugar regulation (we now consume more sugar than ever before), circadian regulation (too much exposure to artificial light and not enough natural light). Also, if we are in a constant state of ‘Fight or Flight’ stress, we cannot digest properly. When the body is in stress mode, it only focuses on systems in the body that are needed for immediate survival and slows down systems such as the gastrointestinal tract, reproductive, thyroid, immunity and more. So, eating in a stressed state is a bad idea. There will be low stomach acid released leading to a huge lack of nutrient breakdown as well as low motility of the GI tract. Hands up who eats in the car on the way to do something, who eats running around at home, who eats whilst watching TV or on the phone? All these things have an impact into the absorption of nutrients. It really is important to allow your body to get into ‘Rest and Digest’ mode (the clue is in the title)
- Nutrient deficiency – There are many nutrients that play an important role in mental health. B12, Folate, EPA and DHA (anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids), Zinc, Copper, Vitamin D, Choline, B6 and B2 to name a few. In particular B2, Folate, Choline, B6, B12 and Zinc are needed for a process called methylation. Methylation is a process in the body that profoundly affects neurotransmitters. So, if you’re not methylating properly because you don’t have the necessary nutrients, you won’t produce neurotransmitters efficiently and can lead to anxiety and mood disorders. These nutrients can be found in organ meats, shellfish, non-starchy vegetables (think veggies that aren’t root veg), nuts and seeds, oily fish and fruits.
If you are a person who suffers from anxiety or other mental health issues, it is highly advisable to seek out a Naturopathic Nutritional Practitioner or other well-being practitioners for vital advise on, not only nutrition, but other lifestyle areas to give you support and insight as to why it is so important. A pill from a GP is only masking the symptom, not the root cause. I am by no means saying that medication isn’t really important, sometimes lifesaving if used in the right way. I am however saying there is more hope in other areas of consultation. Since becoming aware and making changes I absolutely feel the positive affects. I still have anxiety episodes, but it correlates with poor eating and lifestyle choices. When I live as I have stated above, I feel awesome!!!