Research is beginning to confirm what we’ve long suspected. Anxiety, one of the most common mental health conditions in our country, has grown worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. By November 2020 at the height of the pandemic, reports of anxiety skyrocketed to 50% — six times higher than in 2019. And, anxiety among adults, ages 18-29, increased to 65%.
If you’re one of the many people suffering with this condition, you may be wondering what you can do about it. Fortunately, anxiety is highly treatable. But to manage it over the long haul, it helps to get to the root of what’s causing your anxiety in the first place. The answer may surprise.
What is anxiety?
When we are anxious, we feel worried, nervous or apprehensive about a future event or a situation that creates uncertainty. Anxiety can be situational, like when you’re preparing to give a speech or when you’re dealing with a particularly stressful life situation.
When you are haunted by a persistent sense of dread, anxiety becomes problematic, interfering with your daily activities and negatively affecting your overall well-being.
There are five major types of anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but many of the root causes and holistic solutions addressed can be helpful to know for most types of anxiety disorders.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up or on-edge
- Easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, unexplained pain
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Difficulty sleeping
People who suffer from anxiety may also experience rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, panic attacks, difficulty in social situations and phobias.
Anxiety isn’t just in your head. It’s in your nervous system and your nervous system is connected to other systems in the body. Our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are greatly affected by what’s happening in these systems. It’s important to assess these other systems as there are root causes for anxiety that can be treated to greatly improve symptoms.
Seven Sneaky Root Causes of Anxiety
- HPA Axis Dysregulation. It might sound like a mouthful, but the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis plays a crucial role in how our bodies respond to stress. When a stressful event occurs, the body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) springs into action secreting hormones that travel from the brain to the adrenal glands on the kidneys. This quick progression of events leads to an increase in the body’s heart rate and blood pressure, slows digestion and releases extra glucose into the bloodstream, which provides the body with the extra energy it will need to manage the stressor.
While this system is ideal for those moments when our survival is at risk, the HPA axis was not designed for our modern, high-pressure lifestyles. When the HPA axis is overly taxed due to chronic stress, it can result in HPA axis dysregulation that results in physical and psychological problems, including anxiety.
- Gut and Microbiome issues. More and more research suggests just how big a role the gut plays in our emotional, physical and mental health. Multiple conditions like depression, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue syndrome, bacterial vaginosis, and Hashimoto’s hypothyroid disease can alert us to a gut and microbiome imbalance.
But sometimes gut and microbiome issues aren’t obvious and quietly wreak havoc on your body, manifesting as anxiety. For example, anxiety can be a sign of histamine intolerance, which is when the body produces too much histamine. Histamine is responsible for sending messages to the brain, triggering stomach acid to assist digestion, and is released by the immune system following an injury or allergic reaction. Histamine intolerance can also show up as hives, digestive issues, fatigue and abdominal cramping.
- Blood sugar dysregulation. The brain runs primarily on glucose, so it should come as no surprise that when our blood sugar fluctuates between highs and lows, we experience mood swings including anxiety, irritability and worry. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three American adults has prediabetes which is when the body’s blood glucose or sugar level is higher than normal. A diet high in processed or refined carbohydrates, a sedentary lifestyle and stress all contribute to poor glycemic regulation and mood fluctuations.
Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose that’s released into the bloodstream. If you are pre-diabetic or diabetic, you have insulin resistance. To learn how to manage insulin resistance and balance hormones naturally with the foods you eat, check out my article “What should I eat to balance my hormones?”
- Hormone imbalance. Women are twice as likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their lifetime. Estrogen dominance can occur as the body is transitioning into perimenopause. This is when progesterone drops, but estrogen levels remain the same. The imbalance can result in anxiety and panic attacks, mood swings, fatigue, hair loss and more. Often anxiety can also be linked to hormonal changes associated with underactive or overactive thyroid, PMS or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is a severe form of PMS; postpartum “blues,” and perimenopause.
- Nutrient deficiencies. The brain and your hormones need a proper balance of nutrients to function well. Poor nutrition and strict diets ranging from keto to veganism as well as medications like antacids can all lead to nutrient depletion and deficiencies that can trigger anxiety. Nutrients people are often deficient in that affect hormones and moods include B vitamins, iron, copper, EPA and DHA, folate, magnesium, vitamin D and omega 3-fatty acids.
- Chronic viruses & Mold Mycotoxin Illness. Viruses that can cause anxiety include Lyme Disease which comes from a tick bite, untreated strep infections, and a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can occur following a viral infection.
Environmental mold exposure found in homes and buildings can lead to allergies and asthma. Emerging research is also discovering that people exposed to mold and mycotoxins can exhibit anxiety. Some molds and fungi produce mycotoxins which are poisonous substances that when inhaled in the air, ingested on food or absorbed through the skin can cause more complex health issues in the lungs, musculoskeletal system, and the central and peripheral nervous systems. Symptoms of Mold Mycotoxin Illness can range from brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches to digestive issues, immune disorders and reproductive issues.
7. Trauma/Nervous System Dysregulation. Head traumas ranging from mild concussions to traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), unresolved trauma and developmental or childhood trauma can all trigger an anxiety disorder.
Seven Holistic Ways to Treat Anxiety
- Breathe. For three minutes, three times a day try the 4-7-8 breathing method:
- Empty the lungs
- Breathe in through the nose for four seconds.
- Hold the breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale through the mouth, making a whooshing sound, for 8 seconds.
*Get more great strategies to calm your mind and body! Download my FREE Anxiety Rescue Guide: 5 Things You Can Do to Feel Calm and Collected.
- Watch your caffeine. I know, I know. You love your morning cup of coffee! Of course, caffeine is not just found in coffee. It’s also in teas, soda, chocolate, some medications and supplements, energy drinks and weight loss products.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can aggravate anxiety by triggering the fight or flight response in the body. If you’re ready to take your caffeine level down a notch, but need a little support, check out my post Kicking Caffeine for Coffee Lovers for some helpful tips.
- Get outside. Multiple studies have found that spending time outside in a green space where you feel safe can reduce blood pressure and stress and improve your mood. Spending just two hours a week in nature each week can contribute to overall physical and psychological well-being.
One of the easiest things you can try is “Earthing,” which is when you walk barefoot outside for 20 minutes a day. (You could also try an Earthing or Grounding mat for indoor use.) If it’s too cold to Earth, simply sit in nature and engage all of the senses: see, touch, smell, taste and sound.
- Move your body! A regular exercise routine can help you manage the symptoms of your anxiety. Exercise releases natural, feel-good endorphins and brain chemicals like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and endocannabinoids that contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
By moving your muscles, you reduce the tension that anxiety builds in the body. Exercise also helps your body release “survival mode” stress hormones that build up due to chronic stress and exacerbate anxiety. Go for a bike ride or a walk. Dance in your living room to upbeat music. Join a Jazzercise or yoga class. There are all kinds of ways to get your body moving—just choose something that you enjoy so that you’ll stick with it!
- Foundational nutritional support. To restore lost nutritional deficiencies in the body, take 400-800 mg of magnesium glycerinate each day. My favorite supplement is Encarna by Alameda Labs. You can purchase it in my office or directly from my online shop. Also check out my article “What Should I Eat to Balance My Hormones?” to learn more ways to restore nutrients and balance your hormones naturally.
- Regulate cortisol. For extra support, botanicals and nutrients that help regulate cortisol can be beneficial. I recommend CatecholaCalm by Designs for Health which includes adaptogenic herbs and nutrients that support healthy adrenal gland function and promote calm and relaxation. This supplement is available for purchase in my office or in my online shop.
- Schedule an evaluation. As a licensed professional counselor who is board certified in holistic nutrition and functional medicine, I specialize in gut-brain health and mental well-being by providing therapeutic support and digestive and hormonal help. Together, we’ll get to the root of your anxiety and put together a plan that can help you treat your anxiety naturally and restore your overall well-being.
Want to work together? Here’s what to expect:
- Prep. Before your first appointment, you’ll complete forms ahead of time. I’ll also want to review any previous labs. This allows me to see what you’ve already done and identify gaps in care that we can fill.
- First appointment. Our first meeting will be an hour-long appointment to identify next steps, including any additional labs to order as we begin laying out a treatment plan. Your treatment plan may include coaching, counseling, nervous system regulation (Somatic Experiencing) sessions and an additional functional medicine assessment.
- Next steps. Following your appointment, you’ll receive a written report of the plan along with all of the resources you’ll need to move forward.
Contact me to learn more or to schedule an appointment.